Young Blood

If you are thinking that nobody under 40 achieves very much, did you know that 2005 is the International Year of Physics? The United Nations declared 2005 as the year the world should focus on physics and its importance. The U.N. selected 2005 because it is the centennial of Albert Einstein’s so-called “Miracle Year”.

In 1905, at the tender age of 26, Albert Einstein wrote four major papers that superseded Sir Isaac Newton’s absolute laws of physics, which had been the conventional wisdom for almost a quarter of a millennium. In these papers, Einstein provided the basis for three fundamental fields in physics: the theory of relativity (and the world’s most famous equation: E=mc2), Quantum Theory (for which he would win the Nobel Prize in 1921), and the theory of Brownian motion.

If you think of Einstein and his great genius as a triple-sigma event — a happening that contravenes the laws of probability — how about looking at something more humble, like the magazine in your hands?

This year is the 20th anniversary of the launch of Produce Business magazine. And one of the ways we are celebrating our completion of a generation in business is to inaugurate an annual celebration of the produce industry’s best and brightest young leaders. Thus this month’s cover story is an unveiling of the charter year winners of our “40-under-Forty” award program.

The role of age in human achievement is a controversial one. One prominent consultant, whom we turned to for nominations, reflected his corporate background when he told me that the project was futile as few make real contributions at this young age. Yet I am tempted to wonder if the opposite isn’t true. If, in fact, most truly radical contributions aren’t almost always made by the young.

I suppose I’m conditioned by my experience in launching Produce Business. At the tender age of 23, Ken Whitacre and I set about to launch a major trade magazine and we came out with our first issue when we were all of 24. Today we are invited to lecture and present papers to publishing associations and we are pursued as consultants on magazine launches and considered pros. But back then, to be blunt, we didn’t know anything about what we were about to attempt. Aye, but there’s the rub. Because if we had fully understood what was involved, the obstacles that would be cast before us, if, in other words, we were 20 years more experienced, we almost certainly would have never attempted the project.

Fortunately, although we underestimated the difficulties ahead, we also underestimated our own creativity and capacity for dealing with those obstacles. And so, despite everything, I can write this column for you here today, though less than one percent of the magazines started in 1985 still publish. It is not a small achievement.

Within the conflict between youth and experience may lay the solution. Age brings knowledge and maturity, but all too often that maturity manifests itself in the form of a conservative voice explaining why every new idea can’t work. It is a voice often haunted by the memory of failed attempts. Yet youth, filled with bombast and gusto, may not see the obstacles.

Think of the family business stereotype where the experienced father reigns in the wilder impulses of the hard-charging son. Yet in a family business, the parents’ belief in their children also encourages a parent to let the kid run with the ball. Plus the parent knows what the business can afford to lose if junior’s ideas don’t quite pan out.

Public companies are different; people have fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. The recent dot-com boom where 20-somethings were in charge of substantial enterprises ended badly for most. As the youngsters were spending wildly, many observers noted:

Adult Supervision Required.

Still, there is something about youth, about not seeing the world as if the way things are done is the only way they can be done, that holds a special appeal.

And the produce industry has recognized that the future is worth investing in. Read the winners’ profiles and one will see how effective the Dupont/United Produce Industry Leadership Program has been at identifying young leaders in the trade. Many of these young people are already in positions of substantial responsibility.

It wasn’t too long ago that United’s future was in great doubt. I don’t think it is overstating the case to say that the Dupont/United program helped save the association as it created a cadre of people who felt an affiliation with United.

Jay and Ruthie Pack and the PMA are taking a different tack with the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund. The Pack/PMA program focuses on recruiting top students into the trade. Imagine this program proceeding and developing for a generation and one can easily imagine a common mention in many of the biographical notes among 40-under-Forty honorees.

The Frieda Rapoport Caplan Family Business Scholarship Program is devoted to family business and thus, implicitly, to bringing along the next generation. And many companies and associations in the trade have internship and other recruitment and development programs.

Now, with the 40-under-Forty program, we at Produce Business are doing our bit. By recognizing achievement and excellence among the trade’s young leaders, we hope to encourage more of both. We also hope to encourage the more senior members of the trade to look with respect on the contributions that younger colleagues can make.

This issue contains the announcement of the winners. We will be hosting a reception at this year’s PMA in Atlanta to formally present awards to this year’s honorees. It is our way of showing support for this fine group of men and women and for the idea that in this very old business of selling fruits and vegetables, new ideas, new ways, and new people are always welcome, always valued and always encouraged.