35th Anniversary Issue: The Vanguard Awards

35th Anniversary Issue: The Vanguard Awards

Jim Prevor

Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Building A Better Industry

Much has been said about the importance of the individual in history. T.S. Eliot spoke of a world composed of “vast impersonal forces,” and philosopher Herbert Spencer and revolutionary Karl Marx spoke of historical inevitability, discounting the importance of any individual. In contrast, the Whig-Liberal tradition in the 1800s stressed the “Great Man” theory of history, seeing the times molded by individuals, their ideas and and their leadership.

Our sense is that, though there are great forces of history imposed upon us, these forces do not predetermine the outcome. Individuals, by their insight and behavior, can lead us down different paths. Even if one wants to say that the world will ultimately wind up in the same place due to a theory of historical inevitability, it barely matters, because “ultimately” is a long time away, and we have to live, work and raise our families now.

Having had the privilege of knowing almost all the 35 Vanguards and the dozen leaders who have passed, we have little doubt that the industry would not have advanced as it has, had these leaders not been in place. Countless moments of crisis, countless opportunities in technology and politics, countless instances that demanded leadership — these moments were met by these individuals — men and women willing and able to seize the opportunities and advance the industry.

Of course, there are many unrecognized leaders. But we tied the number to the years since the founding of Produce Business, one per year, to honor and celebrate along with this, our 35th anniversary year.

All year long, we will be recognizing these industry vanguards in print and digitally, giving credit to those who have helped us build a better industry. We know, however, that all of our Vanguards would hope that, in these stories, we will find ways of living that empower each of us to make our own lives more vibrant. May these inspire us to become the best we can be. May we each find ways to contribute to this industry that we all call home.
– Jim Prevor

The 35 Vanguards:

Tonya Antle, Earthbound Farm/Organic Produce Network
Steve Barnard, Mission Produce
Cathy Burns, Produce Marketing Association
Karen Caplan, Frieda’s Inc.
Lisa Cork, Apio/Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd.
Dave Corsi, Wegmans Food Markets
Rich Dachman, Sysco/Brighter Bites
Matthew D’Arrigo, D’Arrigo New York
Bob DiPiazza, Dominicks/Sams Club/Sun Pacific/DiPiazza Consulting
Drew & Myra Goodman, Earthbound Farm
Doug Grant, OPPY
Reggie Griffin, The Kroger Company/Reggie Griffin Strategies, Inc.
Jim Lemke, C.H. Robinson/Robinson Fresh
Alvaro Luque, Avocados from Mexico
Dave Marguleas, Sun World International
Paul Mastronardi, Mastronardi/Sunset
Ed McLaughlin, Cornell University
Michael Muzyk, Baldor Specialty Foods
Marc Oshima, AeroFarms
Jay Pack, Standard Fruit & Vegetable/The Pack Family Foundations
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale Corp.
Roger Pepperl, Stemilt Growers
Bruce Peterson, Walmart/Peterson Insights
Joe Pezzini, Ocean Mist Farms
Miles Reiter, Driscoll’s
Lynda Resnick, Wonderful Brands
J Schwanke, Ubloom.com
Bryan Silbermann, Produce Marketing Association
Mayda Sotomayor, Seald Sweet International
Dick Spezzano, The Vons Companies/Spezzano Consulting Services
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Bruce Taylor, Fresh Express/Taylor Farms
Tim Vaux, Dupont/The Vaux Group
William Watson, National Watermelon Board/National Mango Board/The Fresh Approach
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

Vanguard Heroes:

Rick Antle, Taninura & Antle
Bob Backovich, Safeway
Frieda Caplan, Frieda’s Inc.
Bob Carey, Produce Marketing Association
Carl Fields, Monterey Mushrooms
Steve Gallucci, Wegmans Food Markets
John McAleavey, Eastern Produce Council
Barney McClure, McClure & Tjerandsen
Joe Nucci, Mann Packing Company
Jack Pandol, Pandol Brothers
Joe Procacci, Procacci Bros.
Terry Vorhees, Southeast Produce Council


Produce Marketing Association

Leading the Produce Marketing Association from 1958 until his retirement in 1996, Bob Carey inherited a floundering, nearly bankrupt organization, and basically reinvented and elevated PMA’s industry purpose, scope and influence, opening a renaissance of produce innovation and opportunity.

“During that 38-year period, he adeptly steered an organization that changed organically through the decades from a national one focused on packaging materials and technologies to a global one focused on marketing from seed to store” — store being the operative word, according to Bryan Silbermann, who carried the torch of Carey’s legacy for the next 34 years at PMA, 20 as its president/CEO.

“It was a produce renaissance, and Carey was a key person and catalyst in the heart of that renaissance.”

Carey had the foresight to cater to the evolving industry consolidation and buying dynamics, as retailers started exerting influence as the main buying group. The directional shifts generated a new and game-changing retail presence, which fueled the organization.

According to industry retail veteran Don Harris, Carey ingeniously recruited prominent, forward-thinking regional and then national retail chain executives to the PMA board. It changed the trajectory when Carey convinced Bob Backovich, who was vice president of produce at Safeway, the first big national chain, to participate. In those days, Safeway, among others, traditionally loathed such participation, and was averse to sharing information outside its company boundaries. Carey worked to break down those barriers.

Indeed, “Bob Carey was one of the industry greats,” says Dick Spezzano, former vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company. “We had the power of the PMA behind us to sell the advantage of important programs and affect sweeping industry improvements.”

“The industry was awakening… there were so many new concepts… and Carey brought all these guys together — a mix of forward-looking retailers and growers/shippers. “It was always about pushing the industry forward, and even if we didn’t all agree, there were positive ways to reach a solution that could benefit everybody. It became like a brotherhood,” says Harris, adding, “We grew up watching Bob Carey and his contemporaries, on both the retail and supplier side, stirring the industry. They were willing to try something new, to discover innovative ways to do things differently and better. It was a produce renaissance, and Carey was a key person and catalyst in the heart of that renaissance.”

“It’s a correct statement that bringing in retailers to the PMA was a game-changer because United focused on the supplier side. Bob Carey said if the buyers come, then the vendors will follow,” says Spezzano, a member of the PMA board for 11 years and chair at one time. “Over the years, this happened. I think it’s pretty clear that the PMA size is probably three times plus of United in reserves, in membership, in companies, maybe a little less than that, but it is large and that Bob’s strategy worked,” according to Spezzano.

“In the PMA board and committee meetings, I’d be just as interested to hear from the growers/shippers side of the table; their concerns were my concerns, and they wanted to hear from my side of the table,” says Spezzano. “Bob used to say when you walk into those meetings, you take your company hat off and put your PMA hat on.”

“Bob had a wonderful way of bringing together people from diverse backgrounds with different business interests to find a commonality of purpose that could benefit all. He served in an era when the industry was growing fast and needed an organization that could adapt quickly to the changing needs of the membership,” says Silbermann.

“When produce directors at supermarkets found themselves accountable for building floral sales in the 1970’s, they turned to Bob to help them create better understanding of this category to forge links with floral suppliers. When restaurants started moving from frozen and canned vegetables and fruits to fresh in the late 1970’s, Bob and PMA again stepped up and helped produce suppliers build new bridges with distributors and operators,” says Silbermann.

“I had the pleasure and honor to be hired by Bob in 1983 and learned much of what I know about association leadership from him during the 13 years we worked together,” adds Silbermann. “By the time he retired in 1996, PMA had grown from 100 company members to thousands and its membership spanned the globe. He laid the foundation and gave us the tools and understanding to continue growing,” says Silbermann.

“Contemporary PMA leaders have asked me what kind of man Bob was and I’ve said, ‘He was your everyman, the uncle you could trust, the confidant who brought out your best by letting you find your own truth,’” says Silbermann. “A key lesson I’ve learned from Bob Carey is you can accomplish a lot more if you don’t care who gets the credit… From experience, association leadership is about building bridges, having one foot in the present, the other stretched out into the future, looking out over the horizon and helping your members find their own road forward. Focus on the status quo and you perish.”

Silbermann gave a eulogy in December, 2013, “We owe Bob Carey so much, because none of us would draw the great benefit we do from PMA were it not for the legacy created by the man we are gathered here today to honor and to remember. Bob Carey really was a Man for All Seasons and A Man for All Ages.”

The Vons Companies/ Spezzano Consulting Services

“Dick Spezzano is unquestionably the finest industry leader I have ever met anywhere in any trade association,” says Bruce Peterson, former senior vice president of perishables at Walmart. “Even when we were competitors, he inspired tremendous loyalty, rallying people around a particular cause with fervor and charisma,” and he championed many groundbreaking causes.

“I count him as a dear friend, but a great mentor, because Dick taught by doing,” Peterson adds. “He led by example, and it’s one of the highlights of my professional career to have had the privilege to have known and to have worked alongside of him at the PMA.”

Spezzano, former vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company, and current president of Spezzano Consulting Services in Monrovia, CA, has never lost his eminence as a visible head of the industry. He has been an unstinting volunteer industry leader over the years in prominent roles at PMA, United Fresh, Fresh Produce and Floral Council (FPFC), Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), and the Center for Growing Talent (CGT), among others.

Spezzano played an instrumental role in galvanizing the industry to institute standardized PLU’s and UPC’s.

Industry executives often credit Spezzano for driving significant supply chain improvements to reduce shrink and waste and increase productivity, especially when it comes to standardized hard wood pallets. “At the time, there was what we called one-way junk pallets, all different-sized pallets for different commodities,” says Spezzano.

“Sometimes the wood was terrible and would collapse, causing a safety issue, and it became really problematic for slotting,” says Bob DiPiazza, former group vice pre of perishables at Dominick’s, and later senior vice president of perishables at Sam’s Club and president of Sun Pacific. By standardizing pallets, loading trucks became more efficient with evenly distributed loads. “Before, you had product shifting around creating damage and shrink. It made a huge difference safety-wise and from a labor standpoint as well.”

Again undeterred, Spezzano played an instrumental role in galvanizing the industry to institute standardized Price Look Up (PLU’s) numbers and Universal Product Codes (UPC’s), a critical turning point in increasing produce sales and profits. With proper identification of items at checkout, retailers were open to an explosion of new items and varieties enveloping produce department shelves to excite consumers and increase consumption.

“This was a game-changer, one of the major breakthroughs of the industry,” says Spezzano. “We were struggling. We lost two percent of revenue on the front-end because of product misidentification, which was exacerbated as we were increasing the amount of SKUs being stocked that didn’t have a package. It was a nightmare. Everyone had their own numbering systems,” he says.

With a lot of pushback on the grower side, Spezzano credits Bryan Silbermann, who was a vice president at PMA then, who worked very hard to get other key retailers on board. Spezzano recalls how he and Harold Alston from Stop & Shop, Bob DiPiazza from Dominick’s, and Ed Odron from Lucky aggressively traversed the country meeting with retailers, grower organizations and suppliers, imploring them to adopt generic codes and persuading them to make it happen. “We covered every major city, every retailer… It was like we were stumping for a campaign, and Dick was running it, so we won,” says DiPiazza.

Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s Inc., says, “Dick Spezzano kept me on my toes.” Dick was an early customer, she says, noting that her mother Frieda Rapoport Caplan took him under her wing at the Los Angeles Wholesale Market when he became a buyer at Vons. The professional relationship with the company blossomed as he advanced to director, and then vice president of produce and floral.

“Dick was well aware of the challenges and errors they were having on the front-end. If you ring up a purple passion fruit or a red tamarillo as a plum, which they kind of look like, you’re losing money. It cost them a $1 and they rung it up as 10 cents. When your biggest customer tells you either label it or you’re going to eat it, it creates a sense of urgency,” she says, adding that Dick was on the PLU board and he made sure there were PLU numbers assigned to the specialty items.

Working for the Vons Companies for 34 years, Spezzano was part of the start-up team for many new store formats, the most famous being Pavilions. Spezzano was “all in” on the Euro greens packaged salad track back in the 80s, collaborating with Dennis Gertmenian, CEO of Ready Pac Produce. “At that time, we were selling a 1-lb pack of salad at about $1.49. The new Ready Pac Euro salads were 8-14 oz, and we had to retail them at $2.49-$2.99. For that price, you could have bought a whole case of romaine for a Caesar salad,” he says, yet he quickly realized how it would become a wild success.

“Because of my extensive travel, I was able to see the most innovative equipment, packaging, merchandising, and operational systems in the world for both produce and floral and take them back to Vons and ‘Vonsize’ them in multi-deck cases, refrigerated free-standing cases, multi-temp wall and table fixtures, ripe fruit sections, melon and juice bars, state-of-the-art fixtures for floral, and many others,” Spezzano says.

He also developed chainwide full-service floral departments at Vons, transforming in-store cut flower and plant displays to full-service florist shops.

As a non-voting board member of the California Avocado Commission, Spezzano was also instrumental in helping to develop a preconditioned avocado program. “This was a result of working with CAC to test two displays, and we found we increased avocado sales by 35 percent, reduced shrink and had more satisfied customers,” says Spezzano. “Keep in mind, this was back in the late 1980’s and the industry didn’t start a preconditioned program until the mid-1990s.”

On the PMA board of directors for 12 years, and its chairman in 1995/1996, Spezzano says, “Of the committees that I have served on, the ones I’m most proud of are the PLU/UPC committee and being the chair of the Center for Growing Talent. As the chair of the CGT, I had a second opportunity to serve on the Board for the PMA, with 20 years in between.” Spezzano is the only past chair who served on the Board of Directors after being a chairman. Bridging the generations, and fully engaged in the transformational changes through the years, Spezzano continues to remain active in the industry, committed to mentoring new industry talent that will contribute for years to come.

Dominicks/Sam’s Club/Sun Pacific/DiPiazza Consulting Services

Bob DiPiazza’s remarkable, multifaceted impact on the industry spans 50 years, from his trend-setting moves as vice president produce/group vice president merchandising at Dominick’s Finer Foods, to his groundbreaking role as senior vice president of perishables for Sam’s Club, to his innovative product and development role as president of Sun Pacific Marketing. He continues to make indelible imprints, providing consulting services to the supermarket and club industry and their allied supplier base, and by serving on multiple industry boards and committees to help the industry grow and prosper.

“When Bob was at Dominick’s, through its evolutionary stages from 1970 to 1998, he worked on developing the regional chain’s Fresh Store as a leading store format in the nation,” and one to emulate at a time of retail upheaval, according to Dick Spezzano, former vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company. The Fresh Store optimized a way to differentiate, adjust to demographic nuances, and compete against the Walmart onslaught and pricing wars that were shaking up national chains, struggling to get their bearings.

DiPiazza was known for his gumption in introducing consumers to exciting new produce varieties and products, and catapulting produce sales with clever merchandising, marketing, and promotional programs.

In fact, in a sign of the times, Safeway acquired Vons, and soon after Dominick’s in 1998. To capitalize on the economies of scale with its national store model, Safeway discontinued and morphed the Fresh Store concept under its own banner, to the chagrin of Chicago customers, and eventually reinstituted a lot of the original elements innovated by DiPiazza, according to Spezzano. “I’d see the innovative things he was doing with the Dominick’s Fresh Stores, and that’s how I would learn, visiting my friendly regional non-competitor to see what I could take back to Vons in California.”

DiPiazza designed an iconic supermarket with a European-style, open-market feel, that included salad bars, precut fruit programs, prepared foods, and in-store restaurants/cafes. It was celebrated for its produce quality, variety and depth, with all the fresh perishables adjacent under one roof. DiPiazza was known for his gumption in introducing consumers to exciting new produce varieties and products, and catapulting produce sales with clever merchandising, marketing, and promotional programs. That’s why Sun World’s proprietary varieties did so well with Dominick’s, because Bob recognized a good product, says Spezzano.

“Bob DiPiazza and Dick Spezzano were two of our real champions in the 1980’s, and at the time they were heading up produce operations for two really iconic regional retailers that have since become part of larger national organizations,” says David Marguleas, CEO, Sunworld International. “I used to do promotions called the Tastes of Sun World, and I’d put everything they grew with the ad because I thought they were such an innovative company,” says DiPiazza.

DiPiazza was one of the original test partners with Fresh Express to successfully launch bagged salads. He introduced 5-deck dairy-style cases that ran much cooler than typical produce cases and re-engineered produce cases to handle the product properly and maintain the cold chain, which was a critical factor for the rapid development of the packaged salad and precut fruit categories. DiPiazza also developed progressive marketing concepts, such as 10-cents-each produce promotions that drove huge consumption, and were adopted by many retailers across the United States, according to Spezzano. This introduced consumers to obscure items at that time, like kiwi, baby eggplant, poblano peppers, portabella mushrooms, lychee, tomatillos, and sunburst tangerines.

DiPiazzo came up with the “Buy One Give One” promotion where for every advertised item the customer purchased, Dominick’s gave the same item on behalf of the customer to the local food bank. This promotion raised over 10 million pounds of produce. “We sold so much product that the food bank said we can’t possibly use all this in one year,” says DiPiazza. “I think we sold 40 truckloads of 10-pound bags of russet potatoes, also onions and carrots… there was a variety, but every one of them experienced tremendous movement.”

DiPiazza moved to Bentonville, AR, in 1998 and moved the dial on the produce industry, when he was brought in as senior vice president of perishables for Sam’s Club, responsible for fresh meat, deli, bakery, produce floral, in-store cafes and refrigerated and frozen foods categories with a multi-billion-dollar sales budget. “Bob brought them along at Sam’s Club and increased their volume tremendously in their produce share of the total business too. That was a serious accomplishment,” says Spezzano.

“Bob was also greatly responsible for the development of the Walmart Global Procurement Program with offices in South and Central America, China, Europe and other locations furthering the global and international trading of fresh produce and floral,” says Spezzano.

“I was pretty vocal in saying, we can do this on our own and probably save 15 percent, and in an organization the size of Walmart, that’s not millions, that’s billions of dollars,” says DiPiazza. “We had to learn the import business and its myriad complexities. One of the big challenges was getting the platform of our purchasing systems to marry up with what we were doing domestically, involving a lot of internal IT work. Another obstacle was to get Walmart transportation involved in booking vessels and that was new to us. I think this was the start of what today we commonly refer to as the global economy. It’s really led to what I would call the global marketplace.”

DiPiazza’s third stage of his career channeled the supplier side as president of Sun Pacific. He increased national kiwi consumption five-fold by developing “Mighties,” the branded value-added, ready-to eat-kiwi program, according to Spezzano. He would work with the avocado ripening people throughout the U.S. to precondition the kiwis, and that was a big breakthrough. Now most of the kiwis are sold packaged where they used to be sold in bulk.

DiPiazza also eliminated tons of food waste by developing “Baby Cuties” as an avenue for small-sized mandarin oranges that were historically not marketed. He was instrumental in making Cuties a household name and one of the recognizable brands in the produce department, by securing enough new business each year to move the entire crop, which was growing exponentially, and gain mass distribution into Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, all the big chains and major regional chain operators across the country.

In keeping with the large and lasting impacts of his career, DiPiazza has regularly volunteered his time and talent to further the industry. His influence in driving important industry initiatives range from serving on the Standardized Generic PLU/UPC task force and FMI’s produce category management task force, to becoming co-chair for the Center for Produce Quality, the first industry initiative to improve produce food safety, and a founding board member of PBH, to his leadership roles at PMA, as a board member for over 10 years, and as PMA chairman.

Walmart/Peterson Insights

It’s not easy to overstate the enormous impact that Bruce Peterson, former senior vice president/general merchandise manager of perishables at Walmart, has had on the produce industry’s growth — starting with his influential prowess in building the largest retail produce operation in the world.

“Bruce spent more than a decade making massive changes to the way Walmart and the industry looked at creating stronger relationships between retail buyers and suppliers,” says Bryan Silbermann, former president of the Produce Marketing Association. “Bruce once said to me that once Walmart’s growth plans were reached, the challenge for him wouldn’t be deciding from whom to buy, it would be assuring the company that he could actually procure so large a consistent supply of product.”

For perspective, when Peterson left Walmart in 2007, the company was buying more than two shiploads of Chiquita bananas a week, according to Peterson.

“In one sense, his leadership of Walmart’s expansion in produce and then fresh foods more broadly rewrote the rules of buyer-seller partnerships. Ensuring consistent supply and stabilizing price fluctuations became the hallmarks of his time at Walmart,” says Silbermann.

Peterson jockeyed to adopt Walmart’s general merchandising model of contracting and co-managed replenishment systems to the produce industry.

For context, when Peterson came to Walmart in 1991 to interview with Sam Walton, it had six supercenters, no distribution centers, no perishables transportation. “It was buying produce from Fleming, the grocery wholesaler at the time. Walmart was a general merchandise retailer, focused on total groceries — what they call consumables, things like Tide and paper towels and cookies,” says Peterson, noting, “They did sell some produce in Sam’s Clubs, but not a whole lot of it.”

Peterson, originally from Michigan, had worked on the wholesale market in Detroit, and more crucially for seven years at Meijer, whose operations had many similarities to what Sam wanted to accomplish. He had recently joined Bakers, a 10-store chain in Omaha, NE, when he got the life- and industry-altering call from Walmart. “I was doing more business in produce in this nice little chain than Walmart was doing in those supercenters,” says Peterson. “To put it into context, you had the Kroger Company… you had Safeway… which was a national chain… Albertson’s was a pretty big deal, and, of course, Food Lion was going like crazy. And that was just in the United States,” says, Peterson, adding, “You still had Tesco and Carrefour and these international chains, and Sam Walton said we’re going to be the largest grocery chain in the world in 10 years. I remember coming out of that interview thinking, what the heck am I getting myself into?”

Creating fresh produce departments in these new supercenters would be key to drive more frequent consumer visits and make them a one-stop shopping experience that went far beyond the general merchandise approach of the old Walmart.

When Peterson left Walmart in 2007, it had 2,473 Supercenters, 110 Neighborhood Markets, plus it had perishables in its regular Walmart stores, and 45 distribution centers. “That kind of growth had never been done in the history of the supermarket industry, and it will never be done again,” speculates Peterson, noting, “We were opening 250 stores in a day.”

In an audacious move, Peterson jockeyed to adopt Walmart’s general merchandising model of contracting and co-managed replenishment systems to the produce industry. “Nothing like that had ever been done before,” he says, acknowledging, “we were learning on the fly. Contracting produce was kind of a foodservice thing back in the early days, and on the retail side it usually didn’t work very well. It’s really a testament to a lot of the suppliers we were doing business with early on that helped us reform and refine that model,” he says. “We were the first major retailer to do long-term produce contracts on a large scale.”

What a lot of people and businesses take for granted now didn’t exist when Peterson came on board at Walmart. “We built the entire infrastructure to cause these supply chain efficiencies to happen. It enabled us to grow as fast as we did,” says Peterson. Walmart’s infrastructure broadly spurred transformations and streamlining of produce supply chain systems toward future growth, with other companies emulating the model and developing competitive platforms.

While Peterson was busy reinventing Walmart, he was also committed to industry leadership and working collaboratively to solve industry-wide issues. “He understood the need for employee training early on,” says Silbermann. “Technology was obviously a driving force behind the changes he implemented to ensure that the logistical challenges of moving so much produce through so many distribution centers could happen consistently. When food safety became a much bigger issue for the industry, he again took lead roles — especially when it came to consumer education on safe handling.”

In the context of food safety, Peterson proselytized traceability, and upon leaving Walmart, his first venture was with Mike McCartney of QLM Consulting to establish a global produce traceability strategy, working behind the scenes to help effect industry change, when PMA, CPMA and United joined forces for a bold Produce Traceability Initiative.

Bound to the industry, Peterson later became president and CEO of Naturipe Farms, and then as a consultant, where he remains a sounding board for industry executives, who never stop calling him for advice and direction, and he happily obliges.

Peterson spent some 14 years actively involved in PMA on a task force or on boards, as the chairman and also as the executive chairman. He also lobbied government, while representing Walmart as a big buying interest, and he was able to educate key law makers and government agencies on a lot of important issues in the produce industry.

Peterson also understood how fresh produce and the Walmart quality/value proposition with Every-Day Low-Pricing were indomitably tied to the company’s success. Back in the 90’s, Chiquita was one of the top 10 brands in the world. So, it wasn’t just a matter of having the best price on bananas. “It supported our national brand strategy,” he says, noting, “In the entire time I was at Walmart, the single, Number 1 volume item in a supercenter, the entire supercenter was bananas — more than tires, more than clothes, more than electronics. That’s how important it was,” says Peterson.

Walmart also was a pioneer in RPC’s, along with HEB, when no other retailers were interested. Walmart used its retail weight, explains Peterson, to break new ground in RFID technology advancements by incorporating the technology via RPC’s for produce, with the idea that you would ultimately know where everything is at any point in the supply chain. And while that initial RFID effort got derailed, primarily by costly roadblocks, such efforts were the forebearer of a lot of the things that are going on today.

“When you look at all the supply chain initiatives happening at retail and in the industry in general, a lot of it was based on the knowledge and the foundational efforts that we did back in the early days at Walmart,” says Peterson.

Produce Marketing Association

Taking his mentor Bob Carey’s lead, Silbermann navigated PMA to the level of preeminence, considered and regarded as the international forum for the entire produce industry. The largest worldwide, non-profit trade association representing companies that market fresh fruits, vegetables and related products, PMA’s membership skyrocketed to 3,000 companies in 50 countries. From supermarket retailers to growers, to global exporters, to restaurant chains, Silbermann was a master at enjoining the buying and supply sides of the business to mutually beneficial outcomes.

Following Silbermann’s direction, PMA initiatives interlaced through a plethora of ground-breaking industry advancements. Silbermann, who joined PMA in 1983, and in 1996 began his 20-year term as president and CEO, was instrumental in launching and developing landmark programs and services, working closely with key industry leaders and stakeholders domestically and across the globe.

“Bryan was one of the smartest people I knew,” says Bruce Peterson, former senior vice president of perishables/general merchandising at Walmart. “I had a chance to work quite closely with Bryan. He has an amazing ability to understand the issues,” says Peterson. “I give Bryan so much credit because he took over the organization from Bob Carey and raised it to new heights,” Peterson explains.

Silbermann valued the collaborative milestones in integrating cutting-edge technology and innovation into the exponentially globalized fresh produce industry, and finding safer and more efficient ways of driving fresh produce consumption.

At the time of his retirement in January 2017, as he passed the reigns to Cathy Burns, Silbermann valued the collaborative milestones in integrating cutting-edge technology and innovation into the exponentially globalized fresh produce industry, and finding safer and more efficient ways of driving fresh produce consumption. Those milestones run the gamut, including Silbermann’s active role in the late 1980’s in driving adoption of standardized coding systems Price Look Up (PLU) and Universal Product Code (UPC)]. These initiatives proved a revolutionary turning point in industry growth, allowing retailers to handle the global influx of new varieties and sizes, leading the groundwork for category management and the ability to do Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), explains Silbermann.

“At the time, Bob Carey was the chairman of the PMA, and Bryan Silbermann was a vice president, but he spearheaded generic UPC and PLU development, working very hard with us behind the scenes to implement it,” and corralling the major players to get on board, says Dick Spezzano, a Vanguard himself, who was vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company back then.

During Silbermann’s reign, the infamous Spinach E. coli crisis in 2006 not only brought many produce companies to their knees, but put the industry under the scrutiny of government oversight and national media. The PMA’s response was to spearhead the formation of The Center for Produce Safety, the Produce Traceability Initiative, and food safety communication campaigns.

Since its inception in 2007, The Center for Produce Safety has funded hundreds of research projects and invested millions of dollars in institutions around the world to answer critical questions regarding produce food safety. Silbermann’s directive: “We must encourage the creation of a new research paradigm, one that requires the collaboration of industry, government regulators and scientists to generate new learnings to improve the world that we will pass to our children.”

Silbermann went on to push in-depth research into consumer demand shifts and trends to help steer companies on the best strategic paths. His eagerly anticipated annual state-of-the-industry presentation at PMA’s Fresh Summit was recognized as a benchmark for trend-spotters.

An advocate of industry-wide activities to educate consumers and spark produce consumption, Silbermann was in on the ground floor of The Produce for Better Health Foundation (which PMA first sponsored and housed), and later had a strong hand in The Sesame Street “Eat Brighter!” campaign with First Lady Michelle Obama; and

Always looking to strengthen and extend PMA’s reach, Silbermann, born and raised in Durban, South Africa, orchestrated PMA’s first international affiliate, PMA Australia/New Zealand; partnered with the Foreign Agricultural Service to bring buyers from across the globe to the PMA Fresh Summit; and was a dedicated supporter of PMA’s Foundation for Industry Talent, later rebranded as the Center for Growing Talent.

The Bryan E. Silbermann Collaboration Award was established in 2016 in recognition of Silbermann’s 34-year career at PMA. The award recognizes an individual’s collaborative leadership style in uniting industry members or organizations, including those outside the honoree’s own organization, to realize mutually beneficial solutions to an industry issue.

“I think Bryan’s greatest contribution to the produce industry was his skill to seek out and unite leaders,” says Peterson. “Bryan always had a tremendous ability to bring talent into the Association. People don’t appreciate how important that is. He orchestrated what I call the next chain of leadership, so they were equipped to step up. He put them in positions where they could be ready to lead,” says Peterson, adding, “He groomed me to take on more industry-type issues and industry leadership. I think a lot of my professional development is owed to Bryan Silbermann.”

In turn, Silbermann says of his mentor Bob Carey: “He’d often repeat the saying, ‘You can get so much more done when you don’t care who gets the credit.’ I found this approach so very wise and used it has much as I could when I succeeded him in 1996. It not only gave members a stronger sense of owning their association, but it also developed their own leadership skills that they would then take back to their respective businesses.”


When the editors of Produce Business met and sought to identify the industry Vanguards of the past 35 years, we were left with one devilish question: What to do about Jim Prevor? By any editorial standard, his record at founding new industry institutions — magazines such as Produce Business, web and digital properties such as the online PerishablePundit.com and PerishableNews.com and live events such as The New York, London and Amsterdam Produce Shows and Conferences — placed him squarely in the vanguard of advancing the industry. He has written thousands of pages, given countless speeches and counseled so many, in formal share groups and informal conversations.

He has represented the industry on television, radio, Internet and print properties. He has lectured at colleges and universities across the country and around the world helping to build support and understanding for the global produce industry.

He started his career trading on the Hunts Point Market as heir to a multi-generational family business, and wound up being actively engaged in almost every major produce challenge over the past three decades.

When we came to Jim and suggested that he too should be a Vanguard, he said he would rather give his place to someone else. Inevitably, if you give an award to yourself it comes across as self-serving.

So he is not included in this list today. We thought, though, that we should do something… so we are collecting Jim’s writings from Produce Business magazine, more than 2,000 pages in these 35 years, and we will publish a bound boxed book set. It will be a few months before it is ready, but we will give away 35 sets, each signed by Jim, to celebrate and commemorate the occasion.

If you would like to be included in the drawing please send us an email to [email protected].



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