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Pundit’s Mailbag — Leadership

I am so frustrated by what I call the ‘spreadsheet mentality’ of some key industry operatives (both suppliers and buyers). So many kids can make an Excel sheet sing and get management kudos for the short run, but they absolutely forget that it was the product itself that got the end user to enjoy the product. Everything else is merely how you count the money. Somehow, the passion is gone. I know I’m not alone in saying this is a pet peeve of mine.

Where are the Spezzano’s, the DiPiazza’s, the Misasi’s, the Eldredges?

I LOVE coming to work in the morning. I absolutely cannot wait to see what we, as an industry, can do to make this world a better place. How many of my Gen-X colleagues share that same passion? I challenge some of our top association people with this missive all the time. They tell me that I am missing many of these people. If so, they aren’t showing me the type of leadership that made this industry grand.

I don’t know. I happen to really like this writer, who has worked hard for the industry, and I consider him a friend, but I confess I read the letter and I hear a little bit of Paul Lynde in Bye Bye Birdie singing “What’s the matter with kids today?”

There is no question that the industry has a lot of up-and-coming leaders. Look at a guy like Jim Lemke at C.H. Robinson, who is not even 40 and runs one of the most forward thinking groups in the industry. There is a lot of leadership in positioning an organization like that, and he still makes time to serve on the board of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.

But this reader’s letter mentions four specific people, all of whom were Chairman of the Produce Marketing Association at one time or another, so I’ll focus on PMA. And since three of the four names he mentions were retailers when they were serving as chairman of PMA’s Board, I’ll focus on retailers.

There are a lot of great retailers on the board right now. Craig Carlson over at Pathmark adds the perspective of the powerful New York Metro region, and Anthony Barbieri at Acme adds both the authority of being based in a major buying region like Philadelphia and the resources and knowledge base that come from being part of a behemoth such as Supervalu.

Jeff Patterson at B.J.’s sees the world from the unique perspective of a warehouse club operator, and he finds time, along with Duda’s Alan Newell, to run a very important Technology and Standards project for PMA. Don Harris brings both an in-depth understanding of what it is like to work for one the giants from his years at Safeway and adds the distinctive perspective of natural/organic operator as VP Produce and Floral for Wild Oats.

Then there is all around great guy Mike O’Brien from Schnucks, who brings a Midwest regional family-owned operator to the table. And I’m not talking about senior guys like Steve Junqueiro from Save Mart or Peter Goulet, who spent years at Hannaford.

I also haven’t mentioned the obvious: Dave Corsi, VP of Produce & Floral Operations for Wegmans. He is Chairman of PMA’s Retail Board and thus on the main board and clearly fingered as a superstar on the path to the Chairmanship. He represents the retailer everyone wants to be like, and I’ve spent some time with him and can testify that he is as passionate about produce as any of those guys were. And I bet he’s a lot better with a spreadsheet than any of them were at the time they were on the board.

Different times create and demand different skills. Someone passionate about produce but ignorant about RFID, logistics, EDI, continuous replenishment and vendor-managed procurement just isn’t going to get very far today. Sure, not everyone I mentioned will go the distance and become great memorable leaders of the industry, but there were plenty of people on the board of PMA when the superstars that our writer mentions were there who have long since been forgotten. On the whole, I’m pretty confident that today’s board can stand up to that of yesteryear.

And I haven’t even touched on the many up-and-comers on PMA’s Retail Board. I’m talking about people like Steve Tursi of Wal-Mart. I’ll mention him just because PRODUCE BUSINESS named Steve one of its 40 under Forty young leaders last year and we identified another 40 leaders this year.

I’m also privileged to be on the steering committee for the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Fund program, funded in an extraordinary act of generosity by my good friends Jay and Ruthie Pack. This program, which brings college students to the PMA convention, is starting to identify leaders before they are even in the industry. And now, the Nucci Scholarship for Culinary Innovation is getting foodservice students at The Culinary Institute of America to think about produce, and some of them will begin their path to leadership with that program.

Then, of course, there’s the produce leadership at United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, and it also has excellent programs in place to identify and train leaders.

The Dupont/United Produce Industry Leadership Program captures young leaders with potential and gives them training to develop their potential. The Frieda Rapoport Caplan Family Business Scholarship Program is helping family businesses to bring new leaders into the fold.

Not one of these leadership programs existed when any of our writer’s heroes was Chairman.

And let us not forget that the pool of leaders has substantially expanded with the availability of women to serve in such posts. Today, for the first time ever, both national produce trade associations are headed by women: Maureen Torrey Marshall of Torrey Farms at United and Janet Erickson of Del Taco at PMA.

So by any objective standard, there are more leaders, better trained, than ever before.

Yet, there is a core of truth in what this reader writes. Many of the sharpest people in the industry today are MBA-types, aces with the spread sheet but, in some cases lacking passion for the product. But produce is a very exciting and thus somewhat addictive field, so I find even most of the financial types come to love it.

Perhaps more important, look at the corporate backgrounds of the four superstars this reader mentions: Dick Spezzano, although now a consultant, rose to fame as VP of Produce for Von’s in Los Angeles; Bob DiPiazza now is VP of Perishables at Sam’s Club, but made his big contribution of institutional leadership as VP of Produce at Dominick’s in Chicago. Tony Misasi is, unfortunately, no longer with us, but he worked at Grand Union. David Eldredge still contributes as President of New Star, but he rose through the ranks at PMA while working for Tanimura & Antle.

The retailers came all from regional retailers. As such they had no competitive corporate interests to protect outside their local area, and they served on national boards to learn, network and help the industry. They had strong support from their management to be engaged.

But not one of those three companies exist anymore as independent entities.

We still have some similar companies — Wegmans, Schnucks, a few others. And they produce a disproportionate share of industry leadership. And, by the way, that isn’t just true of produce. If you went over to the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, you would find that they’ve had superstar chairmen like Ed Meyer from Schnucks, who got the job when he was head of deli/seafood/carryout and went on to be vice president of meat and seafood.

Big national chains are a different story. Some won’t serve on boards at all. Often they will serve on boards but they are always wearing their company hat, not an industry hat. It is not the same kind of labor of love as it was for those mentioned by the writer.

The same distinction applies among shippers. The T&A that supported David Eldredge in his efforts was also a particular breed. It is privately held, yet big enough to share one of its top people with the industry. Many producers are either big, often public, companies with a corporate representative filling a board seat or too small to really let a top person spend the time necessary in volunteer leadership.

The situation is very dependent on the company and the situation. One reason Tursi’s appearance on the PMA Retail Board has significance is it indicates that Wal-Mart is intending to continue its policy of being actively involved in produce trade associations. Bruce Peterson, now Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager of Perishables, fought for that policy against considerable internal resistance when the Supercenter concept was brand new. And it seems that Ron McCormick, VP/Division Marketing Manager for Produce, is continuing with that policy.

In the end, it is this indication of corporate support for involvement in industry affairs that is the key. There are plenty of good people. There are some challenges in getting organizations to support them.

I remember a good friend who was actually chairman of one of the major association’s annual conventions, and his large retail employer would not allow him to attend. The fact that the person had worked hard for that day meant nothing. The fact that the company had made an implied commitment by allowing its employee to get involved meant nothing. It reminds you that in most organizations, even a high level perishables employee is just middle management, and the contribution they can make depends on their employer seeing real value in making it.

We’ve got a lot of programs out there now to develop leadership in individuals. Maybe we need a program to convince organizations that they too benefit if their people become leaders.

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