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Watch History Being Made At United In Las Vegas:
Steffanie Smith Becomes First Ex-Staffer Ever To Chair The Organization; Kroger’s Reggie Griffin Is Set Up To Become First Retailer To Chair United

This year’s United Fresh convention and expo is filled with terrific presentations and wonderful networking opportunities. The Las Vegas venue makes it proximate to the great growing base in California and Arizona. Even if it is last minute and you can only make a day, you are bound to learn something valuable and make a connection that can help your business. So register here or just show up and sign up at the door.

If you make it to United, you can also witness a bit of history in the making.

The news will be, as it should, that there is a new Chairman:

Ascending to Chairman of the Board is Steffanie Smith, CEO of River Point Farms LLC, Hermiston, OR. Steffanie was named CEO of River Point Farms in October 2007 after serving as president of the Deli/Prepared Foods Division of Taylor Farms, one of the largest fresh-cut vegetable suppliers to the foodservice industry. Prior to that she served as president of Pacific Pre-cut Produce for 10 years before it was acquired by Taylor Farms in August 2005. Steffanie worked at National Pre-Cut Produce in the early days of the bagged salad industry from 1993-1995, focusing on sales and marketing, and learning the operations side of the fresh-cut business. Before moving to Salinas in 1993, she worked on the staff of United Fresh Produce Association (formerly United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association), making her the first former staff member to ever become Chairman of the Board of the association. Steffanie received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of California, Los Angeles.

Yes, like the proverbial bag boy starting out at the bottom, Steffanie can inspire a lot of lowly paid staffers in DC that there are no limits to achievement.

We’ve known Steffanie for longer than either of us would like to admit and she will be an effective and inspiring leader for the association and the industry.

Less noted though of great long-term significance is that Reggie Griffin, Vice President of Produce Merchandising at The Kroger Co., and a longtime board member at United and, before that, at PMA, will ascend to become Chairman-elect of United — which means that, God willing, a year from now he will become the first retailer ever to hold the position of Chairman of United.

This ascension is filled with significance.

Inevitably it will bring to the fore the conversation of a possible merger between PMA and United, an issue we have discussed extensively.

The forces driving a merger have not dissipated. They can basically be defined by three factors:

1) The feeling among industry leaders that the trade needs to speak with one voice on matters of public policy.

2) The notion that there are substantial economies to be gained by consolidating staff and office functions.

3) The general notion that with United being the trade’s primary lobbying group but PMA having the larger and more profitable convention — that there is a mismatch of industry expenses (heavy to United) and industry revenues (heavy to PMA).

The counter to all this was that, in the end, merger was undesirable, perhaps impossible, because PMA’s heavy retail presence — there has long been a “rule” that a majority of the PMA board should come from buying sectors of the trade — meant that PMA would find it difficult, if not impossible, to actively lobby against policies supported by FMI — the supermarket industry association.

Now a chairman does not a board majority make, and United’s board will, for the foreseeable future, remain rich with its traditional constituency of grower/shippers and wholesalers. And, of course, 95% of the time, there are no issues between retailers and the producers that involve associations.

If an issue comes up during a retailer’s term as Chairman of United similar to what arose with PACA a few years back, where FMI wanted one outcome and the produce industry another, one supposes that the retailer would try to serve as a communications vehicle, explaining the retail position to United’s board and communicating the produce trade’s concerns to his own CEO and to FMI.

Still, there is the potential for a split, and one could imagine some retail CEO, upon hearing that one of his executives was Chairman of a group opposing policies that the retailer supported, insisting his subordinate resign from the group. It is also possible that grower/shippers could become irate if their chairman, coming from retail, is incapable of providing leadership on a key issue.

It is possible, but good policy can’t really be based on these extreme situations. Much more likely is that Reggie, both as Chairman-elect and when his turn comes as chairman, will be a highly positive influence at United as he has been during his year’s on the board.

Through the years, United’s biggest problem has not been battles between producers and retailers; it has been battles between core members. The National Association of Perishable Agriculture Receivers (NAPAR) was a bunch of United members who went off to establish an association to do things they didn’t think could be done at United. Same thing with the National Association of Fresh-cut Produce Processors (NAFPP), later named International Fresh-cut Processors Association (IFPA), which was set up as a separate association and eventually merged with United. And, of course, there were tougher battles between tomato growers and tomato repackers than ever existed between growers and retailers.

PMA’s great strength has been that its buyer focus tended to keep the battles between producers to a minimum as the focus was on products and services and policies that the buying end identified as industry priorities. This is crucial because it is the buyers who define the scope of the industry. Afterall, the only thing a lettuce processor in Salinas has in common with a potato grower in Maine is that the two are sold in the same department.

United is changing. Although not having the great financial engine that PMA does, it has used its money conservatively since it sold its headquarters building in Alexandria, Virginia, years ago. It has been successful in getting grants to fund many specific programs, from the Produce Industry Leadership Program to this year’s Sustainability Conference. Outgoing Chairman Jim Lemke, Senior Vice President at C.H. Robinson, has been a big part of this change. Some industry members take on these jobs and either don’t have the resources to devote the time required or don’t care enough to try. Jim got the full backing of a large corporation and his personal nature is to do things at 200% velocity. He refused to see United as anything but a premiere industry organization and both staff and volunteer leadership followed that lead.

Reggie’s elevation is also part of this change. Another addition to United’s board this year is Bruce Peterson, most recognized for his service at Wal-Mart and, most recently, as President of Naturipe. Bruce also is an ex-chairman of PMA. That is a change as well. Steffannie herself is part of this change. Her work at Taylor focused on items that involved proteins and other ingredients not traditionally part of the produce trade. She is consumer focused and acutely aware that this is not her father’s produce industry.

To our mind, this movement of people back and forth among the industry boards is the most powerful argument against merger. The industry is filled with great people, willing and able to contribute to the trade. These leaders need forums to do so. PMA is aware of this and has tried to reorganize to allow for this contribution. It will allow for more participation. We suspect, however, that these kinds of efforts, by any organization, can have only limited success. Top people don’t want to serve on boards that can’t make policy decisions. They want real votes that really matter.

So when Karen Caplan’s term ended on the PMA board, she had a lot to contribute and went on to do it as Chairman of United.

Much as it took Nixon to go to China, it may well take a retailer to deliver a merger among the associations. It was easy enough for PMA’s board to reject entreaties from a bunch of vendors when United was interested in merging. The conversation will have to be handled differently if one of the largest buyers in the world is across the table.

United, in its very name, defines it purpose… to unite disparate parts of the trade, to bring them together to speak with one voice. It is never an easy job. Jim Lemke, coming from an organization that straddled the world between growing and retailing, was well suited for the role. Steffanie Smith, though now on the grower/shipper side, has lived the processor role and the association staff role — both of which have to bring together disparate interests — and, next year, Reggie Griffin, who has sustained good grower relationships for a long time, but understands retail needs like the back of his hand, is ready to assume the role. Those of us who have known these three: Jim Lemke, who leads his team to victory time after time, Steffanie Smith, who capitalizes on every opportunity and Reggie Griffin — easy-mannered, friendly, willing to listen, a speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick kind of guy, know that the trio have brought unusual talents toward the goal of bringing unity to a disparate bunch.

As the United convention commences, we thank Jim Lemke for his service as Chairman this year and applaud Steffanie Smith and Reggie Griffin for each taking on this challenge. We also thank C.H. Robinson, River Point Farms and The Kroger Company for allowing each corporate leader to be so involved as an industry leader. The fact that the produce industry has vertically integrated trade associations, meaning buyers and sellers alike comprise their membership, has always been a particular industry strength. These three leaders from different industry segments illustrate the strength found in this diversity. Reggie’s taking on the mantle of chairman-elect and, ultimately, Chairman at United is closing the loop on this vertically integrated model. May the wind be with both Steffanie and Reggie and may it carry them, and the industry, on to even greater success.

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