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Pundit’s Mailbag — Welcome Comments About Possible PMA/United Merger

Following our piece — Shouldn’t Our Industry Associations Try To Support One Another? After Coronavirus, The Time May Be Right To Look At PMA/United Merger Once Again — we heard from many industry leaders. This included many of the past chairmen of both associations and of other industry associations, some of whom we’ve worked with for decades.

We will run some of these discussions as the industry proceeds with this discussion. In the meantime, this was a thoughtful missive from one of the former chairmen of a national association:

I have been keeping up with the Pundit and your new podcast. I love that you are willing to be controversial… most leaders just take the safe route. Most did not have the courage to speak openly about the recent racial activity as you did. Agree or not, I applaud your bravery.

On the Pundit piece related to a possible PMA/United merger, I clearly remember sitting at a table in Monterey discussing the failed merger. I really thought we had it done. I have heard that some important people are now lobbying for this to happen again.

I was in favor for the merger to happen at the time and, for the most part, I still am. Actually, this time, many believe PBH should be part of this merger so there is a strong consumer marketing arm, which neither PMA or United have.

Anyway, I don’t know if anything will ever happen. I have always preached that the industry would be so much stronger with a single voice in DC, to help market the industry and to reach out to the consumer. It is my view that it is more than just PMA and United at this point. The merger would have to be more than just a way for members to save expense. It needs to help the industry in all the ways we know it needs help!

Of course, the staff at both PMA and United view each other as competitors at this time, and I am sure there are competitive innate feelings amongst the staff. You and I get the big picture so we know better, but the troops don’t always see it that way.

You are a major influencer and can help move the merger process forward. I agree it is what membership in both groups wants.

In 2012, both Bryan Silbermann and Tom Stenzel were equally responsible for the failure. One challenge is that PMA and United are not equal in resources or size. It is hard to do a ”merger of equals” when one entity is so much larger and more prosperous than the other. In fact, if pressed, I would have to put more blame on Tom as they were 20% of the merger and not an equal entity, and he should have realized that.

But with all that said, the momentum needs to move forward, and I believe you taking a mutually positive stance toward both organizations will support that process much better than seemingly taking sides.

In any case, I love the respectful bantering with you. I would not take the time to do it if I did not have so much admiration for who you are and all the great contributions you have accomplished for our industry.

As is typical in these things, we received a few tongue-lashings from PMA partisans for pointing out that it wasn’t necessary or nice for PMA to schedule a digital event right in the middle of United’s first digital trade show. But we actually received more nice words from industry participants, including several PMA board members and longtime PMA supporters, who thought it a missed opportunity on the part of PMA.

After all, a simple announcement that PMA had decided to either do its panel discussion as part of United or to postpone it a week or two to give United a clear week would have not hurt the quite large PMA at all and would have won it some goodwill at a time when the world needs all it can get.

In any case, it was a minor issue. The bigger question is how we, as an industry, can move ahead.

Personally, the Pundit and all our sister publications have had fantastic engagement with both associations. We launched PRODUCE BUSINESS at the PMA in 1985 in San Francisco. The Pundit Grandfather was the chairman of one of the associations that ultimately merged to form United. We have on our walls both commendations from PMA, awarded on our 25th anniversary and from United, first-ever Member of the Year.

The issue has long been clear. Many years ago, PMA decided to focus on the buying end of the industry. This was a smart move, in that it made PMA events lucrative for vendors. So, even grower-shippers who really valued United often would wind-up spending time and money with PMA, because that was where the business opportunities were.

The question now is, post-COVID, is there a necessity for the industry to save money on duplicative efforts? Is there an opportunity to combine forces — PMA, United, and maybe PBH — to go beyond financial savings to better serve the industry.

When he was Chairman of PMA, Bruce Peterson, who originated Walmart’s produce program and built it to the largest one in the world, used to ask this question: If this association didn’t exist, would we want to create it? And why? These are good questions still today.

The industry and the world are both changing. There is no particular reason to think that the industry organizational setup of the past is the best option for the future.

This won’t be a short-term project. If you like to get involved or express your thoughts, let us know here. If you want your identity kept confidential, just say so.

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