A few dozen men and women were wandering around the meeting room at the Westin Mission Hills Resort & Spa, saying their goodbyes after several days of warmth in the desert of Southern California. It was a welcome break for many of them, a chance to escape an endless and wickedly cold winter was one of the reasons many of them fled the cold Canadian climate and America's Northeast and Midwest. The reason for this gathering was the annual North American Meat Association (NAMA) Management Conference.
More importantly, though, was a chance to witness the first step leading to an historic marriage of NAMA with the American Meat Institute (AMI). NAMA is the result of a recent conjoining of the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) and the National Meat Association (NMA). The courtship between those two groups, a natural union of near equals in scope and membership, began with a brief flirtation seven years ago. It was derailed for a time by the distrust of each group's members of the other group's work ethic.
It was a union that needed to happen for the good of the hundreds of medium-sized meat companies that made up the heart, soul and financial well-being of the two memberships. The impending nuptials were announced two-and-a-half years ago and the formal conjoining was blessed July 1, 2012. Presiding over the ceremony was Barry Carpenter, the new CEO.
The meat industry now had one major organization working for the very small processors: the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP); another handling the medium-sized companies: NAMA, and a third working with the heavy hitters: AMI. It was a very neat arrangement but three voices purporting to speak for the vast North American meat industry sent an often conflicting and occasionally confusing message to Washington and the general public. There were just too many people making too much noise.
But anything other than a marriage of temporary convenience between NAMA and AMI, two groups known for being at odds more often than harmoniously singing from the same song sheet? Not likely.
But an unexpected event happened. Late last fall, J. Patrick Boyle, the face, voice and incredibly driven force behind AMI for just a few beats short of a quarter century, announced his retirement. There was no logical successor waiting in the wings. No one had been groomed to step into his very large shoes. A search committee was quickly formed and almost as quickly went dormant.
There was an interesting solution being whispered behind a few closed doors. In the middle of winter, some trial balloons were filled with the heated helium that often floats around Washington and allowed to rise in what little warmth keeps that city from freezing to death. Quiet discussions were held. Could NAMA, the fresh-faced new kid on the block, actually merge with AMI, the grand daddy of them all? Was it a feasible union? What would it look like? Could it actually survive?
Committees were formed by both groups to answer those questions. Not being part of either conversation, I can only imagine a lot of late night debates over many beers, a few Jack and Cokes and a considerable amount of sweat. But both groups came to the same conclusion: it could work and it might be a very good thing for the industry.
A need for a unified voice was the first thing they appreciated. A strong, steady hand running the new Association/Institute - Barry Carpenter - was another thing they wanted. To make it happen, though, the boards of both AMI and NAMA had to agree to it. NAMA went first and just before lunch on Saturday, March 22, with vocal support from influential people such as Keystone Food's Dane Bernard, Ideal Meat & Provisions' Larry Vad, David Wood of Harris Ranch, Birko/Chad's Mike Gangel and Smithfield Food's Dennis Treacy, the board voted unanimously in favor. One lone and unidentified voice from the back of the room, lost in the dustbin of this historic event, yelled a fruitless 'nay.'
AMI votes next, an almost assured stamp of approval in a few weeks, and then it will be a done deal. All the minutiae of merging the 108-year old AMI with the 2-year old NAMA will be hammered out and nailed down in the months following that vote. A new organization under the direction of the skilled Mr. Carpenter, who has promised at least three years at the helm, will begin speaking for the industry as of January 1, 2015.
Expect the new association - will it be called the North American Meat Institute? - to reach out to sister organizations in Canada and Mexico and to work more closely with U.S.-based groups like NCBA, AAMP, USMEF, NPPC, NTF, and NCC.
It still won't be a completely unified voice. Looking at that 'acronymonius' list of associations, there are still too many tongues being wagged without benefit of a central language. It will cut down on the many different messages being sent to North America's capitols and the folks occupying the Senate and House on Capitol Hill will have to take notice of a more focused approach. It will definitely strengthen the hand of the meat and poultry industry in Washington, Mexico City and Ottawa and make it a much more potent factor worldwide.
**A clarification from a NAMA spokesman: "Barry Carpenter has committed to 3 years or more with NAMA, but leadership can’t yet be declared in the new organization." **