Pivot Point For United

As the United Fresh Produce Association gathers in San Diego, CA, it can be certain of a strong event. Part of it is that San Diego is a very attractive city for conventions, and part of it is that numerous issues that are very important to core United members, such as immigration, are hot right now. Mostly though, the convention will be a success because United itself is stronger than it has been in decades.

The strength is not really financial; the association still could use a lot more money to lobby effectively, and it still lacks the really lucrative revenue source that the Produce Marketing Association has in its Fresh Summit Convention. United’s leadership credits the process that United went through in negotiating with PMA over a potential merger with making it stronger. Though those talks were tempest-tossed and ill-fated, the process was both self-reflective — making United’s leadership realize where it could provide service best to the trade — and liberating — in that leadership feels free to do what its members want, such as forming a new Produce Marketing & Merchandising Council, an act that would have been seen as needlessly provocative and duplicative in the not-too-distant past.

It is not now seen that way, and that is not because the leadership reassessed. It is because United’s members specifically reassessed their own thoughts and feelings about produce industry associations.

After the collapse of the talks between United and PMA in July of 2012, we started hearing, numerous times, in numerous ways, the leaders of the production segment of the produce industry saying that United is their association of choice. This is something we almost never heard, spoken out loud at least,  in the previous quarter century.

It is not that most of these people boycott PMA; almost all of them are members of PMA, exhibit at its expo, serve on boards and committees. It is just that, in their hearts, they think that United represents them and their interests. They go to PMA to network and learn. There is no event on earth remotely like Fresh Summit, and there is no produce association in the world as professional as PMA. It would be commercially foolish to not stay engaged.

PMA was rebuilt from an association so troubled it once pleaded with the then-much-larger and more prosperous United to allow it to merge, and when rebuffed, PMA was rebuilt with a stroke of genius. The insight was to focus on the ascendant buying organizations of the day, the large supermarket chains, and, later, the large foodservice buyers. The founders of the modern-day PMA reasoned that if they attracted these buyers, the vendors would follow. And so they have.

So PMA grew and became the dominant produce association not only in the United States but on the planet. In many ways, it wrote the future of the produce trade. Standardized PLU codes, the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the Center for Produce Safety – these are all products of PMA’s creation.

Yet if PMA wrote the future of the trade, it did not entirely win the hearts of the industry. How could it? It was always perceived as driven by retail interests. Indeed, the very professionalism of the organization, though admirable, created a sense of distance, as if all these certified association executives were some kind of end to themselves. To the producer, it was off-putting. Yet it wasn’t until the merger talks collapsed that people started to be blunt about these thoughts and feelings. It was as if a dam broke and the production sector let out pent-up emotion about where its loyalties really lie.

None of this is any guarantee of long-term success. Growers can be passionate about an association, and if they don’t support it financially it will be limited in its effectiveness or die out altogether. There are many producers who love United and spend all their money with PMA because they see a business opportunity in connecting with retailers.

Yet it might go another way. The great strength of PMA was built at a time when there were strong regional chains — Stop & Shop in Boston, Dominick’s in Chicago, Vons in Los Angeles, and leaders such as Harold Alston, Bob DiPiazza, and Dick Spezzano were able to drive growth and accomplishment at PMA and not alienate the producers because they were perceived as part of the produce trade.

Yet today these regional chains have mostly been consolidated, and the VPs are often selected more for their facility with a spreadsheet than knowledge of produce. It is not clear that the next generation of leadership in these retail chains will feel connected enough to the industry to even want to participate in produce associations.

One frequent attendee who will be missing from United this year in San Diego is Jan Strube Fleming of the Strube Celery & Vegetable Company in Chicago. Her funeral was a mini gathering of the United family, with the current CEO, Tom Stenzel, and several past chairmen and current board and committee members in attendance. Jan had served on United’s board and, with the help of Jan’s husband, Tim Fleming, who had been chairman of United, and Jan’s 94-year-old mother, Helen Strube, there was plenty of talk of old United meetings when people used to arrive by train. United has a brand of heritage.

The past is always prologue to the future, and Jan loved United but wouldn’t have pretended to know what its future might be. But she was fond of saying that success comes before work only in the dictionary. So she would have said that those who love United ought to work hard to make it strong. She will be surely watching with interest what United’s attendees choose to do in San Diego.