Crow, served cold, with Avocado on the Side

This morning saw the annual meeting of the California Avocado Commission (CAC) in Carpinteria. Another meeting will be held separately for Southern growers. It got pretty lively, as grower meetings go. Why? Some quick history:

 

In May of last year (2008), Mark Affleck, the Commission’s CEO of 20 years, abruptly resigned. Little was said of it publicly at the time, but obviously there was speculation. In early January 2009, the CDFA released results of an audit they conducted on the Commission, which concluded that a significant amount of money had been misappropriated for personal luxuries and home improvements, gym memberships, event tickets and the like. Mr. Affleck now heads a program affiliated with the Saddleback Church.

 

The number most frequently cited in press reports is $1.5 million in questionable spending. Thankfully, it appears the actual damage is somewhat less: Roughly $100,000 misspent by Mr. Affleck for his own benefit, another $200,000 or so in inappropriate spending on frivolous or questionable programs. The balance apparently represents the last three years of employee spending for any manner of things, but which CDFA did not flag after investigating. The full audit report is available at: www.avocado.org/assets/pdfs/cdfa-3.pdf

 

So what is wrong with CAC, other than having had a bad apple as CEO? The biggest problem, which the Affleck incident has highlighted (but hopefully not eclipsed) is that the organization has long had a low-accountability, free-spending culture. Growth in the avocado industry has been very good for the last few decades, and CAC deserves a share of the credit for that. It has engaged in a variety of consumer education programs, advertising and marketing efforts, as well as research on plant health and production. These programs cost a lot of money, and require a great deal of faith from the growers who fund them that they will work over the long term.

 

As seems to have been the case on Wall Street and elsewhere, the passion and confidence responsible for success gave way to arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Many growers have felt that CAC’s greatest marketing success for the past few years has been directed at the growers themselves, convincing them to continue to pony up the dollars for the Commission, even as the market for avocados begins to reach maturity. A slickly produced, self-congratulatory piece chronicling the Commission’s epic battles with import policies, angered more than a few growers, who saw that they were the only intended target of this marketing expense. So did a very expensive multimedia “war-room” at the Irvine headquarters.

 

Where does the commission go from here? I am cautiously optimistic after hearing the comments of CAC Chairman Rick Shade. While I think everyone associated with CAC would like to leave the whole mess at the doorstep of Mark Affleck, I felt that there was a real interest among Boardmembers to a “lean and mean”, accountable organization, and a sincere willingness to re-evaluate the Commission’s place in a rapidly changing market. Here’s hoping that a once great grower ally finds its footing once again.

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