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Pundit’s Mailbag —
PMA’s Opportunity To Learn From Friends And Foes

We started our analysis of the PMA convention with a piece entitled, PMA Analysis — Does Houston Merit A Permanent Place In The PMA Rotation?

We then ran PMA’s Attendance Just Shy Of 16,000, which focused on attendance. Peter Dessak, Vice President of Six L’s Packing Company, contributed to the industry discussion with a letter pointing out that with a hotel room in the Galleria area there were increased costs. We ran the letter as part of a piece entitled, Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA Needs To Factor Bus Time And Taxi Costs Into Convention City Choice.

Pundit’s Mailbag — Selling Versus Learning At PMA featured a contribution from Jack Vessey, Vice President and Marketing Director for Vessey & Company. The letter pointed out that increased attendance of growers can create educational opportunities for the whole industry. This piece also raised the issue of a disconnect between exhibitors there to sell and some attendees at PMA to learn.

We then ran a piece entitled Pundit’s Mailbag — Should PMA Facilitate Meetings During Program Times? The piece dealt with the tension between accommodating attendees’ desires to set up their own meetings and PMA’s need to maintain attendance at official functions.

Today we review a letter from a major sell-side player who takes exception to these two paragraphs that we had published:

One exhibitor at a fresh-cut organization told us a little story: He was manning his booth and a fresh–cut processor on another continent came over to ask questions and take pictures regarding the technology used in production of certain items. As our exhibitor politely tried to disengage himself to look for clients and prospects to help, the visitor kept asking questions.

When he didn’t get the honest and open answers he wanted plus felt exasperated as our exhibitor friend kept trying to pull away, the visiting fresh-cut processor finally announced: “Listen, I’m here at PMA to learn” and our exhibitor friend explained: “That’s fine, but I’m here to sell!”

Here is what our correspondent had to say:

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when I read this on the Pundit because I have heard this before on the PMA floor.

If someone needs to learn and cannot get anywhere, send them my way. Even if they are a direct competitor.

I have found over time we can still learn from each other without compromising our competitive position.

Some of the most insightful things I have learned in this business have come from relationships I have had with direct competitors in both the USA, and abroad, not to mention having made some good friends.

— Eric Schwartz
Dole Fresh Vegetables
Monterey, California

There is little question but that Eric is correct. If someone does things very different from what your organization does, he is bound to know a lot of things you don’t — you can certainly learn a lot, and the key is to find what is relevant to you.

To the extent someone is a direct competitor, you have a lot in common and, because everything is so relevant, even if guarded in discussions — some pearls are bound to slip out.

Yet the very fact that Eric mentions having heard it on the floor indicates that our original letter-writer hit a nerve.

Eric has the great advantage of being part of the largest company in the industry. Anyone who stood in Dole’s incredible new booth this year — design was overseen by Rick Utchell, who we mentioned both here and here — could see the kind of support and staff Dole can field.

To some extent Eric can focus on very valuable long-term learning because he has a large team of salespeople whose job is to get the orders. In fact, one could argue that in his present position, it is Eric’s job to focus on such strategic relationships. After all, today’s competitor may be tomorrow’s acquisition.

For many of the exhibitors that don’t have the depth of staff, the focus is inevitably more short term.

Eric’s comment about finding friendships among competitors is certainly true. Who better understands your situation? Who can have more empathy?

The Pundit’s grandfather used to show pictures of an annual dinner dance in New York City for a Club known as The Scavengers. We don’t know much about it, but know that the Pundit’s grandfather, Harry Prevor, was always up on dais, and the dinner was always honoring some union leader or other industry kingpin. The all-male officers would sit on the dais and their wives were seated mixed in at the tables on the floor. Everyone was dressed to the nines — men in tails and women in ball gowns.

We understand that there was some kind of “clubhouse” down on the Washington Street Market and everyone down on the market was a member.

A clubhouse, annual dinner dances… they were certainly all competitors, but the industry was somehow more fun as well.

Our sense is that business has changed. The people are less homogeneous and their roles less defined. When The Scavengers met, there was no real concern that a potato and onion house would start competing with a tomato house. Today, anyone can do anything and so people are more guarded.

Certainly nobody spent money to market as they do at PMA today, so the stress level was less.

Many thanks to Eric for reminding us that there is value in relationships that cannot always be predicted at first meeting and that it is generally wise to keep ourselves open to learning in unpredictable places and unpredictable ways.

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