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Perishable Thoughts —
The Supremacy Of Character

We’ve run several pieces lately that focus on character. In this piece, we included a famous exchange that JP Morgan had when testifying before a Senate committee:

Untermeyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?
Morgan: No, sir, the first thing is character.
Untermeyer: Before money or property?
Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it… Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.

The other day we wrote a piece focusing on what PMA’s new PMA Foundation for Industry Talent was doing to attract new personnel to the industry, and we wound up focusing on the personal integrity involved in not going along with the crowds and the great difficulty in regulating good behavior in the absence of personal ethics.

We pointed to the University of Pennsylvania and its motto Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, which translates as “Laws without morals are useless.”

As we visit Orlando this year for the PMA convention, there is a bit of the flavor of going to Philadelphia in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. We don’t want to overplay the comparison — after all, people died on 9/11 — but the financial crisis that we have chronicled here has created uncertainty and, in uncertainty, people have a yearning for connection.

That is why we suspect that this year’s PMA convention, despite troubling economic times, will likely draw a record attendance — certainly for an east coast show.

We hadn’t started the Pundit yet in 2001, but in some ways the Pundit could be said to have started then. For the first time in our company’s history, we sent a mass e-mail to every e-mail address we had to urge people to attend PMA in spite of the times, perhaps even because of the times. You can read the e-mail here.

It was in the community, the outpouring of response from around the world to that e-mail, that the genesis of the Perishable Pundit can be found.

In a time of financial uncertainty, we will all learn how lucky we are.

The obvious reason is because we are in the food business. When times are tough, the distinction between discretionary and non-discretionary expenditures means a lot. Once again, we don’t want to make too much of this… certain sectors of the industry, such as those that serve the foodservice sector, are already hurting and badly… still, on the whole, things have to get pretty bad before people respond by eating less food.

The other reason we are fortunate to be in this business is that the nature of the trade tends to drive out of the business those without scruples. In a business where the “abnormal” — a frozen load, a missing driver, cooked product, etc., etc. — is an everyday occurrence, you just can’t do business with people who would look to take advantage. Many years ago, the Blue Book institutionalized this perception by creating Moral Responsibility ratings for the industry and incorporating these ratings in credit reports.

With e-mail and electronic interfaces, the trade has changed, yet we are old enough to remember as a teenager being told by the Pundit Papa to pick up the phone and order a few trailers of apples or oranges or carrots, and the fact that Mike Prevor’s son was on the phone placing an order was all they needed to start the loads rolling.

Although some people are just evil, there are many people who do things they would rather not do under the exigencies of circumstance. It is in declining markets that receivers may become scrupulous about product meeting all specifications. So during tough times, people take tougher attitudes.

This strikes us as a good reason to go to conventions, to go to an event such as PMA. It gives one an unequaled chance to take the measure of a man.

Perhaps it is in times of difficulty that we really see what men are made of. A famous clergyman and civil rights leader put it this way:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

— Martin Luther King Jr.
Strength to Love, 1963
US civil rights leader & clergyman (1929 — 1968)

We were discussing some of these issues with Bryan Silbermann, President of the Produce Marketing Association. Bryan and the Pundit share a monthly column in PRODUCE BUSINESS, so we have discussed many issues, including these:

Marketplace Perception vs. Reality (part 1) Food Safety / Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Marketplace Perception vs. Reality (part 2) Organics / Perceptions Can Be Changed

The Zen Of Dining Out Healthfully / What Does ‘Fresh’ Mean?

Confidence Rising, Caution Necessary / Don’t Ignore Low-Consumption Users

Finding Our Way To Innovation / A Blessing And A Curse

Mumbai Magic / Country of Contradictions

Something About May / The Rest of the Story

Pondering Produce Marketing / Five Challenges to Marketing

Citizenship, Courage and Character / The Strenuous Life

Market Disruption: Challenge Or Opportunity? / Look Beyond The Industry

Making Sense Of Sustainability / Economy May Affect Behavior

People of good will often disagree on the substance of issues and, often, our exchanges are lively. Yet we agree on one thing: It is the exceptional character of the individuals making up this industry that defines it and makes it — in good times and bad — an exceptional privilege and pleasure to earn one’s livelihood in its confines.

Each year at PMA, Bryan, as President of the Association, gives a general session presentation as he will do again this Friday. In these times that try men’s souls, count on Bryan making an important point about character.

Even if you arrived in Orlando not registered for the general session and seminars, one can still upgrade on site or buy a pass just for one day’s events. To do so demonstrates a commitment to learning and engagement with your peers and the industry at large. Such a commitment expresses a strength of character all its own.

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