In his 18 years on the Canadian Produce Marketing Association board of directors, Tom Byttynen has seen a lot of chairmen come and go.

“It’s almost like being a politician,” said the president and chief executive officer of Calgary-based grower-shipper and packer Thomas Fresh Inc., who completes his one-year term as CPMA chairman at the Calgary convention April 11-13.

“You travel a bit, do the back slap and the handshake, kiss a few babies.”

What he never realized, he said, is how much in-depth work goes on behind the scenes.

Byttynen has logged thousands of air miles in the past year, from across Canada to Hong Kong, and discussed the need for a Canadian version of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act with federal ministers on Parliament Hill during a Horticulture on the Hill event.

“Nothing’s going to happen overnight,” he said on the PACA issue, “but at least we’re now talking one on one, and the government recognizes that the problem exists.”

Back in Calgary, his office door is normally open, but closed several times a day for conference calls with new CPMA president Ron Lemaire and his staff over issues from food safety to labelling.

He also fielded calls from some of CPMA’s 760 members, seeking his opinion.

“When you’re the chair, you have this little badge on yourself that says, ‘Call me any time,’” he said. “And they do!”

Before heading to his first Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit last fall in Atlanta — his staff usually attends it — Byttynen said he figured he’d wander around leisurely, talking to people.

Instead, he was pinned down in the CPMA booth for eight hours.

“Everyone wanted to discuss what’s going on in the industry,” he said.

“But what they really wanted to know is that they’re not alone,” Byttynen said. “Everyone has the same challenges with growing, buying and selling, and they want to know that others share those challenges and are working on them.”

Attending Asia Fruit Logistica in Hong Kong last fall, where he combined Thomas Fresh and CPMA business, was another highlight, he said.

“It’s amazing how many people you meet, and how many opportunities there are to promote the industry across North America,” he said.

Byttynen even convinced a few Australian and New Zealand importers to attend the CPMA convention.

Another high point of his year has been working with Lemaire and his staff on a major “refocusing” of CPMA.

After a report card came back last spring with a 90% approval rating from members across North America, Byttynen said the board decided to find ways to improve its rating among the remaining 10%.

Working with an Ottawa agency that specialize in not-for-profit groups, CPMA is now looking at its entire organization, from its size and how it conducts meetings to how it works with regional groups and U.S. members.

The agency is now analyzing the results from member panels across the country.

“Stay tuned,” said Byttynen. “If you’re in Calgary in April, there will be lots of new stuff coming out of the chute.”

To make board meetings at the convention more efficient, he said, the majority of committee meetings will be conducted in advance through conference calls and online seminars.

But Byttynen’s greatest insight in the past year is something he practices every day in his own company.

“It’s a universal theme,” he said. “CPMA this year has shown me that if people work together, they can accomplish so much more than if they work at opposite ends.”