Civilian now director of commisaries

By Tom Philpott: Guest Columist

After 140 years, the tradition of a career military officer being in charge of commissary stores, and how groceries are stocked and sold on base, is over.

Patrick B. Nixon, a career grocer and a senior civilian executive of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) since its formation 15 years ago, became its first full-fledged civilian director in June.

Stand by for fresher produce, more self-checkout counters and stores designed to serve both convenience shoppers and patrons needing to restock their fridge and pantry.

In an hour-long interview, Nixon discussed changes and challenges ahead for commissaries. He also spoke, without bravado, about how a civilian director can bring a career’s worth of supermarket experience to the job, and then stay long enough to see his vision become reality.

Fresher produce for commissary patrons has long been a goal for Nixon. He began to do something about it when he became acting director in 2004 and will see it achieved system wide as DeCA’s director.

For decades, commissaries procured meats, dairy products, fruits and vegetables using the same bureaucracy that supplies mess halls. That began to change, Nixon said, when “we realized that the military logistics system that does troop feeding is not agile enough, nor does it operate with the type of distribution model needed in the retail supermarket industry.”

In the 1990s, DeCA began contracting for its own meats. But procurement of fruits and vegetables for commissary bins remained the responsibility of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which relied on something called “terminal” or secondary markets. That is about to change.

DeCA has been testing a commercial model to supply produce to 22 commissaries in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Results show fruits and vegetables are fresher, and that DeCA can lower its own costs by eliminating DLA involvement. Commissaries in the Midwest will be next in line to see fresher produce, followed by northeast and southeast stores.

“I feel confident that while (all contracts) won’t be up and running in the continental United States by Oct. 1st, they will have all been awarded. Within 45 days after that, they will begin to see a marked improvement in produce in our commissaries,” Nixon said.
Commercial-style procurement of produce will take a little longer overseas but those local contracts too are being worked, he said.

“This was one issue where the longevity of a civilian paid off because this was something I’d been working on for years,” Nixon said. For different military commanders, however, it wasn’t a top priority.
Nixon said his goal always is to increase value to commissary patrons while reducing costs to taxpayers. Commissaries cost taxpayers $1.1 billion a year to operate, with 68 percent of that going to salaries.

Given all the saber-rattling over the years about “privatizing” commissaries, some shoppers might be nervous to see a civilian in charge of 284 stores and 18,000 employees. Nixon said there might have been cause for concern if he came directly from industry. But he hopes his appointment sends a reassuring signal of the Defense Department’s commitment to preserving a prized benefit.