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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Pundit’s Mailbag — What Is
The Pundit’s ‘Core Competency’?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 18, 2008

We received this note shortly after publishing Great Expectations For President Obama:

I get a great deal out of reading your insights on the produce industry.

Your analysis of the Tesco deal has been excellent, although I think you have been slow to pay attention to Wild Rocket Foods.

Your cheerleading for Bruce Peterson annoys me, but that’s a minor point.

I think you are getting off track by offering your political opinions that do not relate to the produce industry.

You spread yourself too thin by appearing to be a worthy commentator on too many things, so you lose credibility.

Focus is important in any business, and yours is no exception.

Mindful of the risk that some of your political commentary might offend some of your readers, you come across as being above the fray, which puts you in the category of being pompous.

I don’t need anyone telling me how I should support Barack Obama just because he attracted 51% of the votes.

Please stick to your Core Competency.

Thank you for all of the really good work that you do.

— Peter Jensen
CEO
Eckert Cold Storage
Escalon, CA

We thank Mr. Jensen very much for his letter and kind comments regarding our insights into the produce industry.

He makes five primary critiques:

1. “Your analysis of the Tesco deal has been excellent, although I think you have been slow to pay attention to Wild Rocket Foods.”

We appreciate Mr. Jensen’s assessment of our Tesco coverage. Though we have written from time to time about Wild Rocket, we think about the critique of the company in the same way we think about the argument of those who claim the US stole the Panama Canal Zone from Panama. We certainly did not. We stole it from Colombia and created Panama to facilitate our larceny.

So a focus on Wild Rocket is really a convenient way of letting Tesco off the hook. Wild Rocket exists because Tesco willed it into existence. A simple e-mail to Wild Rocket’s CEO from someone of authority at Fresh & Easy or Tesco that possibly would read as follows would solve the slow-pay problem we mentioned here completely:

“I read the Pundit piece about the slow-pay practices of Wild Rocket and was shocked and horrified. I’ve spoken to my bosses here and please understand that this state of affairs is completely unacceptable. We want all your vendors whose product is destined for Fresh & Easy to be paid within 10 days of your receipt of merchandise. If you need us to pay you faster or require a capital infusion to make this happen, just let us know. We absolutely want this situation to end and end now. Let me know what you need from us to make it happen.”

Personally, our bet is that the produce executives in management at Fresh & Easy would like to send that e-mail. But Tesco doesn’t want to pay. So rather than buy direct and have its own credit rating sink, Tesco lets Wild Rocket do the dirty work.

Look, if it was an important priority for Tesco to see these bills paid promptly, they would find a way to make it happen. Blaming Wild Rocket is a bit of a distraction from the real issue.

2. “Your cheerleading for Bruce Peterson annoys me, but that’s a minor point.”

Since Mr. Jensen doesn’t send us a quote of what constitutes “cheerleading,” we are not sure what he is referring to. We try to acknowledge achievement and Bruce’s involvement in building the world’s largest retail produce program was significant. So we see nothing wrong with our coverage there.

After he left Wal-Mart, he began an initiative on traceability that led directly to the joint association plan. So we feel confident that this was coverage justified by the significance of his activity.

Now that he is CEO for a shipper organization, we write about him less but because of his background, he purchased produce from almost every major grower/shipper in the country and competed with virtually every retailer in the country. This means that he became well known — a produce celebrity — and that has created interest in what he does. To this day, a piece that mentions Bruce is e-mailed extensively.

If Mr. Jensen means we wish Bruce well, we plead guilty. Why should we not? During his time at Wal-Mart, when he didn’t have to do anything, he worked hard in industry associations and, on a personal level, we never knew him to turn down industry groups who needed him to speak at a conference or seminar. He returned phone calls and e-mails. Small courtesies perhaps but much appreciated. We get fan letters about him to this very day.

Momma Pundit taught us to wish everyone well, unless they give us a specific reason to do otherwise.

3. “I think you are getting off track by offering your political opinions that do not relate to the produce industry.”

The core of our difference here is that we think it all directly relates to the industry. And we are not alone in this assessment — Isn’t this why the Western Growers Association, for example, issued a formal endorsement of John McCain?

One of the problems trade associations have is they are paid money (dues) to represent the industry on special issues. That is why they are known as special interest groups. Highly homogenous groups, such as Western Growers, will actually endorse candidates. More diverse groups, such as PMA and United Fresh, tend to avoid broad-based endorsements and, instead, focus on individual issues.

The problem is that the business success of industry members depends not just on produce-specific issues but the general economy and broad-based policy decisions. If a Senator is right on industry message regarding pesticide policy, that is great — but we can’t ignore that his economic policy will cause a depression or his foreign policy will promote a war. Equally, issues such as card-check for unions or the estate tax are not irrelevant to the success of the industry.

In addition, success in business is at least as much a function of positioning oneself to take advantage of general economic trends as it is anything else. To do this, however, one must understand those trends.

The Pundit Poppa became a success in part because he studied international trade in college and looked to apply those lessons to the produce industry. That he saw the way the world was going and did this during a period when international trade was booming contributed to his success.

So we will stake our claim that thinking only about produce is too insular and leads to failure or at least missed opportunities. Thinking broadly and transcending the narrow particulars of a particular industry is the path to success.

We try to walk with our readers down that path.

4. “Mindful of the risk that some of your political commentary might offend some of your readers, you come across as being above the fray, which puts you in the category of being pompous.”

Fair enough, pomposity is the occupational hazard of punditry. So we try hard to not take ourselves too seriously. Did you ever see the bit we did to help the Vidalia Onion growers? Take a look here.

More specifically, we actually are above the fray. We are not running for office and have no particular skin in the game. We stand in relation to politics as does every American. We care for our country and we try and think things through.

We suppose we should also point out that there is a Mrs. Pundit, and those who know her will attest that she will quickly lance any inflation of ego that the Pundit might be prone to.

5. “I don’t need anyone telling me how I should support Barack Obama just because he attracted 51% of the votes.”

Actually Senator Obama earned 52.7% of the popular vote, the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

We would say our argument, though, was more subtle than Mr. Jensen gives us credit for. We never wrote that anyone “should support Barrack Obama.” What we wrote was that with expectations so high and the world in a mess of trouble, “President Obama will need all our help and everyone would be wise to give it to him.”

First, the insertion of the word “President” in there is a change not in degree but in kind. Up to the election, one could support the candidate one preferred, but after the inauguration the winner becomes the President of our country. It becomes impossible to wish failure upon him without also wishing failure upon our country.

Second, there is a big difference between giving “help” and saying one “should support” someone. Here at the Pundit, when we get a call from a staffer on either side of the aisle looking to brainstorm a bit on food safety, food security, sustainability or other public policy issues, we try to help. It is our country; we want to see wise policy options selected.

Helping in this way doesn’t preclude one from supporting a different candidate next election. It is just a way of saying that one’s desire to see one’s party or candidate triumph does not extend to wishing ill or harming one’s own country.

So our message to Mr. Jensen and anyone else who loves America would be to support whomever you choose in the mid-term elections in two years, support whomever you choose in the Presidential election in four years but, in the meantime, we only have one President and we rely on that President to help keep us safe from terrorist and to make wise economic policy decisions and for much else.

If you have a competency or position where you can assist President Obama in the effective performance of his duties, it would be foolish not to do so and we would be saying exactly the same thing if Senator McCain had won the election.

We appreciate Mr. Jensen’s frank letter and the opportunity it gives us to clarify our positions and why we think as we do.

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