How United and PMA Got There — Three Lessons

April 2021 – There was a time when the association that is now known as the Produce Marketing Association was called the Produce Prepackaging Association, and it was in such a difficult state that it pleaded with the then-much-larger United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, now the United Fresh Produce Association, to absorb the troubled association. United saw no value and passed, expecting the Produce Prepackaging Association to go out of business.

For those who have paid attention, perhaps one of the greatest business lessons our associations have ever taught the industry is that a generosity of heart can sometimes be a smart business move.

The board of that troubled prepackaging association did not give up. It reinvented itself into what we today call the Produce Marketing Association or PMA.

The decision was made to reorganize the association to focus on the buying end of the fresh produce industry. Indeed, it was decided at one point that a majority of the board had to be composed of buyers. The organization was recreated along buying channels, particularly retail and foodservice, and all the things the association did were driven by what the buying community saw as a priority.

Many growers, packers and shippers, even those who bridled under the idea that buyers should dominate in a produce association, soon noted something important: That the association events — board meetings, trade shows, etc. — were attracting many key buyers.

There were other issues… United’s convention was in February, and this was chosen because there was not as much business being done at that time of year. The industry changed though. Imports from Chile, Mexico and the Caribbean turned February into peak business time for many in the industry. PMA’s annual convention, renamed Fresh Summit, was in a kind  of industry shoulder season between the peak summer of domestic production and the winter of counter-seasonal imports. When PMA moved into floral, United staffers bridled at the restraints their February event, right around Valentine’s Day, posed on getting floral participation.

In the end, the produce industry found itself in a dilemma. PMA became, by far, the larger and more affluent association. While United, with responsibility for industry government relations efforts, was carrying a substantial financial burden for the trade.

For decades, the industry struggled to resolve the tension in having two national associations with the money going in one and the expenses out the other! Merger was discussed and studied many times. Each effort collapsed.

Here is another lesson that studying the associations brought to those paying attention: So much of life, and business, is personal.

There were two CEOs. Neither was ready to retire, and the boards weren’t ready to let the “other” run the association. So all fell apart.

Now it has been announced that United and PMA will merge. There will be one year in which the CEOs of both associations, Cathy Burns at PMA and Tom Stenzel of United, will jointly run the association as it is being redesigned for the future. Then Cathy will take over the combined association.

Why now? Well, with COVID, it concentrated the minds of industry leaders on economies. It highlighted the idea that government relations might be strengthened with unity and, truth be told, Tom and Cathy get along better than Tom and PMA’s previous CEO, Bryan Silbermann, ever did. Plus Tom, having served 28 years at United after a 15-year career at other associations, is willing to move on.

What will happen next is unclear, intentionally so, because revealing a lot up front would raise opposition. Most of the employees are in Newark, DE, which was chosen simply because in 1958, Bob Carey, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, was given the job of “Executive Secretary,” and so they moved the association from New York City. United, and its government relations efforts, are headquartered in Washington, DC.

So far, the only change announced is that United’s annual convention will consolidate into PMA’s larger event. People wonder about the future of the Produce for Better Health Foundation and the two associations’ foundations. Are these the next to roll up?

There is some uncertainty. PMA has worked hard to build a global footprint, yet it is not clear how that fits with an association handling government relations for US farmers in Washington, DC. PMA’s leadership in global relations was important when the produce world began to open globally, but it is not as clear that this is needed today. Of course, the new association can do trade shows, conferences and webinars — but it is not clear that these functions can only be done by an association. The National Restaurant Association sold its giant NRA show just before the pandemic. If the new combined association received an offer to sell its trade shows and its headquarters office, and the industry was left with a $100 million-plus fund, what would the industry think best to do with that money?

What is really of value to the industry may be hard to ascertain. There is a big discount on buying a booth or attending an event if one happens to be a member. One wonders how many members the associations would have, and what each member would pay, if there were no such discounts — if the only reason to join was to support the work of the new association?

This perhaps points to the third great lesson these associations have taught the industry: There is never an end to the work to be done… that only through constant innovation and re-creation can the future be built.

There are so many board members, staff members, volunteers, contractors and more who have done much for the industry, and many of their names have passed onto the great beyond. Let us see this combination as a tip of the hat to all who came before and a salute to a future yet to be written.              pb