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Innovation is key to produce industry growth, says Silbermann

NEW ORLEANS -- In his annual State of the Industry address, Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, worked hard to conjure up the image of the late technological wizard Steve Jobs of computer fame.

Dressed in Mr. Jobs' identifiable all-black attire, Silbermann began with a joke on that subject and he referred to the Apple founder very early in his talk. All of this was seemingly well-planned to focus the audience's attention on Mr. Jobs' greatest asset: innovation.

Adding a few words about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezoz to his comments, Silbermann told the crowd "We can learn from these masters of innovation."

Innovation on several fronts was the tone of this keynote address that kicked off the opening general session of PMA's Fresh Summit convention, held Oct. 18-20, here. Silbermann talked about many topics and brought experts onto the stage to discuss his three main areas of focus: the foodservice sector, marketing and increasing the role of women in the industry.

But first he set the stage by opining that the world of food distribution and marketing is "changing faster than we can imagine." Silbermann said it is becoming a "shopper-controlled marketplace" at both retail and in foodservice.

His focus on the foodservice sector was punctuated by a visit on stage by Dawn Sweeney, president of the National Restaurant Association, who revealed some statistics about that sector of the industry that point to its huge impact.

Restaurant sales, at $660 billion last year, account for 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, she said. There are 13.1 million people working in that industry, which represents 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and 50 percent of every working person in the United States worked at a restaurant at one time or another.

Sweeney said there are several restaurant menu trends that bode very well for the produce industry. Consumers say they want healthier menu items as many of the top 10 menu trends include a healthy component: gluten-free items, locally sourced fresh food, healthier kid meals, house-made items and more fruits and vegetables on the menu.

Lots of these trends have a nutritional component that can be met by increasing the use of fruits and vegetables. She added that restaurant chefs enjoying working with fresh produce because the perception is that they can create healthier dishes without sacrificing taste.

Sweeney gave a pitch for a career in the foodservice industry, indicating that over the next 10 years, restaurants will add a million jobs. And she said many are good career growth jobs and not of the minimum-wage variety.

In the discussion about bringing more women into the industry, Silbermann talked about PMA's own efforts, including its Career Pathways Program as well as its first-ever women's conference held earlier this year. He said it was the most highly rated program PMA has ever held.

He asked the industry companies in attendance if they have "embraced" the changes necessary to attract more women to their companies.

Helping him make the case to do just that was Elisa van Dam, senior director of executive education and corporate outreach for Simmons School of Management, which was the group that ran the PMA Women's Leadership Conference.

Van Dam was straightforward in her presentation, making the case for the hiring of more women and putting them in leadership roles. She said there is a financial, talent, market and effectiveness case for taking that position.

On the financial angle, she discussed several studies, including one by the Harvard School of Business, showing that companies with the greater number of women in leadership roles do better financially, both in terms of profits and share price.

Of course, she said this might not be just because there are more women at these firms. It might be that these companies that seek out more diversity are also more open to the idea from all employees, and that's why they do better.

The Simmons executive said numbers alone can make the talent case. Women currently make up more than half the graduates from college in the United States. Thus, it makes statistical sense that they own at least half the brain power. Ignoring this group and hiring a greater percentage of men means that statistically you must drop further down on the brain power continuum to fill an open position.

For van Dam, the market case might well be the most compelling and the one area needing the least explanation.

"Women buy more produce," she said, indicating that it only makes sense to have a women's perspective when marketing to women.

When discussing effectiveness, van Dam once again used studies to make her case. She said when all things are equal, research has shown that when there are more women on a team of business competitors, the team performs better. It is one correlation that she says constantly proves itself.

She urged every member of the audience to identify two to three women in their companies with potential and support their professional development.

In his third major focal point, Silbermann said the produce industry has to do a much better job of marketing its products. He said the industry has to focus on emotions and get consumers to feel the passion of fruits and vegetables.

Illustrating this point with him were Jeff Dunn, chief executive officer of Bolthouse Farms, and Sam Kass, senior policy adviser on nutrition for first lady Michele Obama. Dunn joined Silbermann on stage while Kass was piped in telephonically from his perch in the White House.

Dunn discussed efforts ongoing at his company to help fresh produce compete against the "junk food" snack industry. His team of creative people are working on a strategic plan to steal from snack food marketers and create passionate users for their products.

Dunn revealed research showing that just using familiar fictional characters that kids relate to on produce packaging greatly increases sales. He said the industry must develop new ideas that target kids in an effective manner to eat healthier foods. And he believes PMA should be an "aggregator" of these ideas and a facilitator of change within the industry.

Kass is involved in the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign to greatly reduce child obesity in one generation. He sees great opportunities for the produce industry to lead the charge and is very encouraged by efforts by many sectors to create a fundamentally healthier country.