A flexible approach is the key to success for the two marketing boards William Watson has helped build in the produce industry.
Watson describes himself first as flexible.
“In the commodity board world, you have (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) looking over your shoulder to make sure that you stay in the parameters of the statutes,” said Watson, who left a 13-year position as executive director of the National Watermelon Promotion Board for a similar position at the newly created National Mango Board in 2006.
“Those don’t always mesh with what the industry wants to do, so I have to figure a way to bring those two together and at the end of the day come up with a solution.
“You can’t do that if you go into a situation where you’ve already got your mind made up and have all the answers,” Watson said. “You have to be flexible. It’s been a lesson that takes a while to learn.”
His results at the Orlando, Fla.-based watermelon board attracted the attention of mango industry participants who had just voted to form their own member-supported research and marketing board, also to be based in Orlando, in 2005.
“They had some good years and saw consumption grow but felt like there was a lot of room for improvement, and they started looking around at other commodities that were making some real progress in the market and one of those happened to be the watermelon industry,” Watson said.
Mango importers met at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit to discuss ways to create a consistent marketing program for mangoes.
“They used the watermelon board as something to compare to,” Watson said.
Mango importers approached Watson about helping them launch their organization. He said he welcomed the new challenge.
“I said I wasn’t sure I wanted to run it, but I wanted to get it started,” he said. “I understand how commodity boards function. I understand new ones when they’re just starting up. I also understand the nuts and bolts and day-to-day activities you need to build for that system to operate.”
After a short stint as interim executive director, Watson became executive director.
Watson, 50, is a native of Tyler, Texas, and an agriculture education graduate of Texas Tech University.
He said the business side of agriculture always has drawn him, even if the production details didn’t.
“It’s just amazing that you can plant a seed and what springs up,” he said. “That drove me to study agriculture production in college.”
He tried growing sweet onions, blueberries, watermelons and tomatoes on some land his family owned outside Tyler, but he decided he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer.
“I always had more fun marketing,” he said. “It was really interesting to me that the industry could work collectively and that one (commodity) can benefit the entire industry.”
Marketing orders and promotion boards are an ideal example, he said.
“They’re perfect,” he said. “They’re not publicly funded. The industry controls them and can end them anytime.”
Succeeding in business never seems to have been a concern, Watson said, because he had the encouragement of his parents, who urged him never to give up and “keep focused on what you’re doing, moving forward.”
He gleaned additional inspiration specific to his life’s calling from Bob Smith, chief executive officer of the National Honey Board.
“We became fast friends because we had a lot of producers,” Watson said.
“At the end of the day, these programs have the same issues. They’re just different commodities. But we’re always challenged with communicating with our members and trying to figure out how to get an exceptional return.”
Watson also has taken some inspiration from his wife, Deborah McKeever, a native of Mission, Texas, who has worked for the California Strawberry Commission.
Whatever the source of Watson’s inspiration, he has earned respect across the industry, said Greg Leger, owner of Leger & Son Inc., a watermelon grower in Cordele, Fla.
“I think William is a natural leader,” Leger said. “We were one of the first commodity organizations, and he was the first president and the fact that there was competition in the produce section, and he brought us prominence because he thought outside the box.”
Watson foresees a bright future for the mango board.
“I think the mango board is going to be here for a long time,” he said. “I believe we have a system and a staple that we can do that with. I see the board’s future as being very, very bright.”