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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Bigger Picture For WGA’s DC Office?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 25, 2007

Our piece, Justifying WGA’s Washington Office, and Pundit’s Mailbag — Concern Over WGA’s DC Office continued to lead to industry discussion as leaders attempted to understand its meaning. One knowledgeable association executive put his thoughts this way:

I was surprised to hear WGA was doing this, because they already have two contractors in town — Bob Schramm and Julian Heron — and because a DC office has to cost them big bucks every year.

It’s no secret there have been differences between Tom Nassif, President and CEO of Western Growers Association, and United Fresh, which in my opinion is more a matter of egos than substance, but I thought that had settled down.

After the initial falling out between the two, nominally over the way COOL (country of origin labeling) was handled, the various grower organizations put together a loose organization to monitor events from a grower perspective.

At that time, there was discussion of joining together to create a DC presence if United drifted too far to the retail side. Of course, some version of this discussion has been around for decades, but it never produced much.

If you look at the cost of opening a really effective office, it’s humbling, so many were relieved that the two organizations seemed to be mending fences.

I’m not really sure what’s going on here: maybe Tom Nassif and his board think United can’t and won’t follow California’s (or the growers’) lead, maybe they look at the board of United and see mainly retailers and allied industry (although, of course, others look at the board of United and see mainly grower/packer/shippers), maybe WGA is just making so much money on insurance they have to bury it somewhere.

I do believe that any hint of a rupture in the industry’s ranks in DC is damaging to the industry (United we stand, etc.).

We wonder if Tom Nassif was properly briefed when he accepted the job running WGA? Tom was a person of great stature in the Reagan administration. He was Chief of Protocol, an Assistant Secretary of State and United States Ambassador to Morocco. That is a formidable resume.

So formidable, in fact, that one suspects he must have greater ambitions than to run a regional fruit and vegetable grower association.

As much as anything, that may be behind this D.C. office.

We happen to like and admire ambition in people so all this is no criticism of Tom. It simply means that years of observing these things teaches us that in trade associations, as in business, love and life, what happens often depends as much on personalities, ambitions and life stage as it does on anything else.

The obvious issue for the industry is what our letter-writer mentions:

“…any hint of a rupture in the industry’s ranks in DC is damaging to the industry (United we stand, etc.).”

Perhaps, though, the long-term impact of WGA’s Washington office might be found in something else our letter-writer mentions:

“After the initial falling out between the two, nominally over the way COOL (country of origin labeling) was handled, the various grower organizations put together a loose organization to monitor events from a grower perspective.”

If, in the fullness of time, WGA’s Washington office came to represent some other regional grower groups and, ultimately, produce growers all across America, wouldn’t this significantly reduce the sense that the industry needed to maintain a separate United Fresh in D.C. as the voice of the production end of the industry?

In fact, at one point after the outbreak of the Spinach Crisis, we were writing quite a bit about a possible merger between PMA and United. It was clear from the many letters we received that United was highly valued for representing the production end of the business. As a result we developed a model for how a merger could take place:

Here’s the Pundit’s specific suggestion: Sustain the successful business model of PMA but augment it with United’s very successful programs such as the Leadership Program, respected technical/scientific department and a D.C. office for lobbying and government relations. United’s very successful field outreach program, with people such as Jeff Oberman (recipient of the PRODUCE BUSINESS 40 under 40 award), would also be continued.

At the same time, a separate “Congress of United Fruit and Vegetable Growers of America” would be founded and housed in the D.C. office of the new association. Existing strong grower groups, such as Western Growers Association, Texas Produce Association and Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, would be included as well as other regional groups with an assurance that every state in the union has a regional representative.

Then, the new national organization would cede government affairs for any grower-specific issues and dedicate to the regionals, say, 50% of the dues paid by growers.

Heading up a “Congress of United Fruit and Vegetable Growers of America” sounds exactly like the kind of job a former Ambassador would like to hold.

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