December, 2009

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Change For The Better

Change is the only constant in business. This adage also rings true for associations with one caveat: change must revolve around the benefit to members, not the organization itself. That’s why recent changes in Produce Marketing Association’s governance and leadership structures have been spurred by our members, for our members.

PMA’s new strategic plan, approved by its board in late 2008, defines a bold vision for PMA to strengthen and lead the global community, and a mission to connect, inform and deliver business solutions that enhance members’ prosperity. To ensure we could achieve this bold course of direction, the association’s governance and volunteer leadership structure required realignment. The result is a new volunteer leadership structure that will provide greater opportunities for PMA members to participate in their association than in the past — from across the supply chain and around the world, from produce and floral, to participate in their association to grow leadership skills and to grow their businesses.

For clarity, “governance” refers to the system used to make policy and strategy decisions; governance is the role of an association’s board. “Leadership” speaks to the volunteer structure created to deliver value through programs and services. To ensure these critical components of an association match directives of the new strategic plan, PMA assembled a task force of industry leaders to evaluate our current structure and our future needs, and best close that gap.

They were aided by leading association management consultants who brought to the table their knowledge of association industry best practices. The task force’s work included conducting environmental scans, reviewing standard association best practices and gathering input from current volunteer leaders and grassroots members. Young professionals in the industry were also surveyed.

Three key changes resulted from this effort. First, the responsibilities of PMA’s board of directors will shift from a “report and review” body to a more strategic, proactive, long-term, direction-setting body. New board committees will be established to specifically address key topics. Second, the current constituency-based division board and council leadership structure will transition to content-based committees. These initial “committees of the enterprise” will include membership; government affairs; produce safety, science and technology; and supply chain efficiencies. Other committees will also be established relative to PMA events, including Fresh Summit. And third, as new opportunities are identified or emerge, the board can weigh adding other committees and subgroups.

A recent survey of member needs also validates the need for a shift to more volunteer involvement. PMA members told us they want more opportunities to contribute and build their leadership skills, and to build business relationships in the process. Our new structure will do just that: create more opportunities for all PMA members to participate in their association.

This association’s history has been shaped by the wisdom of early volunteers who planted seeds that grew into our core values of community, character and courage. Now, as we work to achieve the goals of our new strategic plan, that same volunteer wisdom will be employed at greater levels to shape PMA’s future. By the time you read this column, PMA will have contacted members to provide more information and educate them on how they can volunteer. You can learn more by visiting PMA.com.

What isn’t changing, however, is PMA’s longstanding commitment to our core values — especially the core value of courage to change when that means better serving our members.

Another change is also in store, specifically involving this column. You’re reading PMA’s last Research Perspectives column in Produce Business. When Jim and I began this series back in 2005, our goal was to help our industry stay on top of important consumer trends and to encourage our readers to be more marketing-focused and less sales-oriented.

Over the years, our dialogue has provided Produce Business readers with valuable food for thought, which hopefully has encouraged some of you to change your thinking. The series has now run its course, and just as PMA governance task force has done, it’s time to look forward into the future.

I thank Jim Prevor for the opportunity to stimulate this conversation; I am grateful for the friendship built over these years. The staff and I look forward to continuing to work with the Produce Business team to bring our voice elsewhere in the magazine.

Research Perspectives Will Go On

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations... Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America

Trade associations provide a quintessentially American response to the question of how businesses ought to deal with the challenges of the day. As with most things worthwhile in life, though, it is easier to found an association than to maintain one as they are often established in the midst of a furor over some governmental action and often dissipate as the anger dies.

When associations are small, they typically do not have the resources to provide great value to an industry, yet when they get large they run the risk of being more interested in perpetuating the association than in helping the industry. This is not solely a challenge for industry associations. It is why, for example, the March of Dimes keeps marching, even though polio, its raison d’être, has long since been vanquished.

This column was founded when PMA undertook a new consumer research program and it represented something rare and precious and wholly commendable on the part of PMA: A willingness to subject one’s work to withering scrutiny.

Most associations — for that matter most people and organizations of any type — are hesitant to state their views in a forum where they will be critiqued. The executive team at PMA, including CEO Bryan Silbermann, was shrewd enough to recognize that research is meaningless unless its lessons are accepted and acted upon, and acceptance depends crucially on the notion that the results have been scrutinized by third parties.

Another thing that PMA has long done well is to work hard at anticipating and changing to meet that future. This is a strength that many organizations lack. This author remembers attending a PMA Board of Directors meeting many years ago when PMA distributed to all board members a copy of Robert J. Kriegel and Louis Patler’s book, If it Ain’t Broke... Break It! This book gave a different perspective from the oft repeated saw, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We recall Dick Spezzano, at the time the vice president of produce for Vons and the chairman of PMA, pulling us aside, handing us the book and saying, “You see what a great association this is?”

We’ve been around long enough to have watched a series of strategic planning processes with PMA and, so far, each has kept the association strong. This is no small accomplishment in this day and age. When PMA’s show in Anaheim this past October broke attendance records, it spoke volumes about the strength of the show and the organization in a year when many shows were seeing drop-offs of 20 to 30 percent or more.

Not fearing change is a big part of preparing for success in the future. This is true in associations, in the produce industry and in publishing. With PMA’s consumer research project being completed, we finished up a number of other outstanding topics and now it is time to move on.

When I spoke at the Produce Solutions Conference this year, I was asked to discuss ways in which businesses should approach the recession. One of the most important ways was to reassess what activities each business undertook and to concentrate resources where they can do the most good.

The genius of PMA and its board has really been the discipline of methodically evaluating and undergoing strategic planning on a regular schedule, so it can make decisions about what to pare, what to keep and what to plant, without financial pressures. There is a valuable lesson there for companies throughout the industry.

Publishers have to change, too, so we have launched digital operations such as that at PerishablePundit.com and thus moved into cyberspace. Yet many questions stand the test of time. Starting in January, we will be inviting different organizations each month to submit their research. We hope to help publicize it, assess it, understand it and lay the groundwork for future research. If your organization has been conducting some research, and would like to participate, please e-mail us at Research@PhoenixMediaNet.com.

I would be remiss if I didn’t close by thanking Bryan Silbermann for undertaking this project for the last four years. Writing an article is difficult, and committing to do one every month, inspired or not, healthy or sick, busy or on vacation, is a formidable commitment. He didn’t have to undertake it, and he deserves my thanks and the industry’s praise for doing so.

Bryan and I have been friends for many years and I knew him well before we began this project, yet through these four years and 48 columns, we argued the problems of the industry like Yeshiva boys debating the holy texts. This has given me an insight into his intelligence, background and belief system that one man rarely gets of another.

I think we gave the industry a small gift and I am proud we had the chance to do it together.