Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

When we think of experts, we often think about high-priced consultants and others we hire to advise our businesses.

But my experience with the United Fresh Produce Association’s volunteer leadership groups tells me we don’t have to look far for experts among us.

At United’s recent Washington Public Policy Conference, produce leaders were able to conduct more than 100 meetings with members of Congress and their staff, despite coming on the first day of the infamous government shutdown.

Those meetings were important to continue driving our industry’s messages on the need for immigration reform, passing a new farm bill, and ensuring sound food safety policy.

But, there were also other meetings that week that were equally important — the meetings of United’s market segment boards and expert councils.

Our industry faces some tough challenges, and I’ve found there’s no better expertise to solve those challenges than when industry members come together to share their perspectives, experiences and solutions with one another.

I have many close colleagues among chief executive officers who manage different industry trade associations in Washington. When we share ideas and talk about our own challenges as association leaders, those friends often remind me how the produce industry is unique in competitors’ willingness to share expertise for the common good.

Of course many associations have boards and committees, but I see a deeper level of trust and engagement when members of the produce industry come together.

United’s volunteer leadership structure is unique, bringing together nearly 500 industry representatives in different leadership positions, from different disciplines and different business types. As an association working to serve the total supply and demand chain, our universe of members is truly diverse.

Since we know that different market sectors have different needs, the board of directors established many years ago market segment boards focused on serving specific sectors of our industry.

Today, grower-shippers, fresh-cut processors, wholesaler-distributors, and retail and foodservice leaders all engage regularly in driving business solutions with others in their specific segment of our business.

But there are also many issues that are cross-cutting across our entire supply chain, requiring a focus within a professional discipline or area of expertise. Here, expert councils bring together professionals who share common expertise and responsibility for addressing a specific area of the produce business.

Not surprisingly, the Food Safety & Technology Council is our largest group of experts, now numbering some 130 professionals across every segment of the supply chain.

Other long-active councils bring together experts in government relations, supply chain logistics, and nutrition and health.

More recently, in 2012 our board formed two expert councils after analysis of industry needs showed a void for professionals in produce marketing and merchandising, and finance and business management.

We realized that empowering the shared experiences and synergies within each of these professional disciplines can really help our industry grow.

As I’ve observed the Produce Marketing & Merchandising Council in its first few meetings, there’s no better example of companies being willing to set aside competitive differences and share best practices and insights to advance our industry.

Of course our members will always be battling it out in the marketplace, seeking to pull market share from one another. But our real goal as an association is to work together to increase produce market share among all food purchases.

We know there is a huge upside for all of us as we change the way the next generation looks at fresh produce.

That’s why I’m so excited about this council’s recent announcement of the 2nd Annual Retail Produce Marketing & Merchandising Conference to be held immediately after the United Fresh and FMI Retail Connect shows in June in Chicago.

The council began work at its last meeting to define today’s key challenges and opportunities in marketing produce to drive best practices.

And, they’ll soon be putting programs together and selecting speakers for the June conference to address those opportunities.

So next time you’re looking for a little expert advice, consider getting involved with peers in the business and volunteer to serve on an association board or council.

When you volunteer to get involved with a local, regional or national association, you’ll be sharing your own expertise, but you’ll also be learning from others as we work together to grow our business for all.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

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