April, 1993

Fruits of Thought

The Dumping Of George Dunlop

George Dunlop was hired as president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association after the board of directors fired the last president. During the February United convention in San Diego, George Dunlop was summarily dismissed by the current board of directors.

To those who follow these things, this firing was almost inconceivable. After all, even as the firing was in motion United was boasting of its most successful convention ever. Board members were trumpeting the association’s move from years of red ink into the black and, unlike when Dunlop’s predecessor was fired, there was scarcely a negative word said about George Dunlop. The board, instead, issued cryptic statements about philosophical differences and praised Dunlop for years of tireless work on behalf of the industry.

So why was he fired? The specific reason was staff complaints about his running of the association. The board became convinced that the professional association they wanted required a different type of manager. More generally, though, George Dunlop was fired because the very traits that saved United in its darkest hours were no longer deemed to be the traits needed as United entered a more prosperous age.

It is important to remember that when Dunlop was hired, United was widely seen as a washed-up organization. A merger with PMA was seen by many as more a matter of when than if.

George Dunlop was thrown into a situation that many thought unsalvageable. Even many United board members had lost hope. And in those dark days, like Churchill at the Battle of Britain, George Dunlop had the enthusiasm and the faith to rally the troops. And like Churchill rushing from bomb site to bomb site, George Dunlop developed a thousand programs to solve a thousand problems. He tapped into the resources of all those who had a reservoir of support for United.

I know, I was there. I worked with Dunlop and the whole United staff on project after project – the Retail Institute, consumer research, publications, award programs. And that was just the start. He launched consumer mail programs, trade mail programs, a strategic planning initiative and much more. He would visit a city and want to start a United chapter there. He would visit a company and come away with plans for a new joint venture.

And at that moment, with United in a war for survival, I think Dunlop’s energy and enthusiasm literally saved the association. Sure, many, perhaps even most, of the programs didn’t work, but some did and in that sort of desperate moment, an association can kill itself by studying everything to death trying to find the perfect action to take. Dunlop took action, he started programs, and his philosophy was that if it doesn’t work then you try another. And you try another. But you never give up, you never stop trying, you never quit.

It’s sort of ironic, but it’s the same “don’t quit” philosophy, which has served United so well, that is responsible for Dunlop being placed in this slightly embarrassing situation. After all, he could have accepted a position as chief cheerleader for United, doing solely PR activities. Or he could have resigned, announcing his desire to return to politics after having turned United around, making it profitable, making the convention a success. But Dunlop isn’t like that. Most men would quietly resign to save the ignominy of being fired. Not Dunlop. He wasn’t going to quit simply to save face. He was, and is, a man of principle.

You see, when Dunlop started with United more than three years ago, the situation was so bad that the board was ready to try anything. And Dunlop, with his spirit of unlimited opportunity, was a man who matched the moment.

But when an association is no longer on the verge of dissolution, suddenly other problems take prominence. All these new projects seem like burdens to a very busy staff. That great new project doesn’t fit in to the five-year strategic plan. That great entrepreneurial leader, rather than being perceived as a beacon of hope, suddenly becomes an annoyingly independent person disrupting the well-crafted plan for future growth.

Of course, dumping Dunlop was the easy part. It is easy to find faults with a manager, but as the search goes on for the next association president, “administrative efficiency” is not an inspiring banner under which to pursue a new leader. The board of directors would do themselves and the industry a favor if they clearly and publicly define what, exactly, they would like a new president to do. Is he to be a Washington insider? A produce industry expert? An administrator par excellence? And in which direction is he or she supposed to lead United?

But as for George Dunlop, don’t worry about him, for he is in excellent company. Remember, no less a leader than Winston Churchill, having succeeded in rallying his people to win a war, having succeeded in drafting America as Britain’s ally and of vanquishing Hitler as Britain’s foe, no less a man than this was summarily booted from the Prime Ministership by the British citizenry at the end of the war. Why? Because the very success of Churchill solving foreign problems gave the Brits the chance to turn to domestic issues where other skills would be valued.

The world works in strange ways, and George and his wife, Becky, are both people of faith. Before George joined United he had spent his professional life in politics, in the Reagan White House, in the Senate ag committee, and working for Senator Helms. All his life he worked for an agenda of limited government.

Will George Dunlop think me sacrilegious if I say that perhaps some greater power moved things around to free up George Dunlop? After all, with a new administration in the White House, many of the principles held dear by not only George Dunlop, but much of the produce industry, are being threatened. Perhaps the hand of providence moved to deliver George Dunlop out of the industry and into an arena where the threat is vast and the need for men of entrepreneurial vision is great.  pb