After 43 years with Western Growers—the last 25 as the number two person—Western Growers Senior Executive Vice President Matt McInerney is retiring in March of 2019, after the association’s first board meeting of the year.
McInerney grew up in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, the youngest of five kids. His mother was a registered nurse and his father worked as a sales manager in the Keds shoe division of U.S. Rubber, and were very much believers in higher education. McInerney followed the lead of one older brother and went to the University of Southern California. He majored in Business Administration with an emphasis in marketing, but upon graduation didn’t have a clear idea of what career path he would take. “I graduated in 1975, which coincided with a dip in the economy,” he said. “I sent out a multitude of applications but I was finding it difficult to find full time employment.”
A family friend with Belridge Farms in Bakersfield, CA, paved the way for an interview with WGA President Daryl Arnold, who was also an alumnus of USC and had a great affinity for the school. There was a position open at the association for a field representative. “Mr. Arnold encouraged me to give it a try for a few months at a salary of $900 per month,” Matt recalls.
He spent the next two years on the road visiting members and pushing association products, such as the WGA Claims Service. “In those days, lots of freight moved in refrigerated rail cars through the Southern Pacific,” he said, noting that the department was busy helping shippers with claims. McInerney attempted to “sell” the service to members during his visits. “I spent two full weeks of every month on the road and half of the days the other two weeks. My territory was all of California and Arizona,” he said.
He learned the produce business from the ground up from the top minds in the industry…and loved it. “I called on some incredible people. They welcomed me into their businesses and answered any questions I had with patience.”
He recalls meeting industry veteran Paul Fleming of Admiral Packing many years ago wearing a coat and tie on a hot desert day. “It was mid-June and I was in the Imperial Valley during the cantaloupe season… and it was very hot. I was wearing a sports coat and tie. Paul said to me ‘You must be new. Farmers don’t wear ties.’”
He also recalls meeting Bill Ramsey of Mann Packing Company who gave the young WG employee a sense of the high regard in which farmers held their workers. “That has stuck with me all these years.”
In 1977, McInerney had an opportunity to move to the claims department, an area he worked in or oversaw for the entirety of his career from that point forward. He became fully immersed in the nuances of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. In fact, he became one of the industry’s foremost experts on the subject, often participating in panel discussions from coast to coast, as well as conducting regular seminars for WG members and their sales teams.
Discussing the highlights of his career, it is work with the PACA that he lists first, recalling the extremely important passage of the PACA Trust amendment in 1984. He remembers the charge was led by John Norton, a politically active Arizona grower-shippers and cattleman, who was also a former WG chairman of the board. Patterned after a similar amendment in the livestock business, Norton advocated for the trust provision, which put produce suppliers in a priority position in the event of a bankruptcy by a firm on the buy side of the equation. Over the past 30 years, that provisions has helped the produce industry recoup hundreds of millions of dollars.
Another highlight he recalls was the establishment of the Dispute Resolution Corporation, the tri-national (Canada, Mexico and the U.S.) dispute resolution system that gave shippers from all three countries a road map and guidance on how to handle disputes no matter where they shipped their product. McInerney served as chairman of the DRC from its inception in 2000 through 2017.
In 2007, Western Growers, in conjunction with C.H. Robinson, established the Western Growers Transportation Program. McInerney worked closely with CHR over the past decade fine tuning the program and helping to pitch it to members, as well as helping to expand it to other associations around the country.
Still another highlight for McInerney was the six years he served as chairman of the Alliance for Food and Farming—another collaborative industry effort designed to solve an industry problem.
During his career. McInerney served Western Growers in a variety of positions. Over the years he oversaw almost all WG activities at one time or another. He served a stint in Washington D.C. in between lobbyist hires and also was named interim president for a period of time as the association traversed the very difficult period between the untimely death of president Dave Moore in 2001 and the hiring of current president Tom Nassif in 2002.
After being named president and CEO, Nassif remembers fondly meeting McInerney for the first time. “He pledged to me that he would support everything I wanted to do and do it as best he could, and he has.”
Nassif continued: “He is one of the most respected ag leaders in the country. He is admired for his unmatched knowledge of the fresh produce industry and his willingness to tackle any issue that benefits the industry and our members. He avoids being in the spotlight and taking credit for the many invaluable successes he has spearheaded. We will find others to do his work but no one will replace him. It will be a great loss for us all.”
McInerney is equally effusive about Nassif’s impact on the association. “For the past 17 years I have been very lucky to work for Tom Nassif who has been a great leader and has brought a great entrepreneurial spirit to the organization. Over those years we have seen phenomenal growth in the services and products we offer to our members. We are a solution-driven association.”
In fact, McInerney said that has been the approach at Western Growers since he joined the organization 43 years ago from both the staff and the volunteer leaders. He said he has served with many generations of the same families as the organization leaders are often second, third and fourth generation family members of the growers who founded the organization and have taken it on its 90-year journey. “There are just too many to name,” Matt said. “I can’t recall one board member that I wouldn’t want to go out and get a beer with.”
As he retires, McInerney is extremely confident that the association is in great hands. “I am very optimistic about the future of this organization as we have a number of young professionals who have come aboard in the last 10-15 years and are taking key position. These people are passionate about what they do and love the industry. They are the right people for these positions.”
He noted that Bryan Nickerson, who has an industry background, has become the manager of the trade practices division. “He will answer to Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel, who has a keen legal mind and will be very helpful to Bryan.”
McInerney took the opportunity to bid farewell to Ken Gilliland, another long term WG employee, who retired at the end of the year and worked with Matt for the majority of the past four decades. “Ken was a great help and those international trade issues that he and I were involved in have been shifted to our Washington D.C. office where