Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: ED McLAUGHLIN

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Ed McLaughlin, Cornell University.

Originally printed in the April 2021 issue of Produce Business.

What sets Professor Ed McLaughlin apart from his academic peers has been his ability to combine teaching, research and industry engagement in a win-win-win way. For example, during McLaughlin’s career as a marketing professor in Cornell University’s Charles Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management Department from 1983 to 2019, he mentored dozens of students who are industry leaders today, researched key produce problems because of his continuous exchanges with industry businesses, and made extra-efforts to communicate research findings with the appropriate fruit and vegetable trade audiences. It’s no wonder that former students, fellow academics and produce professionals all agree with McLaughlin as a Vanguard Awardee.

“The industry has benefited inordinately from Ed’s desire to not be an ‘ivory tower academic,’ but rather to ‘get out there’ and interact with real-world firms and listen, learn, research, teach and continue the process again and again over a three-and-a-half-decade career,” says Roberta Cook, Ph.D., emerita faculty in the Department of Ag and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, who first met McLaughlin during their days as fellow doctoral students at Michigan State University. “Firms need unbiased research on the economics of their businesses and go-to sources for timely, meaningful insights into their ever-changing competitive landscapes. No single academic has been such an enormous asset to the fresh produce industry,”

Investigation and industry involvement first took center stage in McLaughlin’s career when he was a doctoral student. In fact, according to Cook, McLaughlin was the first person to conduct a rigorous study of the economics of the fresh produce sector.

“He analyzed the structure, conduct and performance of the fresh produce sector utilizing the industrial organization paradigm. His Ph.D. thesis for the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University was completed in 1983. His dissertation research involved personal interviews with fresh produce actors at all levels of the vertical distribution system, from growers to retailers,” says Cook.

Then, after McLaughlin was hired by the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University to work on the economics of food marketing, including fresh produce, he initiated long-term relationships with food retailers and began to help retailers understand the constraints and competitive realities of growers and vice versa, according to Cook. “This had never been done, and he recognized a pressing need. This in and of itself contributed to the long-term process of moving fresh produce growers away from a production-orientation toward a more marketing/consumer-oriented approach to their businesses.”

McLaughlin has been called by many an outstanding teacher and communicator, whether training future industry professionals while enrolled as students at Cornell or teaching current industry professionals in executive programs. His passion for advancing and sharing knowledge on the economics and marketing of food products is unsurpassed.

“Ed always had time for his students,” says Tom Nunes V, president of The Nunes Company, Inc., in Salinas, CA, who credits McLaughlin with continued mentoring as Nunes’ career took hold and also with providing tremendous fresh produce industry insights to his father, Tom Nunes IV. “Ed’s unique ability to communicate and understand trends in the food industry gave companies like ours the confidence to explore new products and segments in the produce industry such as organics. Organic demand has continued to grow even during tough economic times.”

In addition to his undergraduate teaching, McLaughlin has been instrumental in efforts to recruit young talent into the produce industry by connecting students and companies through internships, research projects and industry visits, among other activities.

“Ed was integral to my appreciation for, and understanding of, the U.S. retail supermarket industry as well as how CPG businesses brought their product to market compared with more traditional fresh produce companies,” says David Marguleas, another former student and currently the chief executive officer for Bakersfield, CA-headquartered Sun World International, LLC, says. I credit Ed with encouraging me to pursue a career in fresh food marketing – and opening my eyes to the opportunities to apply traditional food marketing disciplines, strategies and ideas to fresh produce — as I was previously headed toward a future in the newspaper industry.”

McLaughlin’s creation of the Food Marketing Fellows (FMFs) program at Cornell in 1992 is an excellent example of how he integrated teaching, research and industry engagement, says Miguel Gomez, associate professor at Cornell, who first came to the university in 2008 and contributed to the FMF program. “First, many former FMFs say that the Program was the highlight of their Cornell experience. Second, the many industry visits allow Ed to keep constant communication with produce industry leaders and keep abreast of key industry issues. Third, his research responds to industry needs. For example, we were able to conduct an outstanding study on the economics of local foods with the USDA. This study required lots of data from businesses. Conducting this study was only possible because of 1) Ed’s strong produce industry connections and constant communication with industry leaders; 2) several former students who were FMFs and who worked in the industry helped us, and 3) his deep knowledge of the produce industry pressing issues such as local foods at the time.”

Until his retirement in 2019, McLaughlin was the Robert G. Tobin Professor of Marketing, and Director of the Undergraduate Business Program and the Food Industry Management Program at Cornell. During this time, he wrote over 130 publications including book chapters, academic journal articles, case studies, and research reports, focusing primarily on the produce industry. Plus, he received multiple prestigious educational and research awards, including the Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellowship, Cornell University’s highest award for distinguished teaching; the Presidential Award for Excellence in Research and Communication, awarded by the Food Distribution Research Society; and the William R. Davidson Award, Best Contribution to Theory and Practice in Retail Marketing (Journal of Retailing).

After retirement, McLaughlin was drafted back to become the Interim Dean of Cornell’s Charles Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Then as now, McLaughlin’s career has been one of the few to bridge the typical gap between agricultural economists and business school faculty.

“Ed’s career as an academic – and more specifically as a food marketing professor – is noteworthy and filled with accomplishment. But many people don’t know that in addition to his extensive undergraduate teaching regimen, he also juggled an extraordinary roster of other careers. For example, in addition to contributions Ed had made to industry educational leadership programs at both the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association over the past three decades, he has also consulted with some of our industry’s most important supply-side companies.

Leading retailers in the U.S., Asia and Europe have long looked to Ed McLaughlin for guidance and insight into their own retail merchandising and management strategies. This unique combination of retail and supplier engagement, and the trust he built with countless people throughout the global fresh produce supply chain, further magnified his formidable impact,” says Sun World’s Marguleas.