February, 1999

Fruits of Thought

Playing To Win

There have been a lot of retirements in the news lately – Ed Odron from Lucky’s, Claude Moldenhauer from Kroger, Ray Klocke from Safeway, Michael Jordan from the Chicago Bulls. OK, OK, these announcements didn’t all appear in the same paper.

Still, these retirements, along with earlier ones such as Dick Spezzano from Vons, Al Vangelos from Calavo, Paul Yoder from Dole, impact more than the companies these folks worked with. These names have industry significance because they all participated in the produce industry in ways that went beyond day-to-day commerce. Chairmen of PMA, United, active in vast committee work and in 5 A Day; some were instrumental in organizations, such as The Fresh Approach, that no longer exist but once served the industry.

In this sense, these retirements are like the retirement of Michael Jordan, which, of course, is of interest because Jordan’s contribution, both as a player and as a spokesperson for the game, helped make basketball the hot sport in American culture. If his retirement is a permanent one, there is a real question as to whether basketball will hold the same allure for Americans ranging from Ghetto youths playing pickup ball to Yuppie players in leagues at expensive gyms from coast to coast.

Of course, the basketball team owners, the players union, the media and all those having a stake in basketball’s success are now looking for the “next Michael Jordan” or, at least, the next player to keep the game’s high profile in the American scene. Of course, this search has been ongoing for some time. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that the basketball industry has a system for uncovering new talent so that as older stars fade away, new ones, seemingly miraculously, appear.

The produce industry has a system as well. The national organizations have long established systems by which, even now, the holders of position in the trade a decade from now are getting training and exposure in committee work and on boards that, one day, will hold them in good steed when they are called upon to represent the industry and make decisions on behalf of the trade.

Still before Michael Jordan could be an effective spokesperson for basketball, he needed to be an ace player. So it strikes me that it is difficult to be a really top-notch chairman of a national produce organization without being effective in one’s day-to-day job in the industry.

I have been fortunate to know many industry leaders since I was a boy and to have intensely worked with many of them. Almost without exception, I’ve found that those who did a weak job in their association role were also weak in their own business. The shrewdest, smartest, hardest working and most effective industry leaders, however, were pretty effective in building produce businesses first.

Michael Jordan is widely perceived as the greatest basketball player of all time and, by some, as the greatest athlete of all time. It would be unnatural to look to Jordan’s success and not try to identify its causes. For many businesspeople, childhood sports are a kind of primal practice ground for the skills necessary to do business. Self-discipline, teamwork, an ability to inspire one’s peers and inspire fear in one’s opponents – these are, to no small degree, the stuff business is made of.

An interesting article on Jordan in The Weekly Standard by Jonathan V. Last reveals a simple thesis that speaks to the state of American culture today: that despite Americans thinking about Michael Jordan as some kind of fuzzy, friendly, nice guy romping the house in his underwear, in fact, Jordan is a ferocious competitor and, to no small extent, his success is due to being a competitor who was never soft. He played relentlessly.

Each game is different and has its own rules. The produce game strikes me as not really amenable to this kind of all-out play. Don’t get me wrong, the hard work and self-discipline that brought Jordan success are traits shared by all successful produce veterans. Yet the “go-for-the-jugular” approach is too often a mistake in a trade where the tables somehow turn very quickly.

Perhaps it’s an out-of-grade load and the opportunity is there for a receiver to profit substantially – but only by causing a shipper immense losses or, alternatively, to work it out so that everyone can stay in business. Maybe there is a shortage a shipper could take advantage of by demanding a customer pay through the nose. Disputes and grade discrepancies, product shortages and unavailability of certain sizes and grades – this is the stuff a produce dealer’s days are made of.

All the successful executives in produce have been tough folks. Yet those who have been particularly successful have been known as tough, but fair. In fact, they were always gentlemen.

The question is whether or not we are losing some of this. Is playing to win all that matters? This goes far beyond the produce trade. It’s what the cultural forces in Washington are really talking about. It’s a question about our society at large.

Many industries have credit rating services. The produce industry is one of the few that assigns Moral Responsibility ratings as part of those credit ratings. That is a way of saying that success in this business depends as much on the content of one’s character as the contents of one’s wallet. That itself is something to be proud of. Those of us toiling in the industry stand on the shoulders of an awful lot of gentlemen. May we be worthy of the trust.  pb