March, 1991

Fruits of Thought

Lessons From United

A couple of years ago the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association was on the ropes. Talk throughout the industry was about the possible merger with another association or other dramatic changes in the structure of United.

Yet today United is coming off of what was, in many ways, its most successful meeting ever. In addition to attracting over 8,300 attendees, the highest in United’s history, the association’s recent Anaheim convention was able to realize higher gross revenues than ever before at a convention. Now United is not totally out of the woods yet – United has been investing heavily in its convention to please attendees and exhibitors, so all that revenue is not likely to fall down to the bottom line. And as the convention is the association’s major fund raiser, the bottom line is important.

Still, the turnaround from two years ago at Houston is remarkable. And I think it’s worth noting how United pulled itself up by its bootstraps because the lessons apply to every business.

  1. Dedicated people can change things. When Rich Jahnke was chairman of United, the board of directors took action to replace the president of the association. It is important to understand what an act of courage this was. In many a case, the board of directors of associations are merely rubber stamps for the professional staff. Board members often view service on these types of boards as honoraria for services rendered. It is only because the board of directors of United had the vision and nerve to act that United is in business today.
  2. A loyal constituency is a great asset. Every organization has various constituency groups, suppliers, employees, shareholders and of course, in the case of United, members. If you can tap into people who are inclined to work with you, you have an enormous resource that others will find hard to duplicate.
  3. Leadership matters. When George Dunlop was brought in as president of United, many thought he would be eaten alive. After all, he came from the political world of Capitol Hill and the department of Agriculture and, frankly, knew nothing about produce. However, that political background may be serving him well. Certainly he has built an organizational structure and an attitude whereby those who have ideas are not afraid to mention them. He also has a certain calm way of looking at things. When others perceive disaster, he is quickly looking for a solution. When a package was waylaid and all of the programs for the entire convention were missing, he was quietly asking for alternatives when others might have been in apoplexy.
  4. You have to try new things. One of the major reasons the convention was a success is because over the past two years, United has methodically introduced new elements into the convention, from a terrific business center, to new awards, to this year’s stunning success with the Retail Institute (co-sponsored with PRODUCE BUSINESS) and the unveiling of the new Focus on Produce consumer research project (also co-sponsored with PRODUCE BUSINESS). Not every idea works out, but a constant attitude of innovation and experimentation is the best method known of finding some winners.
  5. Be ready for slings and arrows. It is sad to say but not everyone wishes you well when you try and grow. Some believe that anything less than gracefully settling into a decline is out of bounds. It’s the new guy with the new idea who attracts trouble. PRODUCE BUSINESS was proud, for example, to co-sponsor the Retail Institute, an absolutely terrific project that provided valuable training for 167 attendees at its first-ever performance just preceding the United convention in Anaheim. The program was great, and the retailers who attended have just been filled with praise. Both PRODUCE BUSINESS and United are looking forward to next year.

Some have been trying to derail the Retail Institute with the idea that it poses some great challenge to the Annual Produce Conference. The funny thing about this is that United, the National American Wholesale Grocers Association (NAWGA) and the National Grocers Association (NGA) will all be holding their national conventions in Florida in 1992. All of these very large meetings, as well as the Annual Produce Conference, which also is scheduled for Florida, will be held within six weeks of each other.

That people are paying so much attention to the “threat” posed by the Retail Institute to the Produce Conference and ignoring these much larger and long-established conventions simply illustrates how threatening people often find a new idea.

Perhaps that is the real lesson of United’s renaissance. If you are going to set out to change things, you have to be dedicated, draw on the resources available, lead your organization in the direction you want to go, try new things knowing they might fail and be able to see criticism as what it often is: the sincere form of flattery by which people let you know that what you are doing matters.  pb