NWA’s outgoing leader left his mark
When Bob Morrissey joined the National Watermelon Association nearly 20 years ago as the organization’s first executive director, there was no blueprint to follow. He was tasked with setting a new course for one of the oldest commodity-specific organizations in the world.
“I was presented with a blank slate when I came on board,” he told The Produce News recently. “What we built was a vision to incorporate the best programs that were in existence elsewhere, while always keeping the focus on the growers. I have always believed that if the growers are successful, then the industry would be as well, and the association would also grow and be successful, too.”
At that time in late 2004, the NWA was best known for its National Watermelon Queen program, and a convention that centered on that competition. Other parts of the convention at that time were committee and board meetings, along with an auction.
“The blank slate that was laid in front of me was an opportunity to create something that would last for generations, while we built a viable organization that made a difference. So, we went to work to build a website along with an extensive communications program,” he said.
“When I first came aboard, we dipped our toe in federal policy and had a contracted lobbyist to advocate on our behalf,” Morrissey continued. “However, there was no research component nor any emphasis on food safety or other significant matters of great importance to the industry. These were all things that were needed and would benefit our members.”
So Morrissey set a goal to fill those voids. Soon, the NWA was entrenched in numerous areas of Washington politics, while it built a viable and strong research grant program that delved into numerous pest and disease pressures.
Outreach to members was elevated by way of a new website and twice-weekly e-newsletters to keep all informed. Social media was included as part of the strategy to connect with members. Educational programming became a popular staple at the annual convention, and the entertainment portion of the convention was nothing less than world-class. The live auction that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars [to benefit the association] had the bar raised with a silent auction and memorabilia additions, as well as philanthropy causes that are important to the association’s board. The auction has become the highlight of the NWA’s annual gathering.
“No one else does an auction like we do,” said Morrissey. “I’m not sure that any other group could do it, at least not how we do.”
Morrissey said the ultimate goal with all of the additions and changes was for a single purpose.
“We embraced an internal mantra: To make a positive difference in the livelihoods of our members every day,” he said. “We pursued that goal while we advanced the NWA’s footprint on a national level and increased the value proposition to our members.”
Morrissey added, “We pursued so many areas of interest and need including a global graphics design contest that resulted in our member-chosen logo in 2015. Later on, we knew that we had to update and modernize our mission statement, which was also member-chosen in 2018: ‘Shaping the Watermelon Industry for Future Generations’.”
Morrissey said it was a slow process at times, as not everyone is open to change. “But, I knew that we had to remain diligent in our efforts to adapt and evolve as an organization if we were to remain relevant and gain new members,” he said.
“Probably the thing that stands out to me most about Bob’s work at NWA was his vision,” said Ray Vincent of Vincent Farms, who served as chairman of the NWA from 2019 to 2021. “He was able to see what we could be as an association and he worked hard to achieve that. We are a much larger and stronger association on a national level because of Bob.”
As the NWA gets set to meet in Asheville, NC, for its 108th annual convention, attendees will experience many of those points that Morrissey made a priority earlier in his tenure. They will also witness a changing of the guard, as Morrissey will be turning over the reins to the association’s new executive director, George Szczepanski.
“In many ways, the timing is perfect to make this change,” said Morrissey. “The Covid years changed the way we do just about everything, from the way we shop to the way we eat to the way we do business. George is a bright young man and will have the opportunity to bring a fresh approach into the association to move it forward. He has a solid foundation with productive programs and services, a great staff and an association that is in the right places on the national scene. The future is bright for the NWA.”
Morrissey said he will miss many things about leading the NWA, especially his team.
“One can argue with my next comment, but I will say unequivocally that my team is the best in the industry, and they are awesome,” he said. “We accomplished all that we have with the smallest staff among all national and regional groups, and we built programs and services that are comparable to groups much larger than us. We challenged ourselves, committed to the mission, and stayed vigilant to be better tomorrow than we are today. We made positive differences in the lives and livelihoods of our members. And when issues arose, we took them on with vigilance and a desire to make change happen.”
One such instance he recalled was around 2010 when the Food Safety Modernization Act was being crafted. At the time, there was a Listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupes, and the Food & Drug Administration; the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the media were not distinguishing other melons from cantaloupes.
“All melons, including watermelons, were lumped together under one commonly used term, which was really detrimental to our members,” he said. “We had a consumer study done over a weekend which showed that watermelons sales dropped by an immediate 17 percent when the outbreak with cantaloupes happened, and the word ‘melon’ was used.”
Morrissey, with the support of Dr. David Gombas (retired vice president of research for the United Fresh Produce Association), made an impassioned plea to FDA and CDC to specify the types of melons involved in any outbreak, rather than the generic term “melon.” The result was that FDA and CDC both dropped the generic term “melon” and called out the specific crop in future uses, thus reducing pressure on NWA members.
“Bob was instrumental in getting watermelons separated from cantaloupes during this food-safety outbreak and it really helped our industry a great deal,” said Vincent.
In a more recent case, Morrissey said he received a call from a member in Texas alerting him to the fact that pallets were difficult to find due to supply chain issues.
“It turns out that pallets were short in the market, with many retailers holding on to them and not returning them to the pool,” he said. “I called [Texas International Produce Association President and CEO] Dante Galeazzi, and together we created a national conversation to raise awareness of the pallet shortage.”
He said he also worked with Galeazzi on obtaining an exemption for produce on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s hours of service rule that pertains to truckers. That, too, was a localized issue that moved into a national conversation as a result.
“I always felt that if there is an issue that our members are facing, it was our job to do something to affect a positive outcome for them,” he said.
Some of those positive changes have been a bit more fun, according to Morrissey.
One was when the NWA partnered with NASCAR driver Ross Chastain, whose family has been growing watermelons in Florida for six generations. Chastain worked with Morrissey to redesign his car to look like a fresh-cut watermelon.
The NWA also worked hand-in-hand with the National Watermelon Promotion Board to create a retail display contest for watermelons that is wildly successful, according to Morrissey.
“That was a fun way for us to share ideas with the goal of promoting the crop,” he said.
Additionally, Morrissey successfully lobbied Congress to designate July as National Watermelon Month.
With legislation sponsored by former Sen. Saxby Chambliss (GA) and former Rep. Adam Putnam (FL), the designation was made official by Congress in 2007.
In Vincent’s eyes, one of Morrissey’s most important contributions to the NWA and the watermelon industry in general was his effort to engage the younger members of the industry.
Vincent said Morrissey was behind the development of the Future Watermelon Farm Leaders program, which recognizes the next generation of growers and packers who will lead the industry and association into the future.
“Bob identified the importance of cultivating the younger people in the watermelon industry, and I am also a huge advocate of this because the next generation is crucial to our survival as an industry,” said Vincent.
In addition to embracing the younger generation, Morrissey created the NWA Hall of Fame program in 2014 to recognize the “movers and shakers” in the association of the past.
“Creating the future leaders and Hall of Fame programs was an opportunity to welcome in the new while we honored the past,” said Morrissey.
“He likes to refer to the watermelon industry as a ‘family’ and our convention as our ‘family reunion,’” Vincent added. “While it is true that the we [NWA members] are competitors, we are also friends, and Bob helped to foster that spirit during his time at NWA.”
As for what the future brings for Morrissey, he said he has been contacted with a couple of possible opportunities, but he’ll take some time to consider his next step.
“Most likely, whatever I do will be part-time or short-term assignments,” he said. “I know that I cannot go from 150 miles per hour to zero, but I also want to enjoy more time with my wife of 43 years, Betsy. She has been my rock and best friend through thick and thin. And since we are building our new home in North Carolina, there will be plenty to do from building a barn to planting trees to learning how to fly fish. That will all keep me busy for a while. Plus, I have obligations to the Anglican Union to advance the church globally, and to the military foundation that supports the healing of our war veterans. After all of that, I will await a sign from the Good Lord to guide me to what may be next.”