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United Fresh CEO says evaluation of purpose has led to a stronger organization

A good portion of the previous two years involved merger talks with the industry’s other national organization that ultimately did not succeed, but that has led to a stronger United Fresh Produce Association, according to Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, DC-based organization.

“I’m glad we went through it,” he said of the 18-month process that stretched through 2011 and well into 2012. “I wish it would stenzelTom Stenzelhave gone quicker, but it was a good thing to weigh those options and determine if there was a way to be more effective.”

Mr. Stenzel said that from day one of the merger talks what was driving his board “was the desire to deliver more value to the industry.” Though a merger did not happen because of what he termed “differences in philosophy and differences in culture,” he said the process did require United to revaluate itself and evolve.

Even as it was evident that the merger talks would not result in one organization, “our board determined that we would not return to business as usual.”

Mr. Stenzel said the result, almost a year later, has been a stronger organization that continues to gain membership and has expanded its offerings to the industry. He said that United has added two new councils to serve the industry, has improved and enhanced its collaborative efforts with other organizations and has refocused the efforts of staff to emphasize the needs of the members.

“I think one of the most important things I can do is get out and spend time with the membership and find out what their needs are,” said Mr. Stenzel. “That has to be our focus.”

He said that especially involves meeting with the many smaller players who are very important to the success of the industry, but who fly somewhat under the radar.

Of course, one of the best ways to interact with the membership is through the United Fresh annual convention, to be held in San Diego May 14-16. The concept of combining the Produce Marketing Association annual convention and the United Fresh convention might well have been the most visible reason why many in the industry were in favor of the merger of the two groups.

“That was always a false choice,” said Mr. Stenzel. “To say that the industry should only have one convention was never realistic. How many shows are there now that are successful? The success of the regional shows, including a couple of more added the last year or two, prove that the industry wants these shows. Companies will spend money on these shows; they just don’t want to waste money.”

He indicated that it is always up to the participants to determine what they will and won’t support. And they have spoken without reservation about United’s upcoming convention.

“We are going to have 5,000 people and 250 exhibitors,” he said. “Obviously our membership sees the business value.”

Mr. Stenzel said that United is constantly evaluating the show to make it more relevant, but the board believes it is an integral part of the value United brings to its membership. He believes the idea of smaller shows with smaller booths, which are championed by the regional shows, is a good concept that is taking hold.

At the United event in San Diego, he said many companies have smaller booths on the floor to have a presence, but are sponsoring larger suites where they can bring their customers for more intense business discussions. United understands and encourages that.

In addition, he said that the lineup of speakers and workshops is top-notch in an effort to update the industry on important issues and to offer food for thought.

One general session is going to feature the co-CEO of Whole Foods, Walter Robb, discussing the needs of the retail industry. Another will plumb the political insights of Joe Scarborough, a former congressman and well-known television show host.

In general, Mr. Stenzel said that United tends to attract more senior management people from the buy and sell side rather than the salespeople in the trenches, but he believes those are valuable contacts any company needs to make.

He argued that all industry gatherings — from national conventions and trade shows to regional luncheons and golf tournaments — “are part of what makes our industry grow. People enjoy coming together and talking with each other. Look at what the [Fresh Produce & Floral Council] has accomplished in California. That is mostly a social organization — and I say that as a very positive thing — and they are very successful. People in our industry just love coming to those luncheons and interacting with each other.”

In fact, United is taking a page from that book at this convention as it is holding a wholesaler-only reception. Mr. Stenzel said that wholesalers from all over the country have expressed an interest in coming together and sharing whatever they want with each other — be it a drink or a great idea.

The association is continuing that effort to bring similar people together with the establishment of two new councils. United has a structure that has both market segment boards as well as advisory councils. In these classifications are close to a dozen or so groups, such as the Grower-Shipper Board and the Government Relations Council. Meeting for the first time at the San Diego are two new groups: the Finance & Business Management Council and the Produce Marketing & Merchandising Council.

Mr. Stenzel said the Finance & Business Management Council will bring together chief financial officers, business management and human resource personnel to discuss the issues of importance to them as well determine what United can offer that group in terms of programs or workshops.

“Typically these people don’t come to conventions and don’t have a connection point with others in the same job classification,” he said. “They have nowhere to talk about common issues.”

The new marketing council is a bit different, Mr. Stenzel explained, saying that these marketing professionals do come to the conventions but they spend most of the time in their own booths. They don’t have the opportunity to mingle with others in the produce marketing arena to discuss their own common issues.

On Friday, May 16, after the regular convention concludes, United is holding a one-day marketing and merchandising seminar designed for the professional development of this group.

Also on display in San Diego will be United’s very successful Let’s Move Salad Bars campaign. For each of the past three conventions, local members have established goals to provide salad bars to schools in the hosting state.

For this convention, the California committees established an ambitious goal of funding 350 salad bars during the year leading up to the convention.

“We will pass that number,” said Mr. Stenzel. “The California group did a phenomenal job.”

To emphasize just how meaningful the effort is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in the schools, the United CEO said representatives of the foodservice departments of 35 California school districts will attend the convention.

“These school districts serve more than 1 million meals per day,” said Mr. Stenzel. “Our industry is starting to understand the impact of school business.”

Another all-important aspect of United, which will be front and center during many of the workshop sessions, is the association’s advocacy program.

United is based in Washington, DC, and its government affairs program has always been considered top-notch and one of its key programs.

“Our advocacy program is part of our DNA, “ Mr. Stenzel said. “You go back to the roots of United in 1904 and you see that it is one of the critical reasons we exist. Back then, we were involved in the regulations surrounding the railroad; today we are involved in many different issues.”

Of course, immigration reform has taken center stage in recent months.

“I am optimistic,” he said. “This is the best chance we’ve had in a long time to get this done. As a group, the industry has worked very hard but our job isn’t done.”

In fact, he said that it is going to take a big effort from the rank-and-file members of the industry to contact their individual member in the House of Representatives and let them know how important this is.

Toward that goal, United is going to set up a call center on the trade show floor that will allow anyone to call their own representative and urge passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

“We can win this battle if enough people call their representatives and let them know how important this is,” he said.