Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: CATHY BURNS

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Cathy Burns of Produce Marketing Association.

Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Chief Executive
Produce Marketing Association

The confidence that consumers have in produce today is in part due to the hard work Cathy Burns has put in over many years at retail, at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and helping to drive the produce traceability initiative.

Burns, PMA’s chief executive, joined the organization in 2013 after a 30-year career in the supermarket sector, much of it rising through the ranks of Hannaford Bros., then also as president of Food Lion, Harveys and Reid’s, and as a member of the Delhaize America executive committee.

At PMA, Burns has pressed strategic initiatives that ultimately focus on increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. She has worked on development of the PMA board of directors and staff, and has applied expertise developed in her retail career to help PMA members more effectively engage and communicate with consumers.

She has won numerous accolades, now including her recognition as a Produce Business Vanguard designee. Still, at the beginning, before studying business at the University of Maine and strategic retail management at the College of William and Mary, she made a basic connection to the fruits of the soil and the nitty-gritty of retail.

“Growing up in Maine, produce was always a part of my life, including with my grandmother’s garden,” she tells Produce Business. “At Hannaford, I started out as a bagger because I wasn’t old enough to be a cashier. And I also worked in the produce department.”

Her early experience led to her climb through the Hannaford ranks and on to become president of Food Lion.

Because she was a prominent grocery retail executive, then-PMA CEO Bryan Silbermann, along with other produce industry leaders, approached Burns to support the newly conceived produce traceability initiative (PTI), the now-industrywide effort to ensure produce safety and consumer confidence. Although the initial estimate of how long the PTI effort might require her leadership was about six months, Burns ultimately passed the baton four years later.

When her time at Food Lion ended in the course of the Ahold/Delhaize merger, Burns says she and her family took some time to consider career options, which led to her joining, then leading, the Produce Marketing Association.

Burns has made a significant contribution to the produce industry across many years, says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, who met Burns at the 2008 PMA Fresh Summit.

DeLyser was the volunteer chairperson of the PMA board in 2013 and says she “could not have been more thrilled” when Burns accepted the PMA president position in December of that year.

DeLyser says Burns was “absolutely the right person” to take up the PMA mantle in many ways, and points to Burns’ commitment to creating a healthier world through the Joy of Fresh campaign, and ability to attract leaders globally to serve as volunteers on the PMA board and committees. Burns has also coordinated key changes in staffing to align individual talent with opportunities, to further develop employees while advancing the association’s objectives and goals.

Burns says PMA’s principles mirror her own, which is what encouraged her to make the move to the organization. For example, she says, PMA is a growth-oriented organization that is consumer- and numbers-focused, has board support for short- and long-term strategy to increase value, strives to proceed as a high-performing operation and has the flexibility to meet standards.

“Those guiding principles are important to me personally, so I knew it was going to be a great fit,” she says.

“I had an amazing 30-year experience in grocery retailing, and I’ve been able to transfer and apply that to the organization,” says Burns. “Where I was creating value for customers, now I’m working on creating value for our members.”

“Cathy brings an informed and unique perspective to managing a trade association,” says David Marguleas, president and chief executive, Sun World International. “She honed her management skills and expertise in the supermarket industry where she managed multi-billion businesses with tens of thousands of employees. She also brought incredible people skills, a merchant’s appreciation for fresh produce and floral, and real clarity about the leadership role she believed PMA could attain in the global supply chain comprising our industry.”

Marguleas maintains that Burns “has propelled PMA forward and outward. She has a sharp focus on member value, sees the bigger picture for our industry, and insists that our industry be part of a broader conversation, and solutions, around produce safety, sustainability, food insecurity, diversity and inclusion, and growing fresh produce consumption.”

He adds her “business acumen, steady hand and creativity have ensured that PMA has been especially valuable to its members during the recent pandemic.”

Burns says her time at PMA has really been about “listening to members, understanding their needs, developing plans to meet unmet needs, and establishing business planning to support that.”

“I want PMA to be part of what’s next and to be committed to creating the new, extraordinary produce industry. A huge part of that is driving demand and consumption of fresh fruit, vegetables and floral. We can bring together the global produce and floral community to grow a healthier world.”