Q&A: Produce Marketing Association CEO Cathy Burns

Cathy Burns
Cathy Burns

The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) is a global trade association representing the fresh produce and floral supply chains. Founded in 1949, the organization is based in Newark (55 of its 87 employees are in Delaware), but it has a truly global footprint, with members in more than 40 countries, including China, Chile, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. We caught up with Cathy Burns, former president of Food Lion, who signed on with PMA in 2013 and took over as CEO there early last year.

Q: What are some big challenges facing the industry?

CATHY BURNS: Supermarket retail is an incredibly competitive business, even more so today as more channels compete for consumers’ food dollars. Consumers have a new set of expectations for how they want to shop. The integration of digital and physical experiences is forcing retail to create new ways to interact with customers. Consumer demand for free, same day/next day delivery of online purchases has produce and floral retailers and suppliers racing to expand their multi-channel fulfillment capabilities.

Q: How do you explain PMA, as a trade association, to an outsider?

CB: The best analogy I can give is this: Think about the fresh produce department in your local supermarket. An overwhelming number of grower/supplier/processor brands you see, as well as the store you are standing in, are likely connected to PMA in some way. We also have many food-service operators, such as Darden (which operates restaurants such as Olive Garden, Yard House, etc.) as members, and include a wide variety of produce distributors that service these restaurants among our membership as well.

Q: What have you learned since becoming CEO there?

CB: The desire for innovation and how it permeates every link in the global fresh produce and floral supply chains. It would be very easy for an outside observer to think about produce and floral as an industry made up of “just farmers,” but it is so much more than that. I have seen incredible innovations in robotics and technologies as our members deal with the same challenges other industries face: labor shortages, environmental concerns, food safety issues, and more.

Q: Anything else you’d like to talk about?

CB: One of our industry’s greatest challenges is the ability to attract, develop and retain talented employees. Through our charitable foundation, the Center for Growing Talent by PMA, we’ve partnered with a number of universities in the U.S. and around the world to bring college students to PMA and industry events so that they can see and experience the kinds of opportunities available in the fresh produce and floral sectors. The center also offers leadership development for industry professionals, ranging from emerging leaders/young professionals to the C-suite. Talent is a universal challenge facing businesses today and we want to do our part to ensure our members and industry have access to the best and brightest minds that will drive us forward.

Q: Does PMA partner with any universities in Delaware?

CB: The University of Delaware participates in our Career Pathways program, which connects students with industry leaders at our own events and at other industry gatherings so they can experience the potential career options available to them. Eight Blue Hen students who participated in the Career Pathways program took their first job or internship in the produce industry. There is a long list of UD grads actively working and engaged in the produce industry — including PMA’s original staff president, Robert L. Carey — both from our Career Pathways program and otherwise.

Q: What does PMA like about being headquartered in Delaware?

CB: Being a global organization based in Delaware, our staff — and our members when they visit — have great travel options through the Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington, DC airports, and via Amtrak. Personally,
as relatively new residents of Delaware, my family and I enjoy spending time at the beach, riding bikes, the vibrant theater and arts community, and more. Delaware is a gem of a state and there’s always a new discovery waiting to be found.

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