NWA welcomes new executive director
As the National Watermelon Association prepares for the departure of longtime Executive Director Bob Morrissey, it also looks forward to embarking on a new chapter with a new leader.
George Szczepanski joined the NWA in January and will officially take the helm of the association during its 108th annual convention Feb. 22-26 in Asheville, NC. While Szczepanski is new to the watermelon industry, he has already amassed a wealth of experience in produce.
Szczepanski is a graduate of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, earning a bachelor’s degree in food marketing. Prior to graduation, he interned for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture in 2004, working under Alfred Murray, the former assistant secretary of agriculture for New Jersey.
Upon graduating in 2006, Szczepanski went to work in sales for Jac Vandenberg, working on that company’s grape deals. In 2008, he returned to school, earning his master’s degree in agricultural and natural resource economics from the University of Delaware, which was a hop, skip and a jump from the Produce Marketing Association headquarters in Newark, DE.
“I saw a job opening at PMA and I applied, thinking it would be about a two-year stint,” said Szczepanski. “I ended up loving it there and stayed for 12 years, working in a variety of roles, which always kept things interesting.”
Among his early duties were recruiting members, selling exhibit space and working in business development. He eventually rose to director of membership and engagement for business service providers, and then ultimately to director of production, supply chain and environmental policy in the government relations sphere, his most recent role prior to departing for NWA.
“I developed an interest in the government relations side of things, and I walked into Cathy Burns’ office one day to tell her about my passion for policy,” he said.
“Cathy always had an open-door policy and was very receptive to the idea, and never forgot the conversation. She gave me a shot in this new arena with the start of IFPA, and I am forever grateful.”
At PMA (and IFPA), Szczepanski said he derived the most satisfaction from coming up with ways to add value to members.
“I liked implementing strategy that could make a difference to members, and just generally working on the ‘big picture’ and making things happen,” he said. “I’ve always worked hard at every job I have held. I guess I just like to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.”
“George was a strong contributor to both PMA, and then IFPA, in his time with the organizations,” said IFPA CEO Cathy Burns. “He always brought the voice of the member to discussions around our advocacy efforts, programs and resources, and I know he’ll apply the same leadership in his new role with the National Watermelon Association. We will miss him, and I know all of us at IFPA look forward to collaborating with, and supporting, George in his exciting new endeavor.”
That work ethic, combined with his prior work and association experience, makes him an ideal fit to lead the NWA.
“The tradition and history of the NWA was a big part of my decision to take the position,” he said. “I love that the watermelon industry is a close-knit group, like a family, and I am a family man from a very close family. When I spoke with the board, I learned they were very much interested in doing good things and moving forward into the next era, which was very attractive to me.”
While the NWA is based in Lakeland, FL, Szczepanski resides in Delaware with his wife, Laura, and two young children: four-year-old daughter Maddie and two-year-old son Jay. He said he will travel frequently to Florida, but will maintain his primary residence in Delaware. He credits the NWA staff with helping to ease the transition.
“I’ve had a lot of support in getting familiar with the watermelon industry thanks to the NWA staff,” he said. “I’ve also had some great interaction with the National Watermelon Promotion Board staff as well, and they have been wonderful.”