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PMA’s Fresh Summit Triumph And New Commitment To Educating Women

The PMA convention in Anaheim was undoubtedly a triumph. There were more people — more than 21,000, according to PMA — nearly 3,000 more than ever have attended before. The new format, a day of workshops followed by two days of the trade show, was well received with traffic heavy throughout the show. The PMA/United imbroglio was finessed, with both David Krause at United’s Washington Public Policy Conference and Rich Dachman at Fresh Summit saying pretty words to try to smooth things over. United, which emerged stronger as a result of the talks — causing firms to reassess what they really want from a trade association — bought a booth at the PMA show to promote membership and its various activities.

There is so much at PMA that it is like a vast field filled with hidden gems behind every corner. Eboni Wall holds the position of Senior Director of Events at PMA, but she must have felt like a Dowager Empress for her “baby” this year. Not only was the Women’s Fresh Perspectives event terrific, with speaker Vernice “Fly Girl” Armour literally transforming herself from military to civilian before the audience, but that small event, which Eboni has shepherded over its six years, has now blossomed into a separate conference, the Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference, which PMA will be conducting in 2013.

Triumph must be acknowledged. This year PMA launched a new award, the Carey Leadership award, the first of which was won by Mike O’Brien, Vice President of Produce and Floral at Schnuck Markets, Inc. Bob Carey was the longtime chief executive of PMA, and it was under his leadership that the PMA convention went from a small trade show to the giant event it is today. He also had the wisdom to develop an internal candidate for succession, Bryan Silbermann, now President and CEO at PMA. Bryan was a controversial choice to succeed Bob. He was deemed by many too much of a technocrat, but he was awarded the position, and you have to give the man all the credit in the world because PMA has continued to grow and prosper.

Of course, projection of trends into the future is far from certain, and we sensed some strains. For example, PMA changed Bryan Silbermann’s annual State of the Industry message to be a panel discussion — oddly following the same format that United’s Tom Stenzel uses for his annual keynote. We didn’t ask — a wise man once said “ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies” — but it came across to us as a consequence of the PMA/United talks. We have done similar “state of the industry” type talks and they take months to prepare well. It felt to us as if, with the intensity of the PMA/United talks, Bryan just didn’t have time to do his normal bit and so they improvised this solution.

It really didn’t make sense otherwise. From a substantive standpoint, none of the panelists said anything that couldn’t have been incorporated into Bryan’s typical address, and from a branding standpoint, it reduced the uniqueness of PMA’s offering as lots of people can participate in a panel — it is a special talent to be able to do a state-of-the industry address. In a sense, the same technocratic qualities that made some doubt Bryan could do the back-slapping job of being an association leader were now being underutilized.

In some cases, the long term implications of things are uncertain. Reducing the show to two days from three and increasing the show hours is clearly popular with exhibitors and even with the key PMA retailers and board members who felt pressure to support the slow third-day by being there. Yet, in the end, we doubt that compressing the event will make it more influential in the produce world. How can it? The bottom line is that the key components of PMA’s Fresh Summit event are A) The Trade Show, B) Education, C) Networking, and D) Private Meetings. With one less day, there is inevitably fewer hours. So something has to give. This won’t impact most people, as most never stay from opening to close, in previous years or even now. But for those who do stay for the whole event, or for those whose schedules had a conflict on an early date of Fresh Summit but decided to come late because this third day still justified the trip — the constriction of time reduces the opportunities.

PMA’s biggest competitor in the battle for most influential event in the world of produce is actually not United or other US shows — it is Fruit Logistica. The trade show portion of that event lasts three days. Over long periods of time, these things impact people’s experience and that often has unintended consequences.

The new Women’s Fresh Perspective Conference will surely be extremely successful. Sponsorship money will flow like water as companies trip over themselves to make clear they stand on the side of female executives. Equally, large companies will loathe to turn down requests from their female executives to attend such an event. As for the female executives, the program quality will probably be high; the networking exceptional and, well, lots of time women enjoy being together and don’t really want men around. This is why fraternities and sororities continue long after co-ed dorms became the norm.

We will, of course, wait to see the final program before coming to any conclusions, but we have to say we are skeptical that attending “female executive” programs is actually the best thing for female executives. If a woman wants to be a top executive, she could read a specialized women’s business magazine but she would probably help her career more if she read The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune and Business Week — in other words, the same things that male business executives read.

There are, of course, some special issues that women face in the workplace, just as there are special issues African-Americans face in the workplace and Jews face in the workplace — nobody is saying that these shouldn’t be addressed. For the most part, however, the issues required to be successful in business have to do with, well, business, not gender, and thus the training and education focus should be there.

In universities all across the country, individuals “ghettoize” themselves in Africana and Women’s study programs, and it provides the students with few opportunities. We once mentioned an article in The New York Times titled Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt which profiled a woman who graduated from NYU with a Women’s Studies degree and 100 thousand in debt and was struggling to find a job. PMA has its Thunderbird program; United has its Cornell program. We hope that companies in the industry will be as quick to support a female executive who wishes to attend these programs as a program that happens to have “women” in its title.

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