Tom Karst
Tom Karst

How many times have you heard people say they love their job so much they would still do it even if they were paid nothing?

Well, you haven’t heard me say that, because I have a mortgage, college loans, and the list goes on. You get the idea.

Not many people can afford to be so generous with their sentiments toward their employer or so disdainful of their pocket book.

But I’ve thought about the concept as I think of a central problem that may hold up a merger between the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association.

Let’s face the facts.

The industry has two lead lions in the pride. Tom Stenzel is the long-time leader of United Fresh, and Bryan Silbermann is at the top of his game at PMA. Both are well-compensated for their work, to the tune of six figures plus-plus.

Should the boards of a unified association decide its new leader based on lobbying prowess? Is it the track record of financial growth? Should the balance sheet or “business model” execution alone tell the tale? Number of employees?

All of those questions are of little consequence. Both are familiar and trusted figures in the industry. These associations are “member driven” but are defined by their larger-than-life presidents.

Let’s assume — for the sake of argument — that both are equally qualified to lead a unified organization. How will the industry decide which lion to lead the pride?

Here is how I would approach the problem. Both men would be eligible to lead the organization, but the job would be awarded in reverse Dutch-auction style.

Given the fact that retailers will wield significant power in the unified trade association, why not create a little competition between the contenders just like buyers set up with shippers?

Here is the scenario. Start the auction clock at $100,000 annual salary for a three-year contract and give Stenzel and Silbermann a buzzer. With every 10 seconds that passes, the salary for the chief executive officer and president would increase by $10,000. The first man to hit the buzzer would be given the job. Perhaps the buzzer would ring immediately or linger unrung until $600,000. In either case, the group would have itself one leader.

It is not exactly like King Solomon’s suggestion to cut a baby in half to settle a dispute between mothers, but it does introduce the concept of desire over dollars for the leader who hits the buzzer. Exactly how bad do you want the job?

Perhaps after the winner is identified, he could be given a bonus clause to reward the elimination of redundancies on the staff of the merged association, with the advice and consent of an executive committee. The 2009 tax document for United Fresh reveals the association had 29 employees. The PMA document for the same year reported 92 employees for that association. Could a combined organization do with less staff?

Another incentive could be created to reward relocation of the association to a more economical host city, where office space and the cost-of-living would be lower than Newark, Del. or Washington, D.C.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? I know this scenario won’t happen.

 It may seem disrespectful or flippant to even suggest it, but consider my proposal fair, if fanciful. It would provide an elegant, nonpolitical and market-based solution to the issue of who would lead the unified organization.

I would assume that if a merger does occur, one of these two tireless leaders would be out of a job. One will have given the best years of his life to the industry and be rewarded with a pink slip — not to mention a hefty retirement fund and good prospects for a newly minted consulting business.

Losing one of the industry’s biggest personalities from the grand stage of association leadership would be unfortunate, but I don’t see how it can be helped if the two groups merge. None of us are so uniquely gifted that we can’t be replaced.

A cruel cut, of course, but certainly no worse than 99% of the world has seen.

In the end, the boards of directors of the two groups may not be able to come to terms with the trauma that would come with a combined group. Some may not be willing to let go of their well-loved leaders and their groups’ unique culture and history.

If United Fresh and PMA don’t come together, I hope it won’t be because of the instinct of self-preservation and egos within the groups’ governing bodies overcame a plan that otherwise made good sense.

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