Adjust Font Size :

Integrity In Produce —
How Unique Is Our Industry?

Lorri Koster has achieved her share of accolades. She holds the position of Vice President of Marketing and Co-chairman, Board of Directors of Mann Packing Co. She has been a publisher, an editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, owned her own marketing firm, was the first woman ever to head a national produce trade association, when she chaired the International Fresh-cut Produce Association, back in 2000 and, right now, she serves as Chair of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California, where she has, among other things, been an articulate advocate for her membership’s position on a mandatory generic promotion order.

One other little known feather in her cap is that back in 2003 she was, well, as The Californian explained:

Perhaps the youngest participant in the values-agreement process was Lorri Koster, daughter of Don Nucci, Ramsey’s co-chairman at Mann Packing.

Koster, who owns her own ag-related marketing firm, said some observers may overlook the importance of character and honesty in the success of early agribusiness leaders.

“Innovation certainly made the companies successful,” she said, “but it was also how they were managed.”

Of course, there were 17 participants in what was officially called the Salinas Valley Agribusiness Integrity-Centered Leadership Program. The newspaper article mentions Lorri, Bill Ramsey, of Mann Packing Co., Bob Antle of Tanimura & Antle and Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

Another industry name associated with this integrity-centered initiative will raise a few eyebrows in this industry. Basil Mills joined with Monterey business consultant, Jim Bracher, to launch this values program. Of course, that was long before the papers were filled with headlines such as Mills Family Farms Shuts Down, Mills Brothers Face New Lawsuits Over Loans and Local Bank Faces Lawsuits Over Monterra Funding Issues.

There are many different opinions on the matter and, in fact, most seem to think that Basil, whatever his legal obligations, had already detached from the running of the business, focusing on work such as this Integrity initiative, the Steinbeck Center and his Church. In fact his Church recently gave Basil an appreciation for a lifetime of service award, to buck the spirits of a man who has wound up losing his home and much else that was dear to him.

So obviously those who know him best don’t think ill of him. Yet there are blurry lines here that speak to the many different aspects of ethics, integrity and moral responsibility. Who is a more ethical man — one who never does anything charitable or anything in service to his industry or community, yet tells the truth, pays his bills and never causes harm, or an individual who does great good, devotes time and treasure to charity and communal institutions, but fails to pay his bills?

When the Pundit flew out to Salinas to address the Grower Shipper Association on the occasion of Lorri’s inauguration as chairman of the group, an older gentleman who has watched Lorri grow up in the industry passed along the weathered clip reporting on this integrity effort from years ago.

We noted that the goal was audacious:

Bracher, who is founder and president of the Bracher Center for Integrity in Leadership, said he’s hopeful the ag-focused training program he coordinated will make the Salinas Valley a national model.

Though he did not charge participants a fee as facilitator, he said he would like to take the basic approach to core business values and market it to other industries as a moneymaking venture.

“Sowing the seeds for the renewal of free markets is the essence of what drove me to it,” said Bracher, who first approached Mills with the concept in January. “The more we discover about it (Salinas Valley agribusiness), the more we believe this is the legitimate home for the renewal of free enterprise.”

And, here at the Pundit, we have dealt with topics such as Ethics and Leadership from the get-go, so we noted that the eight “key values” the group agreed on would have wide appeal:

The following are the eight key values of the Salinas Valley Agribusiness Integrity-Centered Leadership Program, adopted Monday by a committee of 16 leaders of valley agricultural companies. Listed with each is a quote from a five-page summary document:

Character: “Business is transacted with a phone call or a handshake, and even though much of agribusiness today involves contracts, it is clear that contracts are formalities…”

Honesty: “From the irrigator and harvester in the field to the broker and the shipper in the office, every person must understand that agribusiness as a whole thrives on honest and reliable information exchange.”

Openness: “Openness with competitors, perhaps unusual in other industries, is routine in agribusiness. While it is a competitive business, it is interdependent and cannot prosper without openness.”

Authority: “The early leaders and their successors have succeeded in building a climate of authority based on performance, knowledge, competence, follow-through and trust.”

Partnership: “They have developed business relationships where any company can be the competitor, the supplier and the customer of the other company.”

Performance: “Today’s leaders will need entrepreneurial spirit and common sense, along with the drive and energy necessary to persevere with high standards of ethical performance.”

Charity: “Stewardship begins with the land and extends to the citizens who share responsibility for making the soil productive.”

Graciousness: “The early leaders of the Salinas Valley agribusiness community could be seen performing alongside their employees, as no job was too small nor any person unimportant.”

It seemed well worth a follow-up, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

James Bracher
Founder & Chairman
Dimension Five Consultants Inc.
Monterey, California

Founder, Bracher Center for Integrity in Leadership

Author, Integrity Matters

Q: How did you become involved in the produce industry?

A: Late in 2001 a long-term client of ours, Dan Halloran [whose 40-year career included several international leadership positions at Motorola] and I were talking about what we thought was the overall deterioration of a value structure of society in which we had lived. We decided I was going to make the run down the road, obviously now with his help since his retirement from Motorola, to put together a book, and the subject would be on integrity because that is what we thought was in severe need of help.

As a consequence of the decision to write a book, which we had not yet called Integrity Matters, I began talking, as I often do when I want to get an idea off the ground, with several of my friends to gain insight in this area. They were in the agribusiness industry… in fact leaders in the agribusiness industry and I asked them how they operated over the years.

They talked about the verbal handshake, which I had never heard of before, and I said I’d like to learn more about this. So we set up a series of conversations with these folks in agribusiness, and the purpose was to find out how fresh fruits and vegetables moved around the country and around the world.

What we found out was produce has to move so quickly because, as the expression goes in your industry, sell it or smell it. If you don’t have time for formal written contracts, it has to be word-of-mouth and has to be on the basis that your word is your bond. I found that to be terribly interesting.

In the course of those conversations, I asked those folks what were some of the primary elements that made their industry successful. They said there has to be a consistency with what you say and what you do. That’s where the word character comes from, and you have to be honest about it. If you don’t tell people how much it’s going to cost them or how much you’re going to pay them, they won’t do business with you. They explained, “We don’t have time to come back for four or five negotiations. It’s got to be quick and straight-forward.”

The whole openness has to do with the importance of knowing what the ground rules are for how you move fruits and vegetables around the world and what quality you’re giving or you won’t be able to get the job done.

That’s how the conversation started and it evolved into probably 13 or 14 attributes, which we narrowed to the eight we built the book around. [Character, Honesty, Openness, Authority, Partnership, Performance, Charity, Graciousness]. We learned these attributes from my friends and neighbors, who are leaders in the agribusiness industry, and who are described in some detail in Chapter 12.

Q: I didn’t realize that the whole premise of the book, the foundation and the eight attributes, came solely from the produce industry.

A: Yes, it was a consequence of these people. In my experience — and one of the fundamental processes that I use — if you get pretty smart people sitting down and working on a common issue, you can solve most problems.

The other thing I’ve found about the produce industry is folks have known each other so many years, they call each other on the carpet if one of them is exaggerating. And one of the guys said, Jim, we’re not that much better, we’re not as good as we say we are, we’re trying but we’re certainly anything but perfect, so don’t try to portray us as saintly because we’re not. We talk a better game than we play.

Q: Did you find the group homogenous or a mix of varied personalities and perspectives? Were you hearing from people representing different parts of the supply chain? Were they business partners or direct competitors and how did this influence the discussion…?

A: What’s interesting about the people sitting in the room is that some were competitors, some were suppliers, while others were customers. It’s an industry, where you find partners that are also competitors.

When you live in or near the Salinas Valley, you begin to learn how very sophisticated your world is. And the other thing I learned, which I thought was fascinating, is with the Blue Book and Red Book, how you monitor yourself, self-assess, self-evaluate, and self-regulate, you’re the only industry in the world that does this.

Q: I wasn’t aware we were the only industry with such a distinction…

A: If you can find another one let me know; we couldn’t and we poked around, so I may be wrong about that, but we found the industry unique in this way when we wrote the book. The produce industry is the only industry in the world that takes seriously integrity in their enterprise. I have tremendous respect for that.

Q: Can you talk about the practice of operating in an ethical way and with integrity. For example, to have a food safety culture, how does one make trade-offs?

A: I want to go really far afield before I come back home with this. It’s a real simple thing. You know I’m a theologian by education. What we learned somewhere along the line… there was a great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He talked about the categorical imperative. Philosophers make it really complicated, but my stock in trade is to make it as clear and simple as possible.

Here is what it means in a nutshell: if you want to do something, before you decide if it’s OK, would you encourage and allow anyone else to do the same thing, and if not, you need to regulate yourself and you probably shouldn’t do it. That’s the categorical imperative.

In the subject of behaving ethically, and I don’t like the word ethics as much as behaving with integrity, you darn well better make sure if you’re going to say it’s OK for you, you better say it’s ok for everyone. And if the answer is no, think about it.

The reason we got into Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, etc., is because if individuals and organizations will not regulate themselves, then government will have to. I don’t like regulation. I want to be able to do my own thing. On the other hand, the reason I hire police officers and pay for them with my taxes and other things is because we need to be regulated because we forget to control our own freedom. We don’t want to put other people at risk so we have those people remind us that we’re driving too fast, we’re not driving safely, we’re not driving sober, whatever we’re doing wrong…and we pay them to penalize us for not following our own rules that we’ve already accepted.

That’s how you behave with integrity. Set a structure in motion that will direct you and regulate you. That’s what makes your industry so interesting to me and that’s what makes behavior that is appropriate.

One of my clients once said to me, “I guess we shouldn’t do something we wouldn’t want our mothers to read about on the front page of the newspaper.” And yet, if you think about it, if you followed that precept, it sure would stop a lot of bad behavior.

Q: Everyone will have a different value system or threshold on what they think is behaving appropriately or acting with integrity… Take controversial issues such as abortion or the death penalty, or whether torturing prisoners is ever justified, etc.

A: At the point of your value system you’re faced with another value system, you need to stop and listen. If you’re unwilling and unable to give the other person the privilege of being heard, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, that disrespect puts up walls, increases friction and creates chaos. It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree but we have to open up that window of listening.

On our website on the home page, there’s an integrity arch page. The very first word on there is listening because it is the foundation for integrity, relationships and marriage, family, and business, church and life and politics. And that’s not what people are doing very well right now. They are not listening successfully to one another.

Q: You make it sound so simple…

A: It is simple. We complicate it because we don’t deal from the top of the deck.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Once we have a level of mistrust, we begin to hide the forthrightness and the openness; we begin to say one thing when we mean another. We don’t really mean that we’re honoring our obligations; we just say that’s important. We say everyone is accountable throughout the organization, but we have special spots for certain special people, and family members and people we’re trying to protect. We say we really care about other people with charity, but in fact it’s little more than marketing and promotion and it’s not really giving to others without strings attached, and we’re not really gracious. We’re not showing respect and we’re not showing discipline. When people start seeing the hypocrisy of leadership it gives them license to do it even further.

In the 1950s, men wore pants that were pegged. They were considered cool, really tight to the ankle and all the way up; women often had their hair on top of their head and sprayed it in a bouffant style. That’s what they did on the east coast and the west coast. By the time those trend-setters were copied in the Midwest the hairdos were three feet high and the people got out of the hot bathtubs with their pants on and they shrunk them on their bodies and almost had to cut them to get them off.

People who are following the leaders will outdo the leaders. And as a consequence, when you see the United States Senators treating each other shabbily, then the United States Representatives will show them they can treat them even worse, so by the time you get to the state houses, they practically have fist fights instead of conversations.

Monkey see, monkey do is not the right way to phrase it, but the facts are everyone wants to show their bosses that they’re doing what they’re told and they’re doing it even better and more extreme. Everyone wants to impress their boss, but they show them they can take it another step further. When people believe they can steal a paper clip, it becomes an envelope, then a computer, snowballing into unscrupulous acts. That is not integrity.

That’s how you move from intolerance in Germany to hatred. People start with simple misunderstandings, and it turns into the Hatfields and McCoys. When people begin making scurrilous comments of a neighbor about their race or sex, it then becomes a stereotype and proliferates into hatred and violence over time.

Q: Racist, sexist and anti-Semitic beliefs can be deeply embedded. Don’t most people who steal and cheat know what they are doing is wrong? It seems an uphill battle to rehabilitate people in such circumstances. I suppose there is a window of hope between taking home a few office supplies and embezzling stockholders’ money. Are you saying that if people start listening and treating others with graciousness and respect, acts of integrity will follow?

A: Absolutely. There are organizations I’ve walked into and you’ve walked into, and from the very first person you meet at the front desk and all the way through the organization, you’ll be treated a certain way. And it’s the darndest thing… the most gracious people I’ve ever met weren’t one way on one day and one way another day; they were consistent all the time. Consistency is important, and predictability.

Q: If we go back to the concept of having a food safety culture, an issue top of mind right now in our industry, how does one make trade-offs, say between producing more cheaper food to feed the world and increasing food safety? Is business ethics a matter of doing good, or more a matter of promise-keeping?

A: Remember, I don’t know much about business ethics. I know a fair amount about integrity. So I don’t use the word ethics much.

Q: Could you help define the difference between ethics and integrity, as I’ve been interchanging the two.

A: That’s your prerogative.

Q: Alas, it’s been somewhat inadvertent and I don’t want to misrepresent the meaning…

A: You can work up your own definition of ethics, I’m not sure I have one for you.

Integrity is consistency between word and deed and exhibits itself in the character of the folks who are leading and guiding or participating in the organization; the consistency of what you say and what you do. And then it is exhibited by the leaders who provide the example.

We’re talking about trade-offs, I’m not sure that’s the right question. The key is if you’re not providing safe food, then you’re already in trouble.

Q: The problem with that doctrine is that at least in the produce industry you can never guarantee 100 percent you’ll have safe food. In fact if you have zero tolerance for a food safety problem you might as well not produce or for that matter eat any food at all. You can try to implement good agricultural practices, conduct stringent test-and-hold programs, etc.

Isn’t it about the levels at which you do these practices and the costs and benefits of different actions that creates the dilemma? One issue is whether FDA should have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to food safety. You could sell a million bags of healthful, nutritious salad, but if there is a possibility that one bag could cause someone to get sick, do you recall and destroy them all?

A: That might not be as much an issue of integrity as of intelligence. You know, zero defects is really a great concept, or Six Sigma quality, which you know a lot about because you’re in the food safety world, but at what point does it become so extreme that it destroys the ability to produce anything?

I spent a lot of time doing consulting in the high technology world. That’s where I learned my craft of leadership development. Generally there is a tension between the engineers and the designers and the marketers. You know exactly where this conversation’s going. At what point is the product good enough to take to the marketplace or do we let the engineers and designers tinker with it until we go bankrupt waiting till we get something that’s perfect?

Now I don’t know if that relates to food safety, but I think there comes a point where we have to say we have enough to make the majority of people healthy but there will be mistakes made. I don’t know how else to say it. Am I happy about that? No. But your point is we have to have balance and we have to have standards. The first thing is… if everybody made everything perfect there wouldn’t have to be standards. Because individuals weren’t acting with standards, we had to set up regulations, after my mantra. Unless or until individuals or organizations regulate themselves, government will. And that’s what you’re talking about.

Q: Even if 99 percent of the industry is doing things right, you still can have one bad apple…

A: Exactly. There was a movie that’s not fashionable anymore. It was called The Dirty Dozen with Lee Marvin. He was given this impossible assignment to go deal with knocking out a particular Nazi stronghold behind enemy lines, and he was given a whole bunch of people who were all condemned to death for heinous crimes. Those were his dirty dozen soldiers. And the way he kept them together was to say, “If anyone of you tries to break out and leave us, you’ll all go back and have your sentences carried out immediately.” So all together or we all fail. Now that’s one illustration of how to get quality control.

Another one was by a friend of mine who recently died. As a general at Fort Benning, Georgia, he taught people how to jump out of airplanes as paratroopers. I asked him if with all those parachutes out there, did any of them ever fail? He said, no. How did you do that? He said it was very simple. Every day he would walk into the area where people were packing parachutes and doing their jobs. John would pack 150 parachutes and they would be in this section, and Sue would pack 150 parachutes and they would be in this section.

He’d walk up to Sue and say I want you to go into John’s section and put chute number 29 on your back, and John you go to Sue’s section and do the same. And they’d have to jump out of the airplane. They’d be real careful about which chutes they’d pack and how well, because they never knew when they’d have to use one of their own parachutes to save their lives… pretty interesting way to get quality control; putting the responsibility to the very front line person.

Q: I don’t know if it speaks to the heart of integrity, but when people feel they are part of the process and their input counts in shaping important outcomes, they’re often more enthusiastic about doing their job and doing right by the company. Here you are describing steps to create an environment that fosters integrity?

Tell us more about your efforts to build integrity within organizations and industries. What has happened since your early meetings with produce executives? Are there targeted actions underway?

A: The meetings we held had to do with ag leadership in the Salinas Valley. That is what led me to the Blue Book. Jim Carr, who is the President/CEO of the Blue Book, went to the same little high school as me in Missouri and we didn’t know each other then! At the time the book was written, I was writing a newspaper column in the Salinas Californian, which I put on sabbatical for the past year. But during that time, it was when the spinach crisis hit.

I wrote a story about the produce folks eating the entire amount of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, because it was the right thing to do. Now was that ethical? I don’t know. If there were stockholders involved they might have gotten ticked off. But was it the right thing to do with respect to integrity so that all the customers would know that they could depend on these people to watch out for their health and their food safety? You’re darn right. Did it turn out to be a great reputation builder? Absolutely. This is the Tylenol case in the produce industry — eat short term profits for long-term viability of your integrity.

Q: In the case of the spinach crisis, the FDA gave a blanket warning to consumers not to eat any spinach, which even affected areas not in production at the time of the problem. It was a wake-up call. The industry essentially came to a screeching halt and sales plummeted. Leaders took aggressive steps to self-regulate through the California Leafy Greens Agreement, and now a proposal for a National Leafy Greens Agreement is underway.

A: It may have been an ethical act or unethical act; in this case it was ethical, but the process was one of integrity. In terms of FDA’s action, the sweeping ban on spinach sounds naïve because there was no structure in place. That doesn’t make FDA bad; it just didn’t know what it was doing.

Q: It also didn’t weigh the impact of its actions….

A: The spinach scare exemplifies how the government has no understanding of unintended consequences. When you back out of the garage incorrectly, you hit a tree and damage your car; when the government hits a tree it raises taxes. The government has never been held accountable for irresponsible behavior. If farmers grow bad crops, they go bankrupt. If the post office doesn’t operate efficiently, it increases the cost of postage stamps.

Q: Could you discuss the concepts of ethics and integrity further? People often throw these words around…

A: I can try. One goes to certain sources of wisdom for their values, that’s where one gets their ethical principles, but how they apply those ethical principles is integrity. A lot of people say they are ethical; that they have great ethics. But what you watch them do is key. You know, how nice those folks look on Sundays doesn’t impress me, it’s how you behave Monday through Saturday that’s important. I was concerned not with how they professed their values but how they took actions on them. Integrity has to do with what you do, not what you say.

Q: Actions speak louder than words essentially. Integrity is how you live your life.

A: I think integrity has become a punch line in cocktail conversation. It’s a clever thing to talk about but it’s not something people really want to do much about. We went from WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers and that group of clowns to Bernie Madoff, who is an absolute classic. It’s a funny name for a guy who made off with billions.

Q: And he epitomized lack of integrity by stealing from charities…

A: Madoff took money from extremely sophisticated financiers. It’s like PT Barnum — ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’ — and W.C. Fields — ‘never give a sucker an even break.’ And honest to goodness it’s true. People want the easy money. And anytime there’s easy money, it’s not so easy. That’s what’s going on. Every time people want success without work that’s where we get into trouble. Promotions without perspiration, it’s a great concept but it doesn’t work.

Q: Will there always be people like Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff?

A: As long s we’re breathing. Did you want to go to Cane and Abel or did you want to go earlier? We’ve been hosing people since Adam and Eve and the snake. It just doesn’t change. Human nature is what it is. We have all these books around the world, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucius…and they’re all looking for the same thing, the same solution, how do we live better with each other, to stop the world from killing everybody. This is not new stuff.

Q: What’s even more amazing to me with the Madoff Ponzi scheme is how the SEC had blinders on, despite mounting evidence all those years. What accounts for that? Was it incompetence, denial or something more sinister?

A: It’s more than incompetence. People have turned their heads and looked the other way. Remember when the Challenger blew up? There was a problem with welding on the seal, but people kept hiding it. It’s not my job, it’s not my responsibility, more worried about crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s. It’s not my problem…

Look at pork-barrel spending. I want something for Connecticut, so I’ll give you a bridge to nowhere. Partisan politics is alive and well. I saw a bumper sticker recently and became completely disillusioned. It said, “I will treat your president the way you treated mine.” That’s the indictment about how we look upon our society, no character, no honesty.

Q: So where do we go from here? Are there action steps the industry can take that can make a difference?

A: Until such time as we have enough of what I call the key top leaders who will put the organization before their own egos and own self-centered needs, we will never change the way people behave. It will all be Band-Aids. We’re talking about a core change in operating style.

I don’t do politics because that’s inappropriate. But we have got to find a time when we begin to look at the institutions that forge our lives with a higher level of respect or we’re absolutely doomed for a repetition of what we’re doing. And we’re doing it regularly.

This crisis is not new. In our book, we talk about the fact that in the late 1700’s we had land grabbers, in the late 1800’s the steel barons, and the end of the 20th century the financial wizards, so about every hundred years at least in the United States, we decide to have integrity take a holiday, and it’s been on holiday again and we haven’t gotten it back yet…

Now you asked about food quality and safety. At what point can any organization in the fruit and vegetable business afford to be casual about food quality? At what point are they willing to compromise their reputation for finances?

Q: But the fact of the matter is, even if you take away ethics and morals, the produce industry can’t operate if food is not safe. It’s one reason why the industry looks to self-regulate. They’re out of business if they don’t. And even if a problem is isolated it can bring the whole industry down…

A: My own mother before she died was in a hospital in the Midwest. She was taking something like 50 pills a day. We brought her to a gerontologist and reduced it to 4 pills.

I don’t think any of the physicians working with her in the Midwest were bad people. They didn’t understand the consequences of what this drug did to this part of the body and how it counteracted with that drug and that drug, and by the time you’re done, her body had to be doing cartwheels inside just to wait for the next six chemicals to be zipping through her blood stream.

Q: That could be lack of medical knowledge and misdiagnosis; an overabundance of caution, perhaps to avoid a lawsuit; a structural information breakdown, all part of a bigger problem with the entire healthcare system, etc…

A: It’s also an example of how doctors push pills rather than solve problems. The doctors and agencies are passing on structure rather than dealing with the issues. It’s easier to put on a Band Aid and it doesn’t require nearly the analysis of unintended consequences.

I’m not asking for laissez faire, not a chance. That’s not the issue. Going back to the categorical imperative, before you act, you best think through the consequences. I don’t know about you, but I’ve made mistakes every day by not anticipating unintended consequences.

Q: I’m with you on that…

A: If on the other hand, we hang out with people who will call us on the carpet, when we do that, we have a better chance of regulating ourselves and we won’t have wars and chaos and confusion. It is not only surrounding people with whom you have respect, but also with people that have the willingness and courage to tell it like it is and not always tell us what we want to hear. That’s important.

One action step would be to bring industry leaders together in a process to build on these principles. Your industry is at a point now that it has a lot of the intelligence to solve the problems. You want to regulate yourselves. The more of that you can anticipate as a profession as a grouping as a core discipline, the less likely it will be you have outside supervision jumping on top of you. That would be the magic for what I would like to see for your industry.

My role would only be as an architect on ways to help make sure people are able to keep control of their own industry. Otherwise you’re going to drive people out that need to be in it.

People turn to the Perishable Pundit for advice and council. Jim Prevor is already seen as a source of wisdom for the industry. You folks have an absolute library of information. I’m a mechanic to draw people into conversations for people to listen to each other more efficiently. That’s my “value add.” And then with the wisdom of a Jim, we then take that and create practical guidelines for the industry.

The people in the geography of Florida with the fruits and vegetables they grow there have a different mentality than those in the Salinas Valley. You need to have cluster groups solving problems where they are. You’re gathering the leaders and setting into motion the kind of thinking that reduces problems, and increases productivity. These folks are looking for colleagues with common issues they can share them with.

Are you familiar with the Young President’s Organization? The YPO gathers presidents under the age of 40, and they go to conferences of interest to them and important to their profession. PMA and trade shows are all fine, but there is always more we can do. I recently met with someone 77 years old who owns a produce company. He said, ‘I don’t want to lose involvement with our business, I just don’t want to be there every day making decisions.’

There are a lot of people really smart who would dearly love to be engaged in these kinds of issues. My first rule: get smart people in a room and listen to them.

Q: Have you had any recent meetings with industry leaders on issues of integrity?

A: Unfortunately no. In this regard I feel like an abject failure; When you called, I got excited because this is sitting like a little piece of gold waiting to be pulled out of the ground.

Q: When I speak with leaders in the produce industry, they are good-natured and charitable. I’ve written for many industries, and produce people seem the most genuine and well-intentioned.

A: Using the Salinas Valley as an example, if not for growers and shippers in this area a lot of charities would be out of business today. If you’re an attorney, a banker, medical doctor, a consultant, a writer, a teacher, any of these professions, if you do a bad job, you can put everything in the trunk of your car and drive to another town.

If you do a bad job as a farmer, you can’t put 20,000 acres in your car and drive away; you’re tied to the soil and geography, and you cannot afford to have a bad reputation. That is why agribusiness is such an important foundation for American society. There is no other industry like it. .

It’s a fabulous industry. As a consequence, I saw the agribusiness world as the reigniting of American society around the subject of integrity because you’re as good as we have. You’re the best industry I know. If you can name one better, get back to me. It won’t be banking, it won’t be medicine; God knows it won’t be law and politics.

Q: You bring up the idea of medicine. Think of someone devoting their life to healing people… Isn’t that high on the integrity scale?

A: No. They’re devoting their lives to seeing how many tests they can run to increase their revenues so they can pay their exorbitant malpractice insurance and to have a better car and a bigger vacation spot. That’s what I see. And the drug companies are no better… that’s not what we want out of medicine.

Q: While there is disagreement about how to go about healthcare reform, couldn’t some of these issues be improved by revamping the system?

A: The fresh fruits and vegetable industry is unique. I do think we could find the agrarian business model to be the renewal of the American society. That is what inspired this book Integrity Matters, and what Chapter 12 is about. I see agribusiness as the key to our society.

In the olden days, I was a minister at a church in Greenwich, Connecticut. They asked me when I was being interviewed for the position what experiences I had in my career that would qualify me to become the minister at their church? Now I have been a Chaplin in various affluent Parishes, but I said actually the thing that most qualifies me is a summer I spent in a rural Parish in the Ozarks of Missouri.

The farmers got up before dawn to go out on their tractors to plow the fields, just like the members of this parish get on the train to work in New York City, both coming back exhausted after a hard day’s work. I failed to be seduced by the superficial. I would be a great advocate for your industry.

I could envision an integrity leadership conference. If the folks in your industry realized they were the ones that could reshape society, they would be more interested in putting some energy into this. I would see this as a consortium of industry leaders and construct a white paper we take on the road to various geographies and bring those people up to speed and then we create a new handbook on integrity and effectiveness in the ag industry.

There’s a book to put out on this. They give us the practical problem and we come back with the application. We’re giving an architecture and framework. We’re laying the template. We wrote the eight attributes around the agribusiness and what they meant to farmers.

Q: In this global world then, people might need to jump outside themselves and their own experiences to understand the attributes that have meaning in other cultures. For example an attribute of character in doing business in the U.S. might be different in Japan.

A: Some people call it the platinum rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them. In parts of Africa, after you eat you burp. You burp in other parts of the world and they’re going to call you an animal.

It goes back to empathy and our definition of listening: We say listening is the art of moving beyond one’s need to control the agenda. Listening creates a conversational context for give-and-take that prospers when inquiring supersedes influence. Listening seeks clarity and expedites insight. Listening creates partnership and commitment. Listening is the key for organizational effectiveness and leadership.

That’s what I spent most of my career doing, pounding on hard-headed executives and their egos saying listen. There’s too much righteousness. Watch for the people that are too sanctimonious. They usually are the most hypocritical. When you find a truth-teller you better hold on to them.

Q: You have spoken so graciously about the executives in our industry, especially as they’ve been going through some rough times lately… What words of advice could you leave them with to contemplate?

A: It’s a great industry. The produce industry is the only industry on the face of the earth that makes an effort to discipline and police itself. There should be consequences for non-compliance and rewards for compliance.

How important is integrity in your business? I keep reminding people of doing it right the first time. We’re always in such a hurry, looking at how many corners we can cut. When you pack your parachute right you survive, so I tell people to pack your chute and enjoy the ride.

There is the symbolic story of Diogenes in Athens, Greece, holding up a lantern in search of an honest person and never finding one. We can’t delude ourselves. Integrity doesn’t matter to too many people. It doesn’t mean we don’t keep the model out. The real challenge for acting with integrity is for each of us to have our lantern lit and make sure others are lit to do the same things.

Mr. Bracher doesn’t like the word “Ethics” and prefers “Integrity” — although we suppose that we would stick with “Moral Responsibility” — after all, that is what the Blue Book has long used as its ratings key.

Though there are other industries in which trust plays an important role — just study the diamond district in New York City and you will learn that millions of dollars of merchandise changes hands without written contract — the operators of these businesses are often geographically compact and bound to one another through kinship, religion or other ties.

So produce, if not precisely unique, is certainly exceptional. We recall starting out in the family business and being somewhat amazed that on no more than a phone call, companies would have many trailers of fruit rolling to our warehouse at Hunts Point or a pier for export.

Although being a man of one’s word is important — indeed might define integrity — it comes nowhere near encompassing moral responsibility. To us, moral responsibility had a lot to do with how one would choose to behave when unexpected situations arose. In these cases, there had been no promises, so truth-telling isn’t a useful guide.

As a receiver, we found we had various legal rights to reject product if it didn’t meet contractual or legal standards. But doing so would have resulted in tremendous losses for the shipper. They may not have had an alternative contact to sell it to, there was a heavy freight investment that made returning the product impractical and just a whisper on the street about distressed merchandise could lower its value 80%.

So if we received product that didn’t make grade and we couldn’t sell it to the intended customer, we would work closely with the shipper to job it out a case or two at a time to maximize returns, sometimes accepting a commission concession, once in a while, when a good supplier was really in trouble, we even worked for free.

Mr. Bracher calls upon Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative as support for this kind of behavior. Its most well-known formulation is as such:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.””

One powerful critique of the Kantian theory was that the universality of it led to seemingly bizarre results. So if a suicide bombing terrorist comes by asking where a lot of Americans congregate so he can go kill them, since the categorical imperative makes truth-telling universal, you can’t lie to the terrorist and send him into the police station instead.

Kant agreed with this idea because moral behavior is not, in his view, determined by consequences.

The Pundit Grandparents probably had never read Kant, but they too had moral standards and to them, such careful reasoning was overkill. One behaves with a load that can be rejected as one behaves with everything else, as a mensch.

We confess to finding in Mr. Bracher’s interview a charming, yet quite disputable, notion that we are all in this together. When Mr. Bracher says:

The reason we got into Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, etc., is because if individuals and organizations will not regulate themselves, then government will have to.

We do find ourselves contemplating the existence of evil. Humans have their frailties, but a person like Madoff, what makes him so horrible is, as Elie Wiesel said, “the inhumanity in this man.” So our institutions are not just there to help people to discipline themselves, they are there to fight evil.

Mr. Bracher walks a slippery slope in attributing virtue to necessity. He explains:

I was writing a newspaper column in the Salinas Californian, which I put on sabbatical for the past year. But during that time, it was when the spinach crisis hit.

I wrote a story about the produce folks eating the entire amount of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, because it was the right thing to do. Now was that ethical? I don’t know. If there were stockholders involved they might have gotten ticked off. But was it the right thing to do with respect to integrity so that all the customers would know that they could depend on these people to watch out for their health and their food safety? You’re darn right. Did it turn out to be a great reputation builder? Absolutely. This is the Tylenol case in the produce industry — eat short term profits for long-term viability of your integrity.

Although we appreciated the pat on the back for the industry, it is pretty clear that the companies in the spinach business took a big hit — not because they were trying to be the Tylenol of the produce industry — but because they had no choice. The trade buyers wouldn’t pay or would bill back for the product removed from the shelf.

We wonder if, in general, Mr Bracher is not too dismissive of normal human traits:

You know, how nice those folks look on Sundays doesn’t impress me, it’s how you behave Monday through Saturday that’s important.

This is obviously valid, but most people are not moral philosophers and virtue is, as Aristotle taught us, a product of habit. So practicing being virtuous is an important step toward becoming virtuous.

We also think it wise to distinguish between things that may not be optimal but are not really matters of ethics or integrity:

Look at pork-barrel spending. I want something for Connecticut, so I’ll give you a bridge to nowhere. Partisan politics is alive and well.

Politics is really just the way we all get along. Precisely how should the representatives from Connecticut and Alaska resolve their differences? Partisan politics is really a matter of having permanent alliances, which may or may not produce a great outcome but are morally unobjectionable.

And we really should be cautious about disparaging whole categories of people:

Q: You bring up the idea of medicine. Think of someone devoting their life to healing people… Isn’t that high on the integrity scale?

A: No. They’re devoting their lives to seeing how many tests they can run to increase their revenues so they can pay their exorbitant malpractice insurance and to have a better car and a bigger vacation spot. That’s what I see. And the drug companies are no better… that’s not what we want out of medicine.

This is more than a little unfair. The Pundit’s brother-in-law is a professor at NYU’s Medical School; he also maintains a clinical practice. He doesn’t act or think this way. Besides, what do we want out of medicine? We suspect a bunch of self-proclaimed altruists motivated solely by their desire to help their fellow man would be rather dangerous. Perhaps we should keep in mind Nobel Laureate Freidrich August von Hayek’s passage in the Constitution of Liberty:

“The greatest danger to liberty today comes from the men who are most needed and most powerful in modern government, namely, the efficient expert administrators exclusively concerned with what they regard as the public good.”

We share with James Bracher a warm regard for the people of this industry. The perishable nature of the product, the likelihood that things will go wrong, has, almost as if in a process of natural selection, led to a rejection of most knaves and scoundrels.

Now, whatever the moral caliber of the industry, on average, this tells us nothing about any individual’s moral fiber. And today much of the produce industry is not farming, so even Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God…” doesn’t fully explain it. Yet, for the most part, a few scoundrels aside, we have, mirabile dictu, an industry of remarkably strong moral responsibility.

The question still open is whether the culture that grew in a unique milieu of product, place and people can be transported to other places that have very different characteristics.

Many thanks to James Bracher for helping us think through such important issues.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Latest from Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit