Right Man For The Right Time

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of ThoughtBob Carey was the chief staff officer for the Produce Marketing Association and its predecessor organizations for nearly 40‭ ‬years‭. ‬He shepherded the organization through a perilous youth‭, ‬which frequently teetered on bankruptcy to become the most important‭ ‬produce association‭, ‬not only in America‭, ‬but in the world‭. ‬He was immensely insightful and a kind person‭, ‬generous in heart and‭ ‬always cognizant of rising stars in our industry‭.‬

More than a quarter a century ago‭, ‬still in my 20’s I attended my first PMA board meeting‭. ‬Bob took me aside one night and asked if I wanted to know the secret to running a trade‭ ‬association‭. ‬Flattered to be so instructed by a master‭, ‬I left the reception and went with Bob‭. ‬We were in one of those southwestern resorts‭, ‬whose hallways are paved in Mexican tile and walls curve in with stucco‭.‬

We walked a distance and went outdoors in the dark to one of the many casitas that lined the property‭. ‬Bob took out an old skeleton key and entered it in the lock‭, ‬it hesitated and creaked but when it opened‭, ‬Bob turned on the light and before me‭, ‬arrayed‭ ‬across each wall‭, ‬were large sheets of paper where the PMA board’s golf foursomes were being arranged‭.‬

The message‭: ‬running an association was about people and personalities‭. ‬It was managing ambition and lack thereof‭, ‬and the success of an association executive was directly related to his ability to relate to people‭.‬ Bob Carey did many exceptional things in his years at PMA‭, ‬most notably‭, ‬working with a small group of board members‭, ‬he repositioned the association to align with buyers‭, ‬in the hope and expectation that this would bring the supplier base to PMA as well‭. ‬It was a brilliant insight‭, ‬executed well‭, ‬and it allowed PMA to surpass United and achieve enormous financial success‭.‬

Bryan Silbermann developed and
institutionalized a model of using PMA money and staff
resources to give birth to numerous organizations.

Yet the real test of a leader is not how he runs an organization‭. ‬It is what happens to the organization after he is gone‭, ‬and without a doubt‭, ‬Bob Carey’s single greatest contribution to the growth and management of PMA was in hiring Bryan Silbermann and‭, ‬ultimately‭, ‬encouraging his appointment as his successor‭.‬

It was not an obvious choice‭. ‬Bryan came in as a kind of technocrat‭, ‬uber-schooled in South Africa‭, ‬Oxford and the University of‭ ‬Chicago‭. ‬A South African‭, ‬he was not naturally in sync with the personalities of mostly American produce executives‭. ‬Yet Bob saw in Bryan something unique‭, ‬and history has proved him right‭.‬

I don’t think Bryan would object when I say had he not worked 13‭ ‬years side by side with Bob Carey‭, ‬learning how to combine the technocratic side he excelled in with Bob Carey’s focus on personality and relationships‭, ‬Bryan would not have become the association executive that has so successfully guided‭ ‬PMA since he became CEO in 1996‭.‬

In the early years with PMA Bryan’s triumphs were very much technical in nature‭. ‬He was the main impetus in having the produce industry adopt uniform coding systems‭, ‬such as PLUs and UPCs‭. ‬These actions not only had much utility for produce‭, ‬but they served to professionalize and elevate the industry‭, ‬making us a true peer of grocery and allowing better decisions to be made because we had better information‭.‬

As time went on‭, ‬his South African background let him see what most insular Americans missed‭, ‬and he was primarily responsible for setting up a global program as one of the key foundations of the association‭, ‬including establishing PMA’s first affiliate‭: ‬PMA Australia/New Zealand‭.‬

It is difficult to know where credit should be given and impossible to say what would have happened in the absence of one person‭. ‬So‭, ‬would Salinas leafy greens growers‭, ‬after having suffered devastating losses following the 2006‭ ‬Spinach Outbreak Crisis‭, ‬have founded something like the Center for Produce Safety if Bryan had never been PMA’s CEO‭? ‬How can we know such a hypothetical‭?‬

But we can say that Bryan developed and institutionalized a model of using PMA money and staff resources to give birth to numerous organizations‭, ‬including the Produce for Better Health Foundation‭, ‬the Center for Growing Talent by PMA‭, ‬and the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis‭. ‬One suspects that this model will be used time and again as industry needs arise‭.‬

There have‭, ‬of course‭, ‬been controversies‭; ‬many see the inability to make a deal with United to merge the associations as a failure‭, ‬though others see it as an important step in preserving the unique culture at PMA‭.

Bryan actually wanted to retire for some time‭. ‬But his fierce dedication to PMA didn’t allow him to do this until‭, ‬like Bob Carey before him‭, ‬he was persuaded that he had a successor who could extend the success of the organization long into the future‭. ‬Now with Cathy Burns‭, ‬longtime retail executive now with three years’‭ ‬experience working with Bryan at PMA‭, ‬established as President and soon to become CEO at PMA‭, ‬Bryan finally sees the future of‭ ‬the association assured and thus is ready to take his leave‭.‬

A grateful industry thanks Bryan for service well-rendered and extends wishes that the wind should be always at his back‭.