Right Man For The Right Time

Bob Carey was the chief staff officer for the Produce Marketing Association and its predecessor organizations for nearly 40 years. He shepherded the organization through a perilous youth, which frequently teetered on bankruptcy to become the most important produce association, not only in America, but in the world. He was immensely insightful and a kind person, generous in heart and always cognizant of rising stars in our industry.

More than a quarter a century ago, still in my 20’s I attended my first PMA board meeting. Bob took me aside one night and asked if I wanted to know the secret to running a trade association. Flattered to be so instructed by a master, I left the reception and went with Bob. We were in one of those southwestern resorts, whose hallways are paved in Mexican tile and walls curve in with stucco.

We walked a distance and went outdoors in the dark to one of the many casitas that lined the property. Bob took out an old skeleton key and entered it in the lock, it hesitated and creaked but when it opened, Bob turned on the light and before me, arrayed across each wall, were large sheets of paper where the PMA board’s golf foursomes were being arranged.

The message: running an association was about people and personalities. It was managing ambition and lack thereof, and the success of an association executive was directly related to his ability to relate to people.

Bob Carey did many exceptional things in his years at PMA, most notably, working with a small group of board members, he repositioned the association to align with buyers, in the hope and expectation that this would bring the supplier base to PMA as well. It was a brilliant insight, executed well, and it allowed PMA to surpass United and achieve enormous financial success.

Yet the real test of a leader is not how he runs an organization. It is what happens to the organization after he is gone, and without a doubt, Bob Carey’s single greatest contribution to the growth and management of PMA was in hiring Bryan Silbermann and, ultimately, encouraging his appointment as his successor.

It was not an obvious choice. Bryan came in as a kind of technocrat, uber-schooled in South Africa, Oxford and the University of Chicago. A South African, he was not naturally in sync with the personalities of mostly American produce executives. Yet Bob saw in Bryan something unique, and history has proved him right.

I don’t think Bryan would object when I say had he not worked 13 years side by side with Bob Carey, learning how to combine the technocratic side he excelled in with Bob Carey’s focus on personality and relationships, Bryan would not have become the association executive that has so successfully guided PMA since he became CEO in 1996.

In the early years with PMA Bryan’s triumphs were very much technical in nature. He was the main impetus in having the produce industry adopt uniform coding systems, such as PLUs and UPCs. These actions not only had much utility for produce, but they served to professionalize and elevate the industry, making us a true peer of grocery and allowing better decisions to be made because we had better information.

As time went on, his South African background let him see what most insular Americans missed, and he was primarily responsible for setting up a global program as one of the key foundations of the association, including establishing PMA’s first affiliate: PMA Australia/New Zealand.

It is difficult to know where credit should be given and impossible to say what would have happened in the absence of one person. So, would Salinas leafy greens growers, after having suffered devastating losses following the 2006 Spinach Outbreak Crisis, have founded something like the Center for Produce Safety if Bryan had never been PMA’s CEO? How can we know such a hypothetical?

But we can say that Bryan developed and institutionalized a model of using PMA money and staff resources to give birth to numerous organizations, including the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the Center for Growing Talent by PMA, and the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis. One suspects that this model will be used time and again as industry needs arise.

There have, of course, been controversies; many see the inability to make a deal with United to merge the associations as a failure, though others see it as an important step in preserving the unique culture at PMA.

Bryan actually wanted to retire for some time. But his fierce dedication to PMA didn’t allow him to do this until, like Bob Carey before him, he was persuaded that he had a successor who could extend the success of the organization long into the future. Now with Cathy Burns, longtime retail executive now with three years’ experience working with Bryan at PMA, established as President and soon to become CEO at PMA, Bryan finally sees the future of the association assured and thus is ready to take his leave.

A grateful industry thanks Bryan for service well-rendered and extends wishes that the wind should be always at his back.