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PMA/United Merger Dilemma:
A Two-Track Proposal

As the past weekend approached, both United and PMA sent out to each of their respective members another of their issue updates, this one dealing with the salmonella outbreak. Both were virtually identical, and I received copies of both from various industry members complaining again of waste and duplication.

As we reported here, many industry members see these virtually identical issue alerts as evidence of duplication of efforts and waste of industry funds. Association executives must scratch their heads when they read that. After all, the associations now work together closely to make sure they are communicating the same message and everyone is on the same page.

They doubtless feel frustrated with a kind of “damned if you, damned if you don’t” feeling. If they don’t coordinate, and each does its own thing, they will get chastised for not having a unified message. If they do send out single messages, they get attacked for being duplicative.

The problem, of course, is that we can’t really ask association executives to resolve this problem that the industry creates by sustaining two associations with vague differentiation between them.

Reading the sentiments of those who are e-mailing me, the core objection is not that they want each association to have its own message; it is that they don’t want to pay to have the same thing sent to them twice. In fact, even the notion of the associations “coordinating,” though better than the alternative of giving conflicting stories, is distasteful as it implies paying two people or two teams to spend their time coordinating.

One wonders if anyone has ever tracked the cost in staff time of all the meetings, phone conversations, e-mails, letters and faxes that must be involved in all this coordinating.

We’ve been dealing with the issue of possible merger of PMA and United here, here, here, here and here.

It strikes me that this little issue on the e-mails is pointing to a real understanding of what the industry is groping toward.

Compromise Versus Separate Spheres

The Pundit once read a study in which couples that had been married for many years and some that didn’t make it were questioned to ascertain the secrets to a successful marriage.

Going into the study, the researchers expected that the key to success would be an ability to compromise, negotiate out disagreements, work issues through. They were shocked to find that those couples that had succeeded at marriage did very little compromising. It turned out that the process of negotiation was too time-consuming and difficult and the end product often satisfied neither husband nor wife.

The most successful marriages had a division of labor in which each spouse had a “sphere of authority” and the other spouse bowed to their husband’s or wife’s expertise in this area.

So to use some traditional gender roles, a family in which the husband took care of the investments and money and the wife decorated the house and made decisions about the children’s education was more likely to be a happy marriage than a family that had to negotiate every decision. Now the corollary to this, of course, is that spouses had to have mutual respect and feel comfortable that their spouse would handle their “sphere of influence” well.

And that strikes us as what the industry is really saying at this point. Coordination is fine, but it takes too many resources and, perhaps, doesn’t always return optimum results either.

This leaves exactly three alternatives:

  1. A merger so the industry only sustains one organization.
  2. A clear differentiation between organizations — so that, for example, activities are divided by functional area or membership type. So one association simply won’t do government relations and another won’t do education and training. Or one communicates with growers but not retailers.
  3. A consortium for certain functions. So the industry sustains two groups but they cede certain functions to a consortium, so neither association handles, for example, food safety; that function would be handled by a new entity.

These are all theoretical possibilities but, practically, some seem unobtainable. The core issue: It is not as if each association has an identical membership that can divvy up the responsibilities or the money of the industry.

Most PMA members, for example, are not members of United.

Which points to a possible solution. Here at the Pundit, we belong to many organizations. Some maintain a dual structure in which there is a local chapter and a national organization. When one joins, a certain percentage of one’s dues automatically go to the local chapter with the rest staying with the national organization.

What if we sustain one national organization, augment it with the strengths of the other and form an affiliated organization to represent regional interests of growers?

Here’s the Pundit’s specific suggestion: Sustain the successful business model of PMA but augment it with United’s very successful programs such as the Leadership Program, respected technical/scientific department and a D.C. office for lobbying and government relations. United’s very successful field outreach program, with people such as Jeff Oberman (recipient of the PRODUCE BUSINESS 40 under 40 award), would also be continued.

At the same time, a separate “Congress of United Fruit and Vegetable Growers of America” would be founded and housed in the D.C. office of the new association. Existing strong grower groups, such as Western Growers Association, Texas Produce Association and Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, would be included as well as other regional groups with an assurance that every state in the union has a regional representative.

Then, the new national organization would cede government affairs for any grower-specific issues and dedicate to the regionals, say, 50% of the dues paid by growers.

This would end duplication, yet secure a financial stream to support the interests of growers.

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