Robert Lee Carey was born in Bridgeville, DE, on Aug. 25, 1931, and died about eight miles down the road in Seaford, DE, on Nov. 29, 2013. In those 82 years in between, he traveled the world and left an indelible mark across the globe.
Mr. Carey graduated from Bridgeville High School in 1949 and then wenton to the University of Delaware, where he earned his degree in 1953 in agricultural economics. Throughout his studies in college, Mr. Carey served in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and Army National Guard and was called to active duty shortly after graduation. He served four years with the U.S. Army during the Korean conflict before returning to Army Reserve status. He remained in the Army Reserve throughout most of his working life, retiring with the rank of colonel in 1991.
After his active duty, he returned to the University of Delaware to continue working on his graduate degree, which is where he was when a fledging organization called the Produce Packaging Association came calling in 1958.
Founded nine years earlier in New York City as the Produce Prepackaging Association, the association was nearly bankrupt. As the story goes, a person working with the group had just taken off with association funds. Mr. Carey agreed to be the group’s first full-time staff member if it would relocate to Delaware.
He set up shop and began to grow this little organization to the giant it is today. At that point, it had fewer than 100 members and its meetings could be held in just about any conference room.
By 1960, 213 members had joined and the annual convention was held in Miami Beach. Throughout the 1960s, the main focus was packaging, though the association also called for increased professionalism and training throughout the industry.
During the 1960s, the association worked for consumer acceptance of produce packaging and served as a packaging information resource for members. By the late ‘60s, it had changed its name to the Produce Packaging & Marketing Association.
Though it was growing in stature and had increased its budget and staff, it was still a very small organization. In 1970, total income was right at $137,000 with expenses totaling $138,000. There were 690 people and 40 exhibitors at its convention in Atlanta, but the staff had been cut from seven to four because of budget issues.
Reflecting on these times during a speech a decade later, Mr. Carey said, “To be perfectly candid, there were quite a few people in the industry who predicted a swift demise.”
Bruce Obbink, who served as the president of the California Table Grape Commission for many years beginning in 1971, remembers meeting Bob Carey a few years earlier. “I started going to PMA meeting in 1968,” he said. “It was still a very small organization. I remember a convention at the Fairmont Hotel [in San Francisco], where there were only six to eight exhibits in a basement room.”
Though there were a few more exhibits than that, Obbink’s memory of a sparsely populated convention was accurate.
The 1970s brought growth and Obbink believes he knows why. He said Mr. Carey’s strength was in getting other people to do great things.
“He had a knack of getting the best performance from the people he worked with,” said Obbink. “You just wanted to do the best you could when he was around.”
Jim Hunt, who was the chairman of the board at PMA in 1979-80, met Mr. Carey in the mid-1970s. “Lael Lee (a Salinas grower-shipper) got me to join in 1973. The following year I was appointed to the board. We were doing alright, but we still had to watch our budget closely.”
He said, “you couldn’t find a nicer guy than Bob. He was a great adviser and as a broker, meeting him was life-changing. He introduced us to all the major players.”
Hunt said Mr. Carey’s best trait was his ability to assess others. “His judgment of other people was superb. I don’t think I ever ran into anyone in any industry who was a better judge of people. And then once he hired them, he would let them run their show.”
In his speech that year, Mr. Carey acknowledged that it had been a decade of prosperity for PMA. By 1979, attendance at the convention had jumped to more than 2,700, with 226 exhibits. PMA’s revenues had increased to more than $908,000, with expenses below $889,000.
He said it “boiled down to anticipation and response.”
During the ‘70s, the name was changed to the current Produce Marketing Association, as PMA added emphasis to the marketing of fruits and vegetables. A home economist show was launched as was a floral marketing show.
The association developed public service announcements aimed at children, touting the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption. It also took steps to add more educational components to the services it offered the membership.
Dave Riggs of Quail Run Business Solutions in Aptos, CA, started his produce career at PMA in 1975 and then went on to the California Strawberry Commission, where he was president for many years.
“Bob was a real mentor for me — both in the produce business and association management,” said Riggs. “He was very easy to work with and extremely intelligent.”
Riggs said Mr. Carey was especially adept at running an association of volunteer leaders. He had a vision for PMA and was excellent at steering the board toward that same vision, enabling the board to come to the same vision on its own.
“In doing that, he created a lot of board equity in whatever he was trying to accomplish,” he said.
Riggs said he also greatly appreciated “Bob’s style of putting the staff front-and-center. He encouraged the staff to have a lot of contact with the board and industry members. Many associations at the time had an executive leader who was the only real contact with the industry.”
In the 1980s, the association continued its growth curve. The 1985 show had 4,700 attendees. In 1991, attendance topped 10,000 for the first time.
Duane Eaton, senior vice president at PMA, who is retiring in early in 2014, joined the association in 1979 as its 12th employee.
“I feel very fortunate to have worked with Bob in my career,” said Eaton. “What I remember most is his smile and laugh. He was a happy guy who loved his job and loved this industry.”
Eaton called Mr. Carey “the consummate teacher because he was a consummate learner. He always went to the association executive meetings and brought back new things that he learned.”
Painting a portrait of the longtime PMA leader that virtually everyone who was interviewed agreed with, Eaton quoted his former boss as saying, “If I’m getting credit, I’m not doing my job. The credit belongs to the unpaid board members who are volunteering their time to do this work.”
Bryan Silbermann joined PMA in 1983 and eventually succeeded Mr. Carey at the helm of the association in the mid-1990s. “I remember many things about Bob, but probably the most important thing he said and taught me was his philosophy that if you don’t care who gets the credit, you can accomplish many things.”
He added that Mr. Carey was a master at allowing his employees to do their own jobs. “Let people learn their own lessons,” he would say, according to Silbermann. “There are lessons of error and lessons of success.”
Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Silbermann said his previous boss laid the groundwork for the phenomenal domestic and international success PMA has enjoyed ever since.
“He was pivotal in creating the structure to pull together all the points on the supply chain into one organization,” said Silbermann.
At the recently completed PMA Fresh Summit convention in New Orleans, there were about 18,000 attendees and 2,400 booths. The 2012 Fresh Summit convention in Anaheim, CA, drew more than 21,000 produce professionals.
But with all of PMA’s success, Silbermann said Mr. Carey remained an “incredibly humble guy.”
Following in his father’s footsteps as a PMA board member and chairman was Grant Hunt of the Grant J. Hunt Co. in Oakland, CA. He was a board member from the late 1980s until his chairmanship in 1999. Though Bob Carey had retired by the time Hunt reached the top spot, it was Mr. Carey who put him on the leadership ladder.
“I was a young guy on that board,” said Hunt. “He always went out of his way to pursue the next generation of leaders for the association. Bob’s talent was the ability to get the most out of everyone who served on the board. And he led through humor.”
Another industry leader who got involved in the board in the 1980s and served into the ‘90s was Dave Eldredge, who is currently president of Gourmet Gardens North America in Folsom, CA. Eldredge remembers Mr. Carey’s efforts to get the foodservice industry more involved.
“I served on the foodservice board before serving on the PMA board and becoming chairman in 1997-98,” he said. “What I remember most is that he was very approachable. I was a young guy when I started, and unlike others I did not have a family member mentoring me. Bob played that role. He was very bright, understood the business very well and was always mentoring.”
Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, originally was hired by Mr. Carey and worked for PMA before working for PBH “on loan” from PMA.
“I learned a lot from Bob, mostly by watching him,” said Pivonka. “He was an effortless master at association management and everybody liked him. He was kind but firm, very decisive, knowledgeable about the industry, competitive, a good listener and willing to share what he knew. He was my 6 a.m. walking buddy whenever we were in Monterey from 1990 until he retired. He was a mentor and a friend.”