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Three Cheers For Produce!
Three Cheers For Students!
Three Cheers For Tomorrow!
Peterson, Griffin and Spezzano Lead Student Mentorship Program At The New York Produce Show And Conference

A trade show is a trade show, and a conference is a conference, but The New York Produce Show and Conference is a kind of gift. There had been no show in New York for generations, and when we decided to join hands with the Eastern Produce Council and create what had never been before, we were focused on contributing to the industry. The whole venture hearkened back to the motto we used in launching PRODUCE BUSINESS 27 years ago: Initiating Industry Improvement.


We wanted to do more than just run a trade show; we wanted to make a difference. One of the ways we decided to do that was to launch various student programs. One is a culinary program, in which we try to inculcate a love of fresh produce in aspiring chefs.

Another program serves ag marketing, business and food marketing students, and here we hope to tip the scales a bit in terms of inspiring students to consider the produce industry as a career choice.

It is a double win… the students get to “cut the line” and instead of turning in resumes to an anonymous HR department, they make a direct connection with important people in the company. Companies don’t have to advertise and recruit as much; they get top quality applicants delivered to their door.

We consider the program of such importance that in addition to spending the money to bring both students and faculty, we always seek out important people to chair the program. Last year, we had Bruce Peterson of Wal-Mart fame, along with Frieda Caplan, the world famous pioneer of specialty produce, serve as co-chairs, and this year we have a triumvirate of industry icons co-chairing the program.

Bruce Peterson was kind enough to return, and he will be joined by Reggie Griffin, formerly of The Kroger Co., and Dick Spezzano, formerly with Vons. All have gone on to successful consulting careers and all have served as Chairmen of national produce associations.

They will have a conversation with the students and, although the students will enjoy it, the students won’t know how lucky they really are.

We thought we would try something different and ask these lions of the industry the same questions: to ask them to tell us how they found their way in produce, what they think about mentoring and what they see as the potential for young people in becoming involved with fresh produce.

We asked Meredith Auerbach, a Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, to help us frame the questions and find out more:

Reggie Griffin
Reggie Griffin Stratregies
Hilton Head, South Carolina

Reggie Griffin retired from Cincinnati-based The Kroger Company as corporate vice president of produce and floral merchandising and procurement. He is opening his own business, Reggie Griffin Strategies, in the Hilton Head area of South Carolina.

Q: How did you get started in the produce industry and what kept you in it?

A: I started part time while I was in junior high school, split between the produce department and being a bagger, all to save money for college. It was not a planned career path, but over time it just kept getting better. I was invited into the Kroger management development program.

I became a produce assistant, produce buyer and a district manager with full P&L responsibility for 10 stores. Kroger moved me to Memphis, Los Angeles, Houston and Cincinnati. So many views of the industry, so many cities, I now think of myself as “vertically integrated” in produce procurement and retail. I kept learning and doing new things with a great group of people.

Q: Did you have a mentor? If so, what did this individual do for you? A: Do you think it is the same process today? What has changed?

A: I didn’t know it at the time, but now, looking back and reflecting, I really began my career because of Gene Hastings. He was a pure produce guy and he gave me my start, the first move to Memphis as an assistant buyer. He looked in on me, got me thinking, told stories about how to proceed and succeed.

It is important to realize, looking at then versus now, mentors were not designated or part of programs. I know I probably took his support and my various jobs for granted. I was 20 years old at the time. Today there’s more structure, more awareness, and it’s probable that you can’t progress in a big company without a mentor or series of mentors.

What I fundamentally learned from mine was conscious respect for the business and for the people running the business at all levels. It’s a relationship built on trust and one that is two-way in nature. Both need to be open and listen. A mentor helps pick you when things aren’t going well. Good mentors also set you straight when they think you are going off-track.

The Kroger mentoring program started almost a decade ago. We saw new technologies would drive business done out of corporate. We needed a steady stream of people ready for executive responsibilities. When we looked around, we mostly saw older white men. We started to focus more on women and minorities and targeting people to train and get up to speed more quickly. And, of course, they had to be ready to move to another city. It’s a whole blend of characteristics that became the foundation.

Q: What should young people know about becoming mentored? What should mentors look for?

Today’s young people looking at our industry are smarter, more articulate, driven and tech-savvy than we were. Things move faster and they have higher expectations of how quickly they can grow. I would tell them that from time to time, it’s important to slow down in order to ask tough questions leading to deeper discussions and building that peer-to-peer relationship.

They won’t always move up the ladder as fast as they think they should; most want to move at warp-speed. I see nothing wrong with that but occasionally a reality check is needed. A good mentor can anticipate and smooth out the lesson, telling them there’s a track in place but you can so to speak “beat the curve.”

Q: What areas of education, expertise and experience do you see providing the greatest opportunities in this industry over the next 20 years.

A: I don’t think it much matters which professional degree a newcomer has. Additional training and learning will be a part of any career. The industry is so broad, from grower to packer to logistics to foodservice to retail, any area of knowledge is applicable. I do think the basic skills and attitudes must include:

Ours has become a data-driven business and the ability to understand data and draw conclusions from data is essential. I don’t mean crunch the data, but how to use data and technology effectively.

It is a people business and the ability and interest in people will make the difference. We see more collaborative work now. I think what people are looking for in careers is to be successful individually and be part of a successful enterprise. Everyone has their own notion of success but these, to me, seem to be the common thread.

You have to be able to stand up in front of people and talk about your business, your ideas, and your way of looking at them.

Q: What role does mentoring play in innovation? Is participation in innovation and development some of the most attractive areas for young people wanting a fulfilling career?

A: No question. I happen to strongly believe that fresh produce is a basic solution to the health care crisis and tackling issues such as our national obesity epidemic. There’s passion to it. We’re just beginning to see the rollout of innovation in this industry. A mentor can share roads already traveled. We know we will have to grow in order to sustain our lives The mentored can look at current practice and know that we can do it better, faster, cheaper. And feel good about it because how and why we go to work every day.

Bruce Peterson
Peterson Insights
Bentonville, Arkansas

Bruce Peterson, retired Senior Vice President and General Merchandise Manager for Wal Mart Stores, Inc., is as busy as ever. Since his departure from Wal Mart, he opened a consulting firm, Peterson Insights, and served as CEO of Naturipe Farms and Bland Farms.

Q: How did you get started in the produce industry and what kept you in it?

A: I joined the industry by accident. I was working the grill in a fast food restaurant in Detroit, making as I recall $.90 an hour. I heard about an opening in the produce department of Great Scott for $1.25 and didn’t look back. I figured being one of two staffers had great potential for promotion. I was right on that account.

Q: Did you have a mentor and what did this individual do for you? Compare it to today’s process.

A: I met my first mentor, assistant produce manager Steve Gelardi, a third generation Sicilian produce guy at Great Scott. Sometime later, he asked me to join him and I started on the 2 am routine drive as a produce jobber and odd-lot buyer.

He was the single strongest influence in my professional life, and he influenced a young 20-something to understand and accept the culture of the times. I learned the work ethic I have today, the difference between cheap and value; the why’s behind what he did. I was a sponge soaking up everything I could learn. Throughout the following years, I had the privilege of working with knowledgeable, caring people who took me under their wings. It was an exceptionally personal business, sharing values, stories and ideas.

I was fortunate enough to learn under great people when I moved to retail, at Bakers in Omaha, Tom Thumb in Texas and Meijer.

Mentoring is more formalized today than in my early years. It continues to be critically important and there are good things that come out of a documented, formalized process. The best mentoring shares perspective and values, not how to do things as much as things to think about. It does concern me when mentoring becomes a program and then issues arise. You don’t want it to become a check-off point on someone’s evaluation. It is not a program. It’s a process of connecting with the next generation, a way of sharing and building on the past and moving into today’s world.

I think I first began to understand what mentoring means when I moved to Wal-Mart in 1991. The first step was interviewing with Sam Walton, and I was warned about it. Hey to me, that was a great privilege! I may not have been the perfect candidate, but Sam was interested in my experience in multi-department stores like Meijer and that I was willing to move to Bentonville. I got the job, including the title with a large, very special company.

Over my 18 years at Wal-Mart, we moved from six to 2,500 stores. For me Wal-Mart was like going to graduate school. I had to reach out to all kinds of produce people to make it happen. The media, by and large, trashed us but a number of key produce people and companies supported us. And I learned and learned and learned.

Today mentoring still continues but it is more formalized because the industry is different. Relationships still drive the process, but the industry is more fragmented, more compartmentalized. It simply is not as hands-on; there is less optional time, but mentoring still takes place. Just the stories and the lessons are different.

Organizations such as PMA and United play an important role, providing mentoring opportunities and visibility for the industries with eager students.

Q: What should students know about becoming mentors? What should mentors look for?

A: They need to understand key concepts. First of all, is collaboration. You find people who believe as you do and want to grow as well. Plenty of young people are bright and knowledgeable and looking for opportunity. The relationships are not the same but rather are more corporate, more international. If the interest is in the corporate enterprise, produce can be a stepping stone. Many start in produce, leave for additional experience and then return.

Q: What areas of education, expertise and experience do you see providing the greatest opportunities in this industry over the next 20 years?

A: There are skill sets that are especially relevant: math skills with a concentration in finance — for large or smaller companies. International experiences, including additional languages (think Spanish and Mandarin), cultural understanding and what business now calls global learning are all a plus.

Integrating consumer understanding and consumer marketing is the key to future activities. Few of my generation are truly tech-savvy, and an understanding of how consumers communicate and find information is now and in the future so important. Innovation in this industry is just exploding.

Q: What role does mentoring play in innovation? Is it a primary attraction for today’s young people?

A: Consider this: How does this industry bring together new flavors and textures safely, economically and conveniently? Can we compete with what is going on in frozen and deli and foodservice? All are competitors. That’s our challenge, and there’s plenty of opportunity to keep fresh at the front of consumer minds and preferences.

Dick Spezzano
Spezzano Consulting Service, Inc.
Monrovia, California

Dick Spezzano retired from Vons as Vice President of Produce and Floral in 1997. Opening Spezzano Consulting Service Inc., he has stayed active in the produce industry.

Q: How did you get started in the produce industry and what kept you in it?

A: Like a lot of guys in my generation, my produce career started as a part time job while I was in college at Boston University. Originally with Stop & Shop, I moved to Star. My dad died, I was about to get married and suddenly college wasn’t so important. Carol and I moved to California, and I started and stayed with Vons the rest of my retail career.

Vons gave me lots of opportunity, management training, paths to grow in operations as well as produce. The responsibilities grew and the challenges were fun. My mentors stayed friends and confidants for years.

Q: Did you have a mentor? If so, what did this individual do for you? Do you think it is the same process in today’s world? What has changed?

A: Actually, I’ve had a number of mentors, but the first was the store produce manager, my boss, when I started at Vons. You pick up the nuts-and-bolts — product ID, the numbers, the routine — quickly in the first year. What he taught me was management, leadership and especially delegation. I really needed that. I was a hard worker and thought I had to do it all.

Gary Lee was another. He told me I could learn as much from bad management as good — in other words, what not to do. Roger Schroeder and I worked together, almost mentoring each other. We complemented each other’s skills and favorite things to do on the job.

What turned out to be really important was simply time. Two of us had a long commute each way to the store where we were working and we drove together. Over time, that gave us hours to share ideas, ask questions and learn from one another. Time may be the most difficult resource for mentoring that is missing today.

Today, mentoring is less accidental and more planned, and expected. The Pack Foundation, PMA and United Fresh programs keep the idea of mentoring top-of-mind, and students who have gone through these programs both spread the word and help shape how mentoring is practiced.

Q: What should students know about becoming mentored? What should mentors look for?

A: Let’s start with mentors. In my mind, one important idea is to ask, “Who could eventually replace us?” while still accepting that you are not trying to replicate yourself. For the mentored, it is likely that you will leave produce — say for operations — and then return in some higher role.

Q: What areas of education, expertise and experience do you see providing the greatest opportunities in this industry over the next 20 years?

A: Remember just how big this industry is when you pull all the parts together — over $100 billion, and yet look at how few big publicly traded companies there are. It is much more privately held, many by families, and that generally means fewer layers. Good people can move up more quickly.

A good education is a must. More advanced degrees can come later; many in this industry have held down full time jobs and gone to school as well. Education is more available than ever for working people.

Other “must haves” include communication skills, a passion for the business, a broad set of capabilities and the willingness to try a lot of different things. Roger and I used to have a goal of trying four new things at a time. We’d throw them at the wall. If one stuck, okay. If two or more stuck, it was a winning situation. Have you noticed it is often the busiest person who always volunteers for the next project and usually gets it done? Be willing to put yourself out there.

With all the family-held companies on the supply side — some into third and fourth generation — it is likely that young family members will profit by first working for another company to gain a broader point of view. At the same time, family companies can bring in, mentor and train non-family members. We need both.

Q: What role does mentoring play in innovation? Is participation in innovation and development attractive to young people?

A: What’s happening now is that young people bring in outside knowledge and have the skills to jump over the immediate customer to get to the consumer. That means the development of effective social media and an awareness of how rapidly the world is changing. In privately held companies, there can be slow movement toward new concepts and technology. Mentors can help push the process along.

We see lots of innovation going on in many of the regional retail operations. They’re privately held and can try new ideas and ways of working. Who wouldn’t that be attractive to?


Of course, this program is not the only program to celebrate youth. PRODUCE BUSINESS has been selecting its annual 40-under-Forty class for eight years now. And the idea of bringing students to industry events was not the Pundit’s idea — that innovation rests with Jay and Ruthie Pack, who upon selling Standard Fruit and Vegetable Company remembered the difficulty they had getting students from Texas A&M, most of whom never thought of a career in produce. Indeed it was one of our proudest moments when Jay called and asked us to serve on the original steering committee for his program to bring students to PMA, a program that ultimately generated into the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent.

We live all of our lives in the “here and now,” but a great event is not merely about today… it is also about tomorrow, and bringing in youth is a way of making sure that The New York Produce Show and Conference… and each attendee… has a direct connection to tomorrow. 

It is said that the third-best-selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu, is Kahil Gibran, and his most celebrated work is The Prophet. Perhaps the most famous of his essays, one which grew wildly popular during the counter-culture 1960s, is titled Children, and its famous lines speak to youth in a rather romantic way:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

We, however, have always been partial to the next line in the poem which reasserts adult responsibility:

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The next line reasserts the authority of the Divine:

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

So we bring the students that we might try and stay young ourselves, yet we also bring them that we might be a stable base from which they can go forth. We also bring them because the infinite has so conspired things that when we see youthful potential before us, we love it and want to make it grow.

We owe thanks to our co-chairmen for living out that love.

Come and meet the students and faculty at The New York Produce Show and Conference, come and meet the future.

You can register for the event right here

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