No Borders For Training

Ask people in our industry about the impact of globalization, and they’ll likely mention growth in the worldwide supply of products supported by improvements in transportation and technology. We can grow things almost everywhere and move them practically anywhere.

What isn’t immediately obvious to an industry whose currency has traditionally been tangibles rather than intangibles is the globalization of ideas and knowledge. I’ve written before of this flattening phenomenon featured in Thomas Friedman’s brilliant book, The World is Flat. I was reminded of it recently while studying some new PMA initiatives in Mexico because the end of the value chain in which we are concentrating these initiatives is closest to the consumer, not the producer, as we might initially think.

With a membership ranging from North American growers to overseas retailers, PMA needs to play a critical role in boosting produce services, sales, and consumption. One way to achieve this is to provide members worldwide with the industry information and learning opportunities they need. We can only address those needs if we first understand them. This is where research comes into play.

Even though the U.S. produce industry has been linked with Mexico for decades, PMA wanted to better understand the challenges facing retailers and wholesalers there. Our foray into understanding the needs of our produce neighbors began by commissioning industry research in Mexico earlier this year. This will lead to PMA holding a training seminar for retail and wholesale executives in Mexico on Jan. 25-26, 2007, in co-operation with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Titled Training for Greater Yield, the highly interactive seminar will explore the benefits of implementing employee training to improve produce handling and merchandising practices. Group discussions will be designed to identify key business challenges and opportunities within organizations to improve product quality and customer satisfaction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me step back and explain how we got here.

After completing an analysis of retailers and wholesalers in Mexico, PMA identified a critical need for employee training programs to improve competitive advantage and increase return on investment. The rapidly developing Mexican produce distribution sector recognizes it must acquire better skills through training to evolve in a more efficient manner.

Best practices in produce distribution and retailing are as important to the long-term growth of the economy as is the existing commitment to enhanced agricultural production. Improvements are especially important for suppliers selling produce into the Mexican market, especially high-quality shippers who must rely on every link in the distribution chain to maintain that quality through to the consumer. This is why PMA and USDA are focusing strongly on demonstrating the value of better training for better bottom-line results.

During the six-week research study, nearly all interview respondents, from every level of personnel in the retail and wholesale fields, affirmed their interest in receiving training specifically from PMA. In a flattening world, they want to share in the expertise of their counterparts to build a more efficient, consumer-driven marketplace. They see the global expertise and insight of PMA’s broad membership as the ideal community from which to learn and hone their skills.

National supermarket chains in Mexico saw the greatest value in training services and were most eager to purchase and implement such offerings. Operations employees in supermarkets, distribution centers and wholesalers were found to have the greatest need for training. While these employees are most responsible for ensuring product quality through improved handling practices and merchandising, these areas are precisely where formal training is most lacking.

We are putting particular attention on managing data. As retail chains in Mexico look to improve their quality offering, they realize they need to enhance the use of data on consumer demand, more accurate replenishment and measuring promotional activity. The increasing sophistication of produce category management techniques practiced in North America and Europe can make a major improvement to produce operations in Mexico.

One barrier to sharing produce expertise is the use of industry terminology. Our research indicated many of the English produce industry terms don’t translate easily into Spanish. This is another area where PMA training can help, as we can start to generate a lexicon of acceptable Spanish terms as an integral feature of ongoing training. Naturally, our training has to be conducted in Spanish, and that will be a feature of programs being developed for Mexico as well as for Spanish-speaking audiences here in the United States.

Perhaps the greatest contribution we can hope to make in our flattening world is to instill in produce executives the culture of training as an investment that is integral to their individual performance as well as company profitability. That is not just true in Mexico; it applies equally in the United States and around the globe. The most successful companies in our industry understand it is first and foremost the people — not the products — that make the greatest difference. The finest quality produce is worth little if the skills to handle it aren’t second nature to those charged with getting consumers the freshness they deserve and are willing to pay to receive.

We can replicate great products, but developed minds and dedicated people are true marketplace differentiation in the flattened world of 21st-century produce marketing.