The occupational hazard of punditry is excessive intellectual output with insufficient intellectual input. We took a pause from Punditing to recharge those intellectual batteries, emotionally draining ever since my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Part of the learning process is the obvious: reading, listening, thinking. But one big advantage we have always had is the fact that, like those who read this column, we are active in running a business. We’ve built a company from a piece of paper and a dream, and now the company is in the midst of its 29th year.
This past month, we spent most of our time in Europe, as we prepare to launch The London Produce Show and Conference on June 4-6, 2014. There was important work to do. Partly it was to visit Fruit Logistica, which we have been to before and have frequently recommended. Mostly though, it was to spend a month’s time in the United Kingdom, to begin doing a deep dive into the culture and the industry.
It is an exciting time for the produce industry in the United Kingdom, a time of great flux, and whenever you stand at the precipice of a sea change, there is a substantial opportunity for those willing and able to see beyond the present.
The market in the UK has been changing. To most foreign shippers, there were only four big retailers to sell, and for the last generation those four retailers were consolidating procurement through their preferred supply partners. Already famous for rigorous audit standards on food safety and sustainability, the UK market was a very tough one to crack. The heavy consolidation also gave the so-called “Big Four” substantial leverage on price and made profit opportunities skinny for suppliers. Many a shipper in production areas that were dependent on the UK, such as South Africa, made it their priority to diversify their customer base away from the UK.
That picture, though, only holds for those who do business through a rear view mirror.
Part of the issue is that retail is not the whole picture. There has been an explosion of culinary activity. The British have given the world much — the Magna Carta and so on — but the island nation was never known for great cuisine. Yet today, London is one of the top restaurant towns in the world.
British cuisine itself has been recreated with celebrities such as Jamie Oliver leading the way, and, of course, a substantial population from places such as India has made the city a focal point for Indian Food, but today it is often said that the English don’t even live in London anymore. Though not precisely true, there is truth in this.
Prime property has become too expensive. If you sit in the 5-star Grosvenor House where we are holding The London Produce Show and Conference, you see Arab sheikhs in flowing robes, Russian billionaires with platinum blonde girlfriends and an extraordinary array of the world’s most affluent… more than you see English folks. These people have created demand for incredible cuisine and hip venues. Yes, there are plenty of places to get fish and chips, but there are lots of people at Novikov or Hakkasan. Take a look at the produce always on display at Novikov, which is said to be London’s top grossing restaurant and is owned by Arkady Novikov, Moscow’s largest restaurateur:
So, today, the Fresh Produce Consortium, with whom we are presenting The London Produce Show and Conference, estimates that fully 40% of produce in the UK goes through the foodservice or wholesale channels. That’s a big chunk of business without factoring in retail at all.
The retail sector is also undergoing extraordinary change. There is basically a trifurcation of the market, with a booming deep discount sector. German retailers Aldi and Lidl are steadily eating into the market share of the Big Four. At the same time, the carriage trade retailers, such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, are boosting share, Waitrose in particularly.
In addition, you have lots of smaller cracks in the Big Four hegemony — American chains such as Costco and Whole Foods have footholds but also online services, such as Ocado.
The Big Four thus find themselves in between a growing top and a growing discount sector — and the middle is not typically a sweet spot for retailing.
This is leading the Big Four to change, and for the moment at least, much of the change is focusing on procurement, which is leading to dramatic new opportunities. Basically, over the past few decades, large chains that may have had 15 suppliers in a category, such as grapes, have consolidated that to two. Yet now the large chains no longer want to work with selected importers; instead they are looking to buy direct from producers around the world. This means shippers who never had a shot at a PO from, say, Tesco, suddenly have new opportunities. Give it a few years and the same chain that had 15 suppliers and shrunk down to two will be back at 15. Opportunity does not only knock in developing markets.
Of course, procurement changes may or may not be effective at helping the Big Four compete with Aldi and Lidl. It’s always easy to think one can cut out layers of expense, but it often turns out that those plans underestimate the value contributed, in this case, by importers who tied themselves at the hip to big retailers.
One wonders if in the search to navigate the new retail environment, one of the Big Four won’t become really bold and try some totally innovative merchandising. The UK has traditionally been a private label market, but we suspect there is a big win out there for some retailer who is willing to focus completely on brands.
Maybe Morrisons, whose sales results have been weak lately, would be willing to steal a page from Bruce Peterson. When Bruce started Wal-Mart’s produce program, he wanted to ride on the brand equity of his vendors, so, for a long time, the Wal-Mart produce selection reflected Bruce’s understanding of consumer brand acceptance. For years, for example, Wal-Mart exclusively carried Chiquita bananas.
One advantage of private label is that it enables a chain to differentiate itself, but in a market that is all private label, going branded might be a big win as a differentiator. Fortunately Bruce will be presenting at The London Produce Show and Conference, so both retailers and vendors will get a chance to see how this transition might work.
Of course, the big branded players probably need to reawaken their focus on the UK market to nudge this along. Perhaps a firm such as Morrison’s would be quicker to take such a leap if it could be assured of marketing and promotional support for the brands. This Pundit grew up in an age when television was filled with commercials saying, “A Dole banana is a great banana, and it’s great because it’s Dole!” And the Pundit Poppa would sing the commercials of his youth that “I’m Chiquita banana and I’ve come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way.”
Much as it said that generals are always fighting the last war, businesses tend to set up their organizations to serve the trade as it has been, not as it will be. When a market is in flux, as the UK market is, though, using last year’s organization to meet the challenges of the future guarantees that one will miss opportunities.
If you want to position your organization to take advantage of the tumult in the UK, then let us know here if you would like to consider exhibiting or sponsoring.
And click here to get information on attending.
When Sysco and US Foods announced their merger last December, the question on the minds of many was how this could be possible. After all, weren’t these two the only real players in the business of national scale? Wouldn’t it raise insurmountable antitrust concerns?
Now the announcement has come out that the FTC, rather than the Justice Department, will be leading the antitrust review of the merger. This is a mixed bag for the companies. The FTC process is more convoluted and the FTC can take administrative measures to stop a merger. The Justice Department is more straightforward and can only move for an injunction, but, as of late, the Justice Department has been tougher on letting mergers through.
The key question is likely to be how the FTC defines “the market.” When the government tried to block the merger of Whole Foods and Wild Oats, which we wrote about in a piece titled FTC May Block Whole Foods From Buying Wild Oats, it did so because it defined a market of natural food chains as distinct from food retailers.
We thought this was a mistake; consumers could get natural foods at Safeway, Kroger, Costco , Wal-Mart and Amazon.com, to name just a few. There was no basis for saying that just because there was consolidation between these two chains, consumers would be subject to monopoly pricing. Still the government saw things differently and fought the merger.
If the market is consolidation in food distribution, then the merger should sail through. After all, from the Hunts Point Market to self-distribution to a panoply of regional players, there are no shortages of ways to get food from place to place. The combined Sysco/US Foods sales would be about $65 billion a year — a big company indeed, but a fraction of the multi-trillion dollar food industry — and these distributors sell lots of non-food items, such as plates, napkins, forks, etc., as well. Even for the formal foodservice distributor sector, which has sales in excess of $200 billion, that is hardly a monopoly.
However, if you were to look only at broadline distributors that are able to offer a multi-city network of their own facilities – the market shrinks fast. Then some government analyst could well see “the market” as small and becoming basically monopolized by a merger. The big challenge for this interpretation, though, is that only large operators with multiple locations in multiple cities care whether a company can offer national distribution.
So you wind up with a logic that says we have to prevent a merger so that Darden, Hilton and McDonald’s won’t be abused. Yet these companies have the heft to set up alternative distribution channels if Sysco tries to raise prices unduly. These big customers have not raised public objections to the merger, making one think that they see themselves as possible beneficiaries of greater efficiency by the new Sysco, rather than potential victims of price gouging.
The popular bet among experts is that the FTC will let the merger go through but require divestitures in some overlapping markets. Perhaps. But the whole issue will come down to the FTC’s definition of the “relevant market,” and there the Administration’s general suspicion of business could throw things in favor of a narrow definition of the market, which could lead to another Wild Oats/Whole Foods-type battle.
Our piece, IMAGINE-NATION: Will The First Lady’s Sesame Street Campaign Reduce Produce Consumption, brought lots of calls and comments. They were universally unhappy about the program and universally saw no upside for themselves in going on the record. One former chairman of one of the national produce associations sent this note:
The comparison with the PBH programs is apt. Our critique of the Sesame Street deal is not that it will not increase consumption, perhaps it might; our critique is that 1) We have no idea if it will increase consumption or not, 2) That it might decrease consumption so it may be reckless to undertake without further research, and 3) That if the design of the program is such that it is a roll-out rather than a trial, there will NEVER be any way to know if it has any impact on consumption as there is no control group.
This is pretty similar to our critique of PBH’s efforts — not that they are bad, but that they are set up in a way that never tells us if they are good.
In fact, if consumption declines, supporters of PBH are likely to say that we are lucky to have PBH or it would have declined more. If consumption increases, they will give PBH the credit. Is there any doubt that the White House will say the same about this initiative?
It doesn’t work that way. The oldest fallacy in the book is post hoc ergo proctor hoc (“After this, therefore because of this.”) The classic illustration: the cock crows and then the sun rises. Thus, ignorant people will give credit to the cock for causing the sun to rise.
We pleaded with PBH years ago to not nationalize the program, to not even run it on a state level, but only to try it in a select few markets with appropriate control groups. Since this is the only way to prove that a roll-out of a program would increase consumption, it was the only hope for getting significant funds from sources outside the produce industry.
Instead we went for the politically easy — just as the First Lady has done with this program.
Our correspondent is also correct that having investment made in these industry campaigns has not proven to be profitable for the supply base. Retail produce operators embraced the idea of having the supply base invest in 5-a-Day, because they preferred that kind of generic promotion as it left them free to promote as they wished in their departments. They liked that approach much better than a private company or promotional board offering promotional dollars in exchange for better placement or bigger orders. But ROI typically depends on those types of actions. Even at the retail level, the battle is typically for market share, so boosting produce consumption, which typically will come at the expense of some other department in the supermarket, is not a very profitable game for retailers.
And our writer clearly identifies the big risk in allowing good brands to promote lousy product. Not all produce is sterling, and though Sesame Street is now basking in the First Lady’s love, and that is worth a lot, when low quality produce is adorned with these valuable trademarks, it will not burnish their reputations, it will diminish their reputations. And here is the truth: The best brands in the industry are the least interested in obscuring their brands with characters and, certainly, the least interested in associating themselves with trademarks that their competitors use.
The food safety point is trenchant. When the Spinach Crisis hit, we wrote a piece titled, Look At Their Faces that included a portrait of a three-year-old boy who had died.
Is there any question that the next time, God forbid, that someone dies, the headline will be highlighting that it will be some three-year-old who loved Elmo so much he made his Mom buy the pathogen-laden item?
Elmo was created because in the early 1980s Sesame Street did not have a preschool character. Elmo is designed to bond with pre-school children. The First Lady praised Sesame Workshop’s President and CEO, H. Melvin Ming, at her press conference because he made the characters available royalty-free. Yet young children, the elderly, those who have undergone chemotherapy, or anyone with a compromised immune system, are among the most vulnerable to foodborne illness.
If there is a food safety outbreak, won’t people rightly point to the same man and say, “You were irresponsible for allowing the use of your characters to draw a vulnerable population to this food without establishing clear food safety standards!”?
We hope they will be lucky and there never will be such a problem. But Paul Newman pulled his name from bagged salad mixes for exactly this fear – and he wasn’t even focused on little children.
And all this for a program for which we have zero evidence will ever increase produce consumption!
United recently sent out an announcement that it is still trying to prod immigration reform along:
United Fresh this week joined forces with 636 business organizations representing multiple sectors to send a letter to Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner to request House Republicans, who are the majority in the House of Representatives, move forward on immigration reform this year. United Fresh and the other businesses urged the House Republican Conference to use the Standards for Immigration Reform, released by the House Republican leadership in January, as a guide to developing more effective national immigration policies that can be passed by Congress. That document, which laid out principles for immigration reform, specifically cited the needs for a stable agricultural workforce.
"We sent the letter to make sure the House leadership knows that we are not giving up on getting immigration reform passed. Our industry has already suffered greatly because of outdated, dysfunctional immigration policies. By joining with a broad cross-section of businesses that are affected by these policies, we show that the economic consequences of no action will be huge," said United's Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy. "We will do everything we can to work with the House leadership, and all members of Congress, to formulate policies that meet the needs of the fresh produce industry but are also politically feasible. We understand this is a very sensitive issue for members of Congress, but a lack of action is the one thing our members cannot withstand."
The letter asserts that if immigration reform is developed and implemented properly it will deter illegal immigration, protect and complement our U.S. workforce, while at the same time generating greater productivity and economic activity, and respecting family unity.
We had written a piece here pointing out that farm labor shortages are a global concern in developed countries. Here in the United States, the failure of the different branches of government to agree on a program of immigration reform has been frustrating.
Since the Democratic-controlled Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, much of the trade’s ire has been directed at the Republicans, as they control the House and have not advanced a bill that would lead to a conference between the House and Senate.
Tom Stenzel, President of the United Fresh Produce Association, expressed the exasperation of many in the produce industry who are focused on this issue when he was speaking to United’s Salinas membership this past summer. After urging the trade to reach out to Republicans, he explained how his own approach had changed:
“We started out six months ago telling House members, ‘Here’s what we want… this is what the content should be in the bill.’ I don’t even say that anymore. I say, ‘Pass anything you damn well please. Pass a bill.’ Because if they don’t pass anything, we’ll never have a chance to get to a final comprehensive immigration bill. Keep up the pressure.”
At one point it looked like the House would pass separate bills related to different aspects of immigration. First, Speaker John Boehner had stated that the House Republicans “have no intention of ever going to conference” on the Senate bill. Then it looked like the House would, in fact, come out with a comprehensive bill; indeed House Republicans announced they would. When the Republican members reacted to the announcement, the Speaker decided it was wise to temper expectations.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Some are rooted in substantive differences as to what immigration policy should be. Others are rooted in the politics of the situation.
We would say, though, that the way Obamacare has played out has been the death knell for this approach.
During the debate over Obamacare, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously declared that “…we have to pass the (health care) bill so that you can find out what’s in it…”
Though widely mocked for the phrase, she was absolutely right. These comprehensive bills are so large -- and, typically, final versions are passed very quickly after multiple changes are made and, even then, they depend so much on what regulations are put in to enforce them -- that it is virtually impossible for any individual to really be confident he knows what the full implications of the law would be.
The Senate’s immigration bill is 1,198 pages. This is before a conference with the House that would undoubtedly lengthen the bill even more. This is also before they slip in last minute “favors” to different Representatives and Senators. We doubt many members of Congress have actually read the whole bill, much less truly understand its implications. Even fewer, probably not one, will have read the whole text of any final bill that might ultimately be passed.
We would think the collapse of Obamacare has soured the populace on the whole idea of these large comprehensive bills, bills where you have to pass the bill to find out what is in it.
There is another complication that is going to make it increasingly difficult to pass immigration reform.
Not long ago President Obama issued an announcement that the government would not enforce the law prohibiting the sale of individual insurance policies that do not conform to the new Obamacare standards. This followed an outcry as millions of people learned that the President’s often-made promise that under this program "if you like your current insurance, you can keep that insurance" was not being kept. In fact, the law required insurance companies to stop offering non-complaint insurance, even if people liked their policies. Now they had to buy more comprehensive, and more expensive, policies.
Politically this was supposed to be a big win for the President as he could now say that he had authorized people to keep their insurance, and if they couldn’t, say because the state insurance commissioners wouldn’t allow it or because the insurance companies wouldn’t offer it, it is their fault, not that of the President..
In reality, of course, the President’s move is very problematic. Offering these policies is illegal, and the President does not have authority to make them legal. Perhaps he can exercise prosecutorial discretion and not enforce the law – although even that is questionable as Article Two of the Constitution requires that the President "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." This has been traditionally interpreted as meaning that the President has no lawful authority to suspend the enforcement of laws.
As a practical matter, whether the federal government prosecutes criminally is only part of the issue. There are state laws that still stand, and the consequences of doing illegal things remains unknown. Suppose someone purchases one of these now illegal policies and gets sick and the illegal policy does not provide coverage for the illness, but the legal requirement is to provide coverage. That purchaser will file a lawsuit saying he was sold an illegal policy. The federal government’s failure to file criminal charges won’t protect the insurance company.
And the consequences of all this are severe. Virtually all the people who will want to keep their less expensive insurance policies are healthy. The ones who will want the comprehensive and expensive policies have illnesses. Obamacare was specifically designed to force every individual policy purchaser into the exchanges so the healthy buyers would subsidize the sick purchasers. If they now allow the healthy to stay out of the exchange marketplace and still compel the insurance companies to accept all comers in the exchanges, companies that priced their policies on the assumption of a mixed pool will wind up losing a fortune.
The significance of all this to the farm labor and broader immigration issues is that the President did not go to Congress to negotiate a change in the law. He acted unilaterally to suspend enforcement of the law.
This is not the first time. Earlier he suspended the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The director of Stanford University’s Law School’s Constitutional Law Center explained:
President Obama's decision last week to suspend the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act may be welcome relief to businesses affected by this provision, but it raises grave concerns about his understanding of the role of the executive in our system of government.
Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution states that the president "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." This is a duty, not a discretionary power. While the president does have substantial discretion about how to enforce a law, he has no discretion about whether to do so.
This matter—the limits of executive power—has deep historical roots. During the period of royal absolutism, English monarchs asserted a right to dispense with parliamentary statutes they disliked. King James II's use of the prerogative was a key grievance that lead to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The very first provision of the English Bill of Rights of 1689—the most important precursor to the U.S. Constitution—declared that "the pretended power of suspending of laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, without consent of parliament, is illegal."
To make sure that American presidents could not resurrect a similar prerogative, the Framers of the Constitution made the faithful enforcement of the law a constitutional duty.
A year earlier, on immigration itself, the President announced that the Department of Homeland Security would not enforce immigration laws against certain people:
They came to the United States at an age younger than 16 and are currently under 30, have not committed any major crimes, are in school or have graduated or served in the armed forces, and have resided in the U.S. for at least five years. Such aliens — who may number as many as 800,000 — may now seek work permits for two-year periods without fear of deportation.
"It makes no sense to expel talented young people who for all intents and purposes are Americans," the president said at a Rose Garden press conference. Obama no doubt acted from a variety of policy and political motives, some of them likely admirable. But his move has pushed executive power beyond all constitutional limits — even in the view of this writer, an academic defender of a vigorous presidency and a Justice Department lawyer in the Bush administration.
Doubtless the President has many motivations, some admirable and some not, for declining to enforce these laws. But in the context of the immigration battle and, in fact, all hotly contested issues, the failure of the President to enforce laws makes the likelihood of compromise much more difficult. After all, compromise means the President and his opponents will each agree to things they would prefer not to have in the law. If members of the House and Senate start to feel that they can negotiate a deal and then the President, asserting some independent authority not to enforce the law, can simply decide not to enforce the things in the law the President didn’t like, then what is the point of negotiating?
We suspect that Mr. Stenzel, and the produce industry, will be waiting quite a while for a comprehensive immigration bill.
The notice is succinct:
Coosemans Worldwide Acquires Consumers Produce of Pittsburgh
Coosemans Worldwide Inc. is proud to announce that it has acquired Consumers Produce Co. Inc., in Pittsburgh, PA. The new company will operate as Consumer Fresh Produce, Inc. Coosemans is an international leader in specialty produce and fresh herbs. Consumers Produce is recognized nationally as a premier regional distributor and produce re-packer, with a diversified product line, including wine juices and grapes.
“Consumers Produce is an outstanding organization,” said Daniel Coosemans, president of Coosemans Worldwide, Inc., “well known for its innovation, freshness, and commitment to food safety. We now enjoy a state-of-the-art facility located just a few hours from several major metropolitan areas, greatly expanding our supply chain capabilities. The new company will be named Consumer Fresh Produce.”
“Joining the Coosemans organization gives us the opportunity to offer our customers a one-stop shopping experience, with access to a full line of specialty items. Becoming a part of the Coosemans team will move our entire organization to the next level,” said Alan Siger, chairman of Consumers Produce. “I look forward to working with Daniel at Consumer Fresh Produce,” said Siger, who will serve as a senior advisor to the new company.
Gregory D. Cessna, the CEO and President of Consumers Produce, Inc., will be the CEO of Consumer Fresh Produce, Inc., and Les Ainsman, president of Coosemans Pittsburgh since its inception in 1998, will serve as president of Consumer Fresh Produce. “This is an excellent opportunity for two great companies to combine their strengths in continuing to serve the wholesale business in Pittsburgh and tri-state area,” said Ainsman.
We wish Danny Coosemans and the whole Coosemans organization the best of luck. The acquisition is surely a win all around. Alan Siger had no children interested in the business and needed an exit strategy. The Consumers staff needed a well-financed owner interested in growing the business. And Coosemans gets a much needed high quality facility in a geography where large, high quality refrigerated warehouses are in short supply, plus it gets the bonus of an existing business.
We doubt the acquisition would have happened except for the vision Alan Siger possessed that led Consumers to not accept the traditional work flow on the terminal market but to develop an alternative. We wrote about the vision in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, in a piece we titled Forewarned Is Forearmed:
Progressive industry leaders … see that the era of “buy from anyone” is drawing to a close. Want to see a glimpse of the future? Go to Pittsburgh. There rises a new wholesale produce facility being built by Consumers Produce. We may not think of wholesaling as being in the vanguard of new technology but, in fact, this new plant is motivated by all the usual considerations — need for more space, consolidate operations, more efficient plant — plus one more.
As Alan Siger … puts it: “The day is coming when large retailers, foodservice operators and service wholesalers simply won’t buy from anyone without a facility that can guarantee proper handling of the product, including uninterrupted maintenance of the cold chain.”
If buyers seize their responsibility, Al Siger will be right. And the industry will be better for it. Forewarned is forearmed.
Well, he was right on that and so much else. The best part of the announcement is that Alan will stick around as well — as “senior advisor” to the company. The truth is that Alan has been a senior advisor to the produce industry at large since he was quite young. His service as Chairman of the United Fresh board, as the only terminal market wholesaler on the Produce Traceability Initiative steering committee, and as informal counselor on all kinds of industry initiatives has earned him the gratitude of the trade.
Among the many who have been the beneficiary of Alan’s counsel is this Pundit. He taught a little about produce and, by dint of example, a lot about character. We hope Coosemans will be persuasive in keeping Alan on board for a long time to come.
We have been getting lots of terrific feedback on The London Produce Show and Conference, which we have been writing about in pieces such as these:
Perishable Pundit 10/17/13: New Event Planned For 2014: The United Kingdom’s Fresh Produce Consortium And PRODUCE BUSINESS Magazine Announce The London Produce Show and Conference
Perishable Pundit 10/17/13: Tommy Leighton Named Managing Director For Pundit Sister Company In The UK — A Triumph Of The ‘Do Stuff’ Philosophy!
Perishable Pundit 10/28/13: Product, Trade, Ideas And Friendship: Insights Into The London Produce Show And Conference
Perishable Pundit 11/12/13: FACING ISSUES GLOBALLY: UK And US Both Wrestle With Immigration Policy
Some of the people we speak with want to have booths; others want to sponsor things; some want to be speakers; others want to attend.
Many of these prospective attendees are, of course, buyers. Yet some, although they may find product to buy, are also counting on the intellectual stimulation of an event in London.
Karen Caplan, President and CEO at Frieda’s Inc. in Los Alamitos, California, for example, told us she wants to come. We hope she will stay at the headquarters hotel at our discounted rate, but if she likes the UK, we did find the perfect house for her to buy!
It is listed on Rightmove, which has provided these photos, and is bargain priced at only £400,000. You can see the listing here.
If you would like more information on The London Produce Show and Conference you can e-mail us here.