National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

If I were crafting a “State of the Industry” address in mid-July, I would describe the mood of many as “chapped off.”

Eighteen months of work on a merger between United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association came undone over a disagreement over the leadership and vision for the combined group. It appeared that many in the industry favored a merger; a small sampling in a January poll in the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group showed 80% favored and 20% opposed a merger of the two national trade associations.

The shorthand version of the last bit of unraveling was this: the PMA board of directors wanted Bryan Silbermann to lead the combined group, while United Fresh could not abide with that precondition.

Putting aside for a moment the future relationship between these two groups – suspend all the hopeful talk about moving ahead, focusing on the members, find new ways to collaborate, etc, - let’s take a “hindsight is 20/20” backward glance at these negotiations.

Admittedly, we don’t know much about the details of the process; only this week the full list of joint task force members was published in The Packer.

The merger talks began about February 2011 and we know that outside experts were employed to help facilitate the talks.

My first issue is with these so-called experts. How many tens of thousands of dollars were they paid? What did they truly accomplish?

Why didn’t they sit down and tell the respective task force members for both PMA and United that letting the leadership issue go unresolved was not going to work? Why let the task force and the members of both boards choose the ill-fated option of kicking that can down the road?

One scenario that I heard discussed by another association leader would have taken the nettlesome issue of leadership off the board entirely. In this view, the task force should have built the liability of the severance packages of both Silbermann and Stenzel into the cost of the negotiations. In that case, both leaders would have been on notice that, while they may be considered for the chief executive position for the merged association, there were no guarantees to either of them that their position was assured.

Make no mistake, the severance packages would not have been pocket change. Still, the investment may have paid off.

When all the details of the merger were completed and the deal was struck, the new board could have hired a firm that specializes in executive recruitment to begin the process of identifying the next chief executive officer. Silbermann and Stenzel could have put themselves forward as candidates, and the “star search” may have uncovered the next association Wunderkind.

By the way, how soon will Stenzel and Silbermann retire? How much advance notice will each group have before they must prepare for a new era of leadership?

Another industry veteran reminded me that when Bob Carey left the Produce Marketing Association in 1996 after 38 years of service, Bryan Silbermann was not anointed as his successor automatically. Instead, Silbermann distinguished himself in the search process, rose to the top of the pool of candidates and was given the nod. Why couldn’t that have been the case for a merged association?

Before official news came down that the merger was scuttled, I asked members of the Fresh Produce industry Discussion Group “If United and PMA do not merge, who should get the blame?

The options were:

A. The United Board

B. The PMA Board

C. The egos of paid leaders

D. Other (explain)

The poll results and the comments may have passing merit as a historical footnote when the next round of merger talks commences. Among the comments was one who objected with my premise. Why does someone have to be “blamed”? The person observed that the groups have always had two different agendas and the memberships had distinctive and different goals. Why make a round peg fit into a square hole?

Another suggested that PMA may have seen the talks as more of a “takeover” than a merger of equals. Perhaps in vain, one said he hoped that the associations move away from the ‘convention as fund-raiser’ model. He said saying “no” to exhibiting at the shows is like turning away the kid at the door selling “band candy”; it’s tough.

That brings us to the next question for PMA and United. How should both groups respond to the failed merger? Oh yes, it is a discussion group poll question as well. The choices:

A. Business as usual

B. Divide responsibilities

C. Alternate conventions every other year

D. Other (explain)

Perhaps not surprisingly “Business as usual” is the leading vote getter so far.