Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Bryan Silberman of the Produce Marketing Association.
Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Taking his mentor Bob Carey’s lead, Silbermann navigated PMA to the level of preeminence, considered and regarded as the international forum for the entire produce industry. The largest worldwide, non-profit trade association representing companies that market fresh fruits, vegetables and related products, PMA’s membership skyrocketed to 3,000 companies in 50 countries. From supermarket retailers to growers, to global exporters, to restaurant chains, Silbermann was a master at enjoining the buying and supply sides of the business to mutually beneficial outcomes.
Following Silbermann’s direction, PMA initiatives interlaced through a plethora of ground-breaking industry advancements. Silbermann, who joined PMA in 1983, and in 1996 began his 20-year term as president and CEO, was instrumental in launching and developing landmark programs and services, working closely with key industry leaders and stakeholders domestically and across the globe.
“Bryan was one of the smartest people I knew,” says Bruce Peterson, former senior vice president of perishables/general merchandising at Walmart. “I had a chance to work quite closely with Bryan. He has an amazing ability to understand the issues,” says Peterson. “I give Bryan so much credit because he took over the organization from Bob Carey and raised it to new heights,” Peterson explains.
Silbermann valued the collaborative milestones in integrating cutting-edge technology and innovation into the exponentially globalized fresh produce industry, and finding safer and more efficient ways of driving fresh produce consumption.
At the time of his retirement in January 2017, as he passed the reigns to Cathy Burns, Silbermann valued the collaborative milestones in integrating cutting-edge technology and innovation into the exponentially globalized fresh produce industry, and finding safer and more efficient ways of driving fresh produce consumption. Those milestones run the gamut, including Silbermann’s active role in the late 1980’s in driving adoption of standardized coding systems Price Look Up (PLU) and Universal Product Code (UPC)]. These initiatives proved a revolutionary turning point in industry growth, allowing retailers to handle the global influx of new varieties and sizes, leading the groundwork for category management and the ability to do Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), explains Silbermann.
“At the time, Bob Carey was the chairman of the PMA, and Bryan Silbermann was a vice president, but he spearheaded generic UPC and PLU development, working very hard with us behind the scenes to implement it,” and corralling the major players to get on board, says Dick Spezzano, a Vanguard himself, who was vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company back then.
During Silbermann’s reign, the infamous Spinach E. coli crisis in 2006 not only brought many produce companies to their knees, but put the industry under the scrutiny of government oversight and national media. The PMA’s response was to spearhead the formation of The Center for Produce Safety, the Produce Traceability Initiative, and food safety communication campaigns.
Since its inception in 2007, The Center for Produce Safety has funded hundreds of research projects and invested millions of dollars in institutions around the world to answer critical questions regarding produce food safety. Silbermann’s directive: “We must encourage the creation of a new research paradigm, one that requires the collaboration of industry, government regulators and scientists to generate new learnings to improve the world that we will pass to our children.”
Silbermann went on to push in-depth research into consumer demand shifts and trends to help steer companies on the best strategic paths. His eagerly anticipated annual state-of-the-industry presentation at PMA’s Fresh Summit was recognized as a benchmark for trend-spotters.
An advocate of industry-wide activities to educate consumers and spark produce consumption, Silbermann was in on the ground floor of The Produce for Better Health Foundation (which PMA first sponsored and housed), and later had a strong hand in The Sesame Street “Eat Brighter!” campaign with First Lady Michelle Obama; and
Always looking to strengthen and extend PMA’s reach, Silbermann, born and raised in Durban, South Africa, orchestrated PMA’s first international affiliate, PMA Australia/New Zealand; partnered with the Foreign Agricultural Service to bring buyers from across the globe to the PMA Fresh Summit; and was a dedicated supporter of PMA’s Foundation for Industry Talent, later rebranded as the Center for Growing Talent.
The Bryan E. Silbermann Collaboration Award was established in 2016 in recognition of Silbermann’s 34-year career at PMA. The award recognizes an individual’s collaborative leadership style in uniting industry members or organizations, including those outside the honoree’s own organization, to realize mutually beneficial solutions to an industry issue.
“I think Bryan’s greatest contribution to the produce industry was his skill to seek out and unite leaders,” says Peterson. “Bryan always had a tremendous ability to bring talent into the Association. People don’t appreciate how important that is. He orchestrated what I call the next chain of leadership, so they were equipped to step up. He put them in positions where they could be ready to lead,” says Peterson, adding, “He groomed me to take on more industry-type issues and industry leadership. I think a lot of my professional development is owed to Bryan Silbermann.”
In turn, Silbermann says of his mentor Bob Carey: “He’d often repeat the saying, ‘You can get so much more done when you don’t care who gets the credit.’ I found this approach so very wise and used it has much as I could when I succeeded him in 1996. It not only gave members a stronger sense of owning their association, but it also developed their own leadership skills that they would then take back to their respective businesses.”