Eighteen months of work on a merger between United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association came undone over a disagreement over the leadership and vision for the combined group. It appeared that many in the industry favored a merger; a small sampling in a January poll in the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group showed 80% favored and 20% opposed a merger of the two national trade associations.
The shorthand version of the last bit of unraveling was this: the PMA board of directors wanted Bryan Silbermann to lead the combined group, while United Fresh could not abide with that precondition.
Putting aside for a moment the future relationship between these two groups – suspend all the hopeful talk about moving ahead, focusing on the members, find new ways to collaborate, etc, - let’s take a “hindsight is 20/20” backward glance at these negotiations.
Admittedly, we don’t know much about the details of the process; only this week the full list of joint task force members was published in The Packer.
The merger talks began about February 2011 and we know that outside experts were employed to help facilitate the talks.
My first issue is with these so-called experts. How many tens of thousands of dollars were they paid? What did they truly accomplish?
Why didn’t they sit down and tell the respective task force members for both PMA and United that letting the leadership issue go unresolved was not going to work? Why let the task force and the members of both boards choose the ill-fated option of kicking that can down the road?
One scenario that I heard discussed by another association leader would have taken the nettlesome issue of leadership off the board entirely. In this view, the task force should have built the liability of the severance packages of both Silbermann and Stenzel into the cost of the negotiations. In that case, both leaders would have been on notice that, while they may be considered for the chief executive position for the merged association, there were no guarantees to either of them that their position was assured.
Make no mistake, the severance packages would not have been pocket change. Still, the investment may have paid off.
When all the details of the merger were completed and the deal was struck, the new board could have hired a firm that specializes in executive recruitment to begin the process of identifying the next chief executive officer. Silbermann and Stenzel could have put themselves forward as candidates, and the “star search” may have uncovered the next association Wunderkind.