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Western Growers mainstay Matthew McInerney to retire

Matt McInerney is clearly a throwback to a different era. He began his produce industry career where he is ending it — at Western Growers Association. He hardly missed a day of work in that 40-plus year career and his plow-horse work ethic is truly emblematic of the industry that he serves.m1Matthew McInerney

After 43 years with the organization — the last 25 as the No. 2 person — McInerney is retiring from his senior executive vice president role in March of 2019, after the association’s first board meeting of the year.

Growing up in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, McInerney claimed to have had an uneventful first 20 years. The youngest of five children, he played basketball for the local Catholic high school.  

“Like most every young person, I thought I’d grow up and be a professional athlete,” said McInerney. He quickly realized that basketball wasn’t going to get him into college after facing the powerhouse, college-feeding high school from a neighboring community. That school was loaded with Division 1 college prospects and McInerney noted he wasn’t in their league, figuratively.

McInerney did make it to college, however, following the lead of one of his older brothers and attending the University of Southern California. He majored in business administration with an emphasis in marketing, but upon graduation didn’t have a clear idea of what career path he would take. That might well have been the last time he attempted a task with no clear definition of purpose.m5Matt and Luanne McInerney.

“I graduated in 1975, which coincided with a dip in the economy,” he said. “I sent out a multitude of job applications but was finding it difficult to find full-time employment.”

A family friend in the farming business in Bakersfield, CA, paved the way for an interview with Daryl Arnold, who was the president and chief executive officer of Western Growers at the time. Arnold was also an alumnus of USC and had a great affinity for the school. There was a position open at the association for a field representative. “Mr. Arnold encouraged me to give it a try for a few months at a salary of $900 per month,” McInerney recalled.

He spent the next two years on the road, visiting members and pushing association products, such as the WGA Claims Service. “In those days, lots of freight moved in refrigerated rail cars through the Southern Pacific,” he said, noting that the department was busy adjudicating existing claims while the new WG field representative touted the service during his calls to members. He spent two full weeks of every month on the road and half of the days the other two weeks.  “My territory was all of California and Arizona,” he said.

m7Matt McInerney and his son Michael.McInerney learned the produce business from the ground up from the top minds in the industry… and he loved it.  

“Prior to coming to Western Growers, what I knew about fresh produce was that celery went into a Bloody Mary, an olive was used in a martini and limes were used in gin and tonics,” he quipped.

McInerney quickly learned a lot more. “I called on some incredible people. They welcomed me into their businesses and answered any questions I had with patience,” he said.

He recalled fondly of meeting industry veteran Paul Fleming of Admiral Packing many years ago when both were much younger men. “It was mid-June and I was in the Imperial Valley during the cantaloupe season… and it was very hot,” he said. “I was wearing a sports coat and tie. Paul said to me, ‘You must be new. Farmers don’t wear ties.’”

As McInerney recalled the story, he claimed to have learned his lesson.  But as anyone who knows him will tell you, he has often shown up over those four decades as the only guy in the room wearing a coat and tie.  It’s part of his throwback demeanor. Casual Fridays at Western Growers were never his cup of tea.

As he spoke about the early years and reminisced about those early encounters, he mentioned Bill Ramsey of Mann Packing Co. who gave McInerney a tour of the company’s new state-of-the-art facility. McInerney recalled that Ramsey spoke of his employees as part of the family.  

“That has stuck with me all these years,” McInerney said. It is a philosophy that he believes is very representative of the produce industry.

It was sometime in 1977 when Western Growers started to transition this relatively new employee into the claims arena. About a decade earlier, the association had begun representing its members with their PACA disputes. McInerney jumped into that marketing services department, as it was called at the time, feet first and became fully immersed in the nuances of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. In fact, he became one of the industry’s foremost experts on the subject, often participating in panel discussions from coast-to-coast, as well as conducting regular seminars for WG members and their sales teams. If it had to do with PACA regulations, McInerney was the person to call.

m9Matt McInerney chairing a DRC board meeting with DRC President Fred Webber.As he recalled the highlights of his career, he listed the passage of the PACA Trust amendment in 1984 “as a very bright moment.” The charge was led by John Norton, a politically active Arizona grower-shipper and cattleman, who was also a former WG chairman of the board and a leader in many other organizations. Patterned after a similar amendment in the livestock business, Norton advocated for the Trust provision, which put produce suppliers in a priority position in the event of a bankruptcy by a firm on the buy side of the equation. Over the past 30 years, that provision has helped the produce industry recoup hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another highlight was the establishment of the Dispute Resolution Corporation. “I am very proud of the effort that was put forth to establish a tri-national (Canada, Mexico and the U.S.) dispute resolution system that gave shippers from all three countries a road map and guidance on how to handle disputes no matter where you shipped your product,” he said.

McInerney served as chairman of the DRC from its inception in 2000 through 2017, and believes the organization has served the industry very well over these years solving thousands of international disputes in an equitable manner. It was fashioned after the PACA, and ultimately gave shippers the same level of confidence for all their North American sales as they had with the ones within their own country.

In 2007, Western Growers, in conjunction with C.H. Robinson, established the Western Growers Transportation Program. McInerney worked closely with CHR over the past decade fine-tuning the program and helping to pitch it to members, as well as helping to expand it to other associations around the country. While the Western Growers Transportation Program continues to evolve, addressing the transportation needs of the fresh produce industry, McInerney called it one of the highlights of his career as it truly tackled an industry problem with a specific solution. The program involves aggregating the buying power of transportation users to secure better rates and better service.

Still another highlight for McInerney was the six years he served as chairman of the Alliance for Food and Farming. This was another collaborative industry effort to solve a problem. This time the challenge was combating the public relations nightmare caused by the annual publication of the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list. The list purports to rank the worst fruits and vegetables with respect to pesticide contamination. The Alliance has combated that effort with its own public information campaign, complete with experts and facts. McInerney said the effort has resulted in greater scrutiny of EWG’s work and more honest representation of the produce industry’s use of crop protection tools.

What each of McInerney’s remembrances have in common is that they were, or are, solutions to significant industry challenges. What they also have in common is that McInerney pointed to them as highlights of his career. Rather than single out personal triumphs, of which there were many, he focused on what he perceives to be the biggest industry gains during those 40 years. There is nothing more telling about his service than that philosophy — to him, the industry always comes first.

During his career, McInerney served Western Growers in a variety of positions. He always kept his hand in the PACA work, as he loved that piece even as he rose to the senior executive staff. Over the years he oversaw almost all WGA activities at one time or another. He served a stint in Washington, DC, in between lobbyist hires and also was named interim president of the WGA for a period of time as the association traversed the very difficult period between the untimely death of President Dave Moore in 2001 and the hiring of current president Tom Nassif in 2002.

As he retires from the association as senior executive vice president, McInerney refocused the praise on the work of the three presidents he worked for: Arnold, Moore and Nassif. He said each was a great mentor, who brought enthusiasm and a love for the industry to the position.  

“For the past 17 or 18 years I have been very lucky to work for Tom Nassif who has been a great leader and has brought a great entrepreneurial spirit to the organization,” said McInerney. “Over those years we have seen phenomenal growth in the services and products we offer to our members. We are a solution-driven association.”

McInerney said that has been the approach at Western Growers since he joined the organization 43 years ago. He said Arnold tolerated any well-thought out solution even if it wasn’t the right one. What he didn’t like was a poorly reasoned decision.

As he looked at that pervasive philosophy, he noted that one of the constants for the association has been the long list of industry leaders that have served Western Growers in the all-important volunteer leader positions. He said he has served with many generations of the same families as the organization leaders are often second-, third- and fourth-generation family members of the growers who founded the organization and have taken it on its 90-year journey. He started to list some of those who influenced him the most but chose not to continue because he did not want to leave anyone out.  

“There are just too many to name,” he said. “I can’t recall one board member that I wouldn’t want to go out and get a beer with.”  The list, he said, is truly a who’s who of the produce industry.

“What I will miss most is the relationships — both in the organization and in the industry,” he said. “And the thrill of the hunt. Every day I came to work with a mental agenda and almost every day, there was a curveball to deal with. At the end of the day, you look at what you accomplished from your agenda and you also look at the two or three others things that you got done. I’ll miss that.”

McInerney believed his career has been one long list of highlights. “I truly can’t think of a Sunday during my career when I didn’t look forward to getting up and going to work Monday morning.  I have been blessed.”

McInerney expected his retirement to involve a slowing down of the process. “What we are going to do next is still a work in progress,” he said. “I’m looking at some non-profit opportunities that are not agriculture related. And we are going to focus on traveling. I’ve been blessed with a great partner at my side in Luanne and now it’s time to sit back and relax and take care of other things as we reach a more mature age.”