Successes & Messes: When productive collaboration among competitors dries up

The U.S. raisin industry tries to rebound from falling sales and infighting.

By on / Business Negotiations

Industry rivals need to strike a balance between maximizing profits through competition and cooperating on ways to strengthen their market. Become overly competitive, and they risk fostering conflict and constricting innovation. Collaborate in the wrong ways, and they could end up cutting ethical corners or even breaking the law.

When an industry is struggling, this balance can be especially difficult to maintain. As reported by Jonah Engel Bromwich in the New York Times, the new CEO of Sun-Maid, the leading U.S. raisin producer, has learned this lesson firsthand.

Stealing the pie

When Harry Overly took the helm of Sun-Maid in 2017 from an industry insider, the $500 million U.S. raisin industry had been in decline for years amid growing competition from other snack foods and foreign raisin producers. A 38-year-old raisin-industry newcomer, Overly arrived in California’s Central Valley eager to explore ways to convince millennials to eat more of the sweet and healthy snack.

But when he met for the first time with other raisin industry leaders to discuss how they might work together to increase sales, Overly told the Times, the ideas they came up with were “completely illegal” and “nothing short of collusion.”

It soon became clear to Overly that California’s compact community of raisin farmers, packers, and executives was ridden with distrust due to disputes that went back decades. The California Dancing Raisins, Claymation characters used to promote U.S. raisins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had been a wildly popular sales booster. But after the head of Sun-Maid restricted his competitors’ use of the characters on their packaging, the campaign fell apart, and raisin sellers had resisted collaborating on advertising ever since. Industry fault lines grew deeper in 2015 after a Supreme Court decision prompted the end of a long-standing system in which raisin farmers shared the risk of low raisin supply in off years.

California’s compact community of raisin farmers, packers, and executives was ridden with distrust due to disputes that went back decades.

“What I figured out fast was that this was not an industry which was interested in figuring out how you grow the size of the pie,” Overly told the Times. “It is one where they figure out how to just steal different slices of the pie from each other.”

Heard it through the grapevine

As is common for other U.S. agricultural crops, raisin growers are allowed to collectively set industry prices, within a certain range. To try to preserve their profits, they generally have responded to shrinking consumer demand for raisins by raising prices.

But to boost sales, Overly believed, Sun-Maid would need to lower the baseline price for raisins. In late 2018, he launched negotiations with Kalem Barserian, the head of the Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA), which represents raisin farmers and raisin producers. The supply of raisins had rebounded from 2017’s heat-damaged crop, and Barserian, a 50-year veteran of the raisin industry, wanted to raise the base price of raisins to a record high. Overly objected. “I don’t know [in] what world … supply goes up and price is supposed to go along with it!” he said to the Times.

In California’s insular raisin community, “the gossip was that Sun-Maid’s new chief executive didn’t want to pay a fair price to farmers,” writes Bromwich. With negotiations at an impasse, Overly pulled Sun-Maid out of the RBA in October. He claims he was then the subject of intimidation, harassing phone calls, and even several death threats.

Raisin’ heck

With industry tensions at an all-time high, Overly and Barserian followed through on a commitment to appear together on a panel at Fresno’s Grape, Nut & Tree Fruit Expo in November. Addressing the crowd of raisin growers, Barserian warned about growing global competition and falling demand for U.S. raisins.

When it was his turn, Overly talked about the need to raise raisin prices sustainably. He then appealed to the audience: “We need to spend more time focusing on growing the pie than fighting over our piece of [the] pie within this industry. This fighting needs to stop.”

The forum opened up to audience questions. Jim Phillips, a grower who sells raisins to a Sun-Maid competitor, agreed with Overly that the industry needed to stand together. “Kalem, you don’t have a plan,” he said to Barserian.

Other growers stood up to offer their support for Overly’s collaborative vision. American Vineyard magazine reported that raisin growers left the meeting “with their blood pumping fast in excitement for the industry to finally get together and trigger some much-needed changes.”

Growers agreed to lower the baseline price for raisins, and tensions began to ease. In April, a delegation of raisin-industry leaders took a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. Many federal officials expressed surprise at the display of unity within the raisin industry, according to Overly, who now has more time and energy to focus on new-product development and marketing.

Raisins in the sun

Here are three lessons from the raisin industry’s breakthrough:

  • Reframe the game. Rather than looking at negotiations with competitors as a scramble to grab scarce resources, try to reframe them as opportunities for parties to grow the value of the pie through collaborative moves so that everyone can claim more.
  • Bypass unhelpful agents when needed. When Overly couldn’t reach agreement with Barserian, he made his case directly to the farmers the RBA represents. If you believe your counterparts’ representative is not serving them well, try going around him or her.
  • Address conflict head-on. Unresolved disputes can fester and taint interactions between parties for years, even decades. Whether through negotiation, mediation, or some other forum, allow parties to air and get to the root of their grievances.

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