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WESTERN IMPRESSIONS: Wal-Mart has big shoes to fill

That big collective groan you heard was from produce industry trade journalists across the country reacting to the news that Bruce Peterson is leaving Wal-Mart.

There will be much written about Mr. Peterson's impact on Wal-Mart and the produce industry. He held a lofty position for more than 15 years and helped guide the perishable component of Wal-Mart's meteoric rise during his tenure there. He came aboard when there were six Wal-Mart supercenters selling fresh produce. He is leaving at the end of this month with 2,258 supercenters under his watch.

Mr. Peterson was obviously a very valuable asset for Wal-Mart, and he was equally valuable to those who put on trade shows, conventions, seminars and annual meetings. He has been a constant presence during those years because he always made himself available. I cannot think of a reoccurring event in this industry in which he has not participated at one time or another. From regional to national events, from luncheons to three-day meetings, from multi-person panels to keynote addresses, he has done it all.

But from my perspective, his greatest gift has been to the agriculture journalist out there trying to make a living. Hardly a week goes by that he isn't quoted in one publication or another. He has something to say and he is not afraid, or prohibited, from saying it, which is truly unique in the retail business today.

I have met and interviewed a lot of people in the produce industry. It is my own failing that I have difficulty remembering names and recalling when I met these individuals. But I have no problem recalling my first introduction to Mr. Peterson, which was at a Texas Citrus & Vegetable Growers & Shippers Association (now Texas Produce Association) annual convention in South Padre Island in the early 1990s.

Mr. Peterson was new on the job and served as one of the major speakers at the event. He gave an informative and forceful presentation outlining Wal- Mart's foray into produce retailing and its plans for the future. Hearing a retailer speak so candidly was indeed rare, and so I introduced myself and asked if I could call him now and again for comments on other stories. He said I could and gave me his card.

Over the years, I have called him countless times, and I have never been disappointed. His schedule apparently takes him away from his office often, as I typically have to leave a message on his voice mail. But he has always called me back and usually within a very short period of time. Typically, he would say, "I am at an airport in between flights, but I'll be happy to tell you what I think."

Over the years, I have learned to leave him a detailed voice mail telling him the topic that I am writing about, which has occasionally resulted in a long after-hours call to my answering machine weighing in on the subject matter at hand.

Only one time in all those years and on all those subjects has Mr. Peterson expressed concern about the way I characterized his remarks. At that time, he didn't call and rant or rave, but rather connected with me on a convention floor and spent a few minutes explaining his concern about the way I wrote the story. And the next time I called, he was just as available as before. Mind you, over these years I have not established a personal relationship with Mr. Peterson. I haven't eaten at his house and he hasn't eaten at mine. In fact, I believe the only time I would have shared a meal with him is at a convention when he was at the head table and I was in the audience. He returned my calls simply because I was a reporter doing a job and on a deadline. I dare say he treated suppliers and others with the same respect. In fact, I know he did.

Before e-mail was a common practice, I heard Mr. Peterson tout this form of communication and give out his e-mail address at countless events. He told suppliers and anyone else who was in the room that it was the best way to reach him. I personally gave out his e-mail address a handful of times to people in the industry looking for retailer feedback on one idea or another. When doing so, I always said, "I know he's a busy guy but try him. You'll be surprised because he will respond."

And respond he did.

Considering Wal-Mart's unparalleled success in the past 15 years, it would seem to be a no-brainer that other retailers would follow that company's lead and be equally transparent - at least with the trade press. But I am afraid the retail industry is trending in the other direction. There are numerous smaller chain store executives who will talk to the press, but very few senior people at the larger supermarkets will say anything at all. "It is against our policy" is the refrain I've heard too many times to count.

I'm personally rooting for Mr. Peterson to resurface at another major retailer when his non-compete runs out in two years.

In the meantime, let me steal a page from his playbook and ask any retailer, large or small, who is willing to be quoted to please contact me by e-mail (tim.linden@sbcglobal.net). In the produce reporting world, we have some big shoes to fill.