With a record-attendance Fresh Summit under his belt, the recent success of regional trade shows for the fresh produce industry doesn’t bother the Produce Marketing Association’s Bryan Silbermann.
“You know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” said Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based trade association since 1996.
With regional shows growing in various parts of the country — including The Packer’s Midwest Produce Expo — Silbermann said that doesn’t change the association’s business model, but merely affirms the power of the free market.
“Others have seen the value of what PMA does,” he said. “So far from being a reason for us to change, I think it in fact reinforces we are on the right path.”
In an interview several weeks before Fresh Summit 2012, Silbermann talked about the failed merger talks with the United Fresh Produce Association, his future with PMA and whether the association could play a role in the tomato dispute between Mexican and U.S. growers.
While other regional shows may mirror PMA’s education events or trade show format, Silbermann said Fresh Summit has a global dimension that no one else in the U.S. even attempts.
“So much of our business model is globally based, and that is so different than any of the regional events,” he said.
International attendance at the show increased slightly.
Total Fresh Summit show attendance in recent years has been around 18,000, and PMA officials said more than 21,000 attendees from 61 countries — were in Anaheim, Calif.
The event is the biggest part of the association’s revenue, according to tax forms filed by PMA with the Internal Revenue Service.
With $11.5 million generated from Fresh Summit 2010, the group reported total revenue of more than $17 million and expenses of $15.7 million that year, PMA’s tax document revealed.
While the bulk of Fresh Summit 2012 attendees were from the U.S., Silbermann said there was heavy participation from Canada and Mexico. Brazil had a strong showing, with a large contingent from Australia and New Zealand and more attendees from South Africa than ever.
United Kingdom-based Tesco brought top executives and produce suppliers to California for an Oct. 25, and some executives attended Fresh Summit 2012, to take in educational sessions and the trade show.
“I think you are going to see that even though global (attendance) has been growing very noticeably over the last five years, I really think you are going to see almost a tipping point this year in terms of the show really becoming truly global and attracting entire supply chains from other countries,” Silbermann said.
Silbermann said the strong international draw of Fresh Summit and the work of PMA’s Global Development Committee is a reaffirmation of PMA’s strategic plan to become a truly global association.
Statistics point to considerable progress already. As of mid-October, the group had 2,300 members in 45 countries, with 390 new members from all countries added this year, said Meg Miller, PMA’s director of public relations.
While Silbermann doesn’t see Fresh Summit being staged in other countries because of the size and the logistics of the event, he said the associations’ strategy is to develop country councils and affiliates in various parts of the world where members want to create their own region communities.
Australia and New Zealand are furthest along in that process, but groups in South Africa and Chile are also moving in that direction as well, he said.
“You will have events that will draw 1,000 people probably next year in Australia, where they have their own trade show and convention, and we’ve had Fresh Connections events in Mexico that have had 340 people and in Chile with 275 people, so I think that is more the model,” he said.
Silbermann said Fresh Summit provides a focal point for the produce trade in the U.S. and around the world, with regional shows also providing value.
“You can provide local value and also have a global meeting place, where the entire industry gets together,” he said. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”
PMA could play a role in the tomato dispute between Mexico and some U.S. growers. Silbermann said the role may be pointing out the importance of trade and seeing if common ground can be found between the two sides.
“The last thing we need is a trade war between the U.S. and Mexico, in which produce items in both directions are severely impacted,” he said.
Speaking about negotiations between national trade associations that ultimately failed to find enough common ground, Silbermann said the failed merger talks between PMA and United Fresh this year won’t kill the working relationship between the groups.
Citing the Produce Traceability Initiative, the Farm Bill Now coalition, the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and other joint efforts, Silbermann said PMA, United Fresh and other associations continue to coordinate their efforts.
“We are certainly not an organization that believes in going it alone,” he said. “We feel a responsibility and obligation as the largest association in the industry to include whoever wants to work together with us on any subject matter.”
Silbermann, 58, would not say when he might retire but said PMA will get all the time it needs for any transition to a new leader.
“The success of this organization will long outlive Bryan Silbermann, just as it long outlived Bob Carey’s tenure here,” he said.
Silbermann said it was more important to focus his attention on the strategic plan for PMA over the next three to five years to ensure the organization continues to grow.
“It is really not about the personality of the leader,” he said. “I focus much more on the team and member leaders.”