Bryan Silbermann has cut a giant figure in his role as president and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association over the past 20 years.

His departure brings new questions about PMA's future. How will Cathy Burns make her mark on the organization?

Silbermann assumed the sole title of CEO when Burns was hired as PMA president in 2013 as part of the association's succession planning.

As he departs PMA Jan. 31, Silbermann said he is pleased with the leadership transition at PMA and the role of Burns.

"Having Cathy on board and seeing how beautifully she has fit into the role as the leader, what a great level of acceptance that our staff has of her, and our leaders have of her, how the members have of her, and how she is really helping the staff team to develop and grow - that gives me a great sense of satisfaction of leaving it in wonderful hands to take it to the next level," he said.

The challenges that Burns faces will be different than what Silbermann encountered in his 34 years, but the strong PMA group may make the narrative similar.

Silbermann recently spent about five hours in a video-taped session with PMA veterans Kathy Means, Nancy Tucker and retired executive Duane Eaton. Together they recalled memories, moments and people during their time at PMA.

"It was putting down digitally the soundtrack for the last 60 years at PMA," Silbermann said.

As a musician and an association executive, Silbermann said he believes his style of managing has reflected collaboration, playing off the ensemble strengths of others to make better music together.

"The sum of the parts is what creates harmony, and I always believe in the collaborative approach, and finding bridges to span the differences between people and companies," he said.

Silbermann said that one of the things he is most proud of is his ability to insert clarity in the language of the produce business.

"When I came in here everybody used to bandy the word 'commodity' around, that it is a 'commodity-based' business," he said.

"I think in the past 34 years we have made progress in moving the bulk of discussions away from the word 'commodity' and towards the word 'food,'" he said.

"The produce industry as a whole is much more aware at a personal actor level that they are dealing in food and not dealing in commodities," he said.

Another shift in the mindset is using the word "fresh" instead of "perishable."

Decades ago, Silbermann said "perishable" was used in a somewhat pejorative sense by center-store retail managers.

"Those (center-store) guys were saying we have all the shelf-stable items in the center of the store and then you have the perishable things on the perimeter you have to worry about," he said.

Silbermann said he has talked to retailers all over the world about the distinction.

"I tell them you are not the vice president of perishables, you are the vice president of fresh foods," he said.

Silbermann's insights about "fresh" and thinking of fruit and vegetables as food rather than commodities are themes he believes are an important mark of his leadership at PMA.

As Silbermann looks ahead - we surely will miss his "State of the Industry" Fresh Summit insights - he sees several challenges that the industry and industry associations face.

Farm labor supply will be a point of stress in the U.S. and other countries, he said.

In addition, Silbermann said water availability and global climate change will create problems and perhaps opportunities for produce growers.

The rising tide of nationalism and protectionism also is a potential threat, he said, and the politics of the moment are changing.

"I would also be worried about the industry losing visibility and the sense of importance in the political environment, not just in the U.S. but around the world," he said.

For produce marketers, Silbermann believes that value-added marketing will continue to trend higher, leading to what he called a rolling tide of new products and packaging.

Home delivery of food also will increase in the next five to 10 years.

"I think long-term growth of home delivery in taking the place of shopping is clearly something that is here to stay," he said.

"We need to be, as an industry, to be able to adapt our packaging to that, and adapt our supply chain to that," he said.

Blue Apron and Amazon Fresh might well have different needs than retail stores, he said.

The key for PMA and other industry associations is to remain relevant, he said, to have one foot in the present and one foot striding toward the future.

"The role of the association has been always and will be to look out over the horizon," he said.

If Silbermann is identified with application of technology solutions and the globalization of the business, Cathy Burns will define her era in her own way.

She, with Silbermann, has shifted the industry's conversation to consumer demand and how it is created.

"Marketing is not sales," he said. "Cathy has said a lot about that in the last year, especially since we hired Lauren Scott as your chief marketing officer at PMA."

The movement of the industry to value-added products since the 1990s is evidence of the importance of marketing, Silbermann said.

"That's a trajectory that is going to continue."

It's a tough task to take PMA to the "next level" after the contributions of Bob Carey and Bryan Silbermann.

But then again, the trajectory is still pointed up.

Tom Karst is The Packer's national editor. E-mail him at tkarst@farmjournal.com.

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