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PMA Senior Leadership Transition Set to Commence Jan. 1


A changing of the guard is officially under way at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), which is shifting its previously announced leadership transition plan into overdrive for the next 13 months.

In preparation for his retirement at the end of January 2017, Bryan Silbermann, CEO of the Newark, Del.-based trade association that he joined in 1983 and has led as its CEO since July 1996, is handing the reins of PMA's day-to-day operations to Cathy Green Burns, who came aboard as president two years ago to the day on Dec. 1, 2013.

Silbermann, who previously held both president and CEO positions, said the leadership transition is on course as planned 24 months ago, when PMA’s executive committee approved Burns as his successor in tandem with his planned early 2017 retirement.

In addition to overseeing the association's day-to-day operations throughout 2016, Burns will primarily focus, beginning on Jan. 1, on three core areas, including:

  • Benchmark performance progress, as outlined in PMA’s strategic plan 2.0
  • Serving as the primary contact between the board of directors and staff
  • Leading PMA’s long-term growth and staff development to ensure the association continues to provide year-round, personalized value to its members and the industry at large

"I will have one foot firmly planted in the present, executing against current strategic plan, with the other foot grounded on keeping an eye on preparing for the future of PMA," Burns told Progressive Grocer. Foremost to her profound appreciation for the opportunity to lead one of the global food industry's most dynamic and influential trade organizations, Burns cites PMA's triumvirate of strengths with "financial health, staff expertise and member engagement, all of which is poised for incredible growth in the future."

Thinking Ahead

Following a deliberate plan based on "good advice and trusted input from a variety of experts," Silbermann said the ongoing leadership transition is fitting with one of the most important lessons he learned from his predecessor and mentor, Bob Carey, who led PMA from 1958 to 1996 and whose legacy positioned PMA for its dramatic growth and stature as one of the most well respected trade associations in the world.

Reflecting on Carey's hand-off of the PMA torch nearly two decades ago, Silbermann said: "Although the process itself was handled a bit differently, the key message was that while you need to have continuity, you also need to get out of the way of the leader who's being handed the reins, so that everybody understands who is calling the shots, and who has the final say. That experience stood me and our organization in great stead, and I recall determining at the time that we would have the same type of values applied during the next transition."

To that end, Burns credits both Silbermann and PMA's past and present executive committees for "having the foresight to plan for" – let alone prepare to execute – "a thoughtful leadership transition. Not all organizations and associations can say that, and I feel very fortunate to have the continuity of an incredible bench strength on PMA's staff" across the board. Ditto for "the strength of our volunteer leadership," which she says includes more than 400 individuals around the globe who volunteer with PMA in some way or another.

Sowing the Seeds to Grow the Grass

For his part, Silbermann says the timing of the transition to Burns is excellent on a plethora of fronts, inclusive of her knowledge of consumer marketing and demonstrated industry leadership. "As one of our members said a few years ago, there are associations that exist to defend their turf, and associations that want to grow the grass. PMA is an organization that wants to grow the grass."

He continues: "When thinking about the ongoing demand creation activities" – that is, creating new ways to help consumers eat more fresh produce, inclusive of the budding strategic alliance with the Entertainment Resource & Marketing Association (ERMA), eat brighter! and FNV, among others – "bringing Cathy on board was a blessing."

While he and Burns will work closely during the course of 2016 on a variety of essential functions, Silbermann said he "will focus my attention on specific areas that Cathy and I have identified to best use my experience and interests in ways to help PMA and its members continue to grow," including:

  • Representing PMA at the association’s worldwide events
  • Meeting one-on-one with members to help them get the most value from their membership
  • Working with Center for Produce Safety Executive Director Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli to firmly establish its new governance processes and complete fundraising for the Campaign for Produce Safety
  • Working on collaborative initiatives with target partners, foremost being United Fresh Produce Association
  • Updating a history of PMA to help capture the institutional knowledge of long-time staff and volunteer leaders

When asked to identify but one of the many pressing issues unfolding across the fresh produce industry that strikes him as being the most dominant as PMA's next chapter is set to unfold, Silbermann singles out succession planning first and foremost.

"In an industry populated primarily by family companies, the single biggest challenge they face is succession planning. If there's one thing I hope our member companies learn from this [leadership transition] experience is the importance of putting succession planning at the top of the list, and the importance of getting out of the way of the people who are coming up in the next generation. It's also important to [acknowledge] you can't know all of the things that the next generation needs to know, so hiring smarter, younger people than yourself is also critical" to the process.

Burns concurs: "Many companies will tell you it's something they think about, but it takes courage to act. It's admittedly a touchy, difficult subject, and is something that takes time, planning, courage and investment, all of which are key components to making a successful transition work. But perhaps PMA's [very deliberate] process can be a model" for an inspiring call to action.

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