The season for industry conventions is firing up in earnest.
That was especially apparent during the weekend just past as different segments of the industry traveled in different directions to attend events.
Let's hope the travel in different directions is entirely a geographical consideration, not a metaphor for something deeper. We'll see.
In any case, those in the industry whose interest centers on fresh products went west for the convention of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association in San Diego. At the same time, those interested in independent retailing and related wholesaling arrived in Atlanta for the convention of the National Grocers Association.
As so often happens, those seemingly unrelated events had something in common: In preconvention interviews, executives of both trade associations made reference to a long-standing issue that has been in eclipse lately, the issue of trade relations. In an interview with SN, Tom Stenzel, who was appointed president of UFFVA last August, mentioned that in his quest for information about the industry he undertook in connection with his new job, he found the produce industry more fragmented than he might have imagined. "I was astounded that the produce industry has retail sales of $55 billion, yet we have nowhere the clout that other industries do," Tom Stenzel said in the interview that appeared in last week's SN. "Each commodity does its own thing, each region does its own thing.
"It's going to take a while for the industry to believe that we're all in it together."
The fragmented nature of an industry such as produce that is rooted in commodities that grow -- as opposed to one centered on manufactured product -- is to be expected, and Tom Stenzel is no doubt correct in his call for all aspects of the industry to realize they are "in it together." But does that mean growers should pool their clout in a bid to make sure power is in their hands, not those of retailers? If so, a new round of trade-relations feuding could easily be loosed.
Luckily, that's not what Tom Stenzel had in mind, as is shown by what else he said: The UFFVA convention "provides an opportunity for retailers and suppliers to interact." And interact in ways that promote better industry-sector understanding, he made clear. The key to interindustry understanding is to make it possible for growers and buyers to know about developments that affect pricing, contract pricing, electronic data interchange and the like. The objective of understanding may be helped along at UFFVA. Meanwhile, other considerations concerning trade relations are at work at the NGA meeting in Atlanta. In a preconvention SN interview, Tom Zaucha, NGA's president, made a more direct reference to trade relations: "The issue [of trade relations] is still on the table, as it should be."
Tom Zaucha points out in the interview on Page 18 of this issue that talk about partnerships and intraindustry pilot projects shouldn't obfuscate the fact that fairness is still needed.
"There are a lot of partnerships going on, and as those pilot efforts produce results favorable to both parties, they're able to deal with both efficiency and equity, the two parts of the puzzle.
"But when both sides are not forthright in their partnership, the results have been mixed."
So, although proceeding from an interest in quite different segments of the industry, the tale of the two Toms is one that shouldn't be lost.
What they are really saying is that the industry as a whole -- and all its separate segments -- will be far better off if everyone tries to understand a point of view beyond the strictly provincial. And to the degree that trade associations can foster that as the convention season builds, winners from all sectors of the industry will emerge.