I was a 22-year-old rookie salesman when I joined Consumers Produce in 1973. Prior to my full-time role, I worked at Consumers in the warehouse and also drove a truck on some weekends and school breaks, but I knew little about trading produce. My father was one of the principals of the company, and was in charge of the “wet” department, but I worked in the “dry” department for one of his partners, Albert “Ubbie” Cohen.
Throughout the industry, Ubbie was known as a tough but fair trader. He wasn’t the easiest guy in the world to work for. In fact, he once chewed me out for being a few hours late when I was forced to detour around a tornado that leveled part of southwestern Ohio. However, Ubbie knew the grape and tree fruit business as well as anyone on the planet, and whether he realized it or not, he was a wonderful teacher for me.
The best lessons are learned not by being told how or what to do, but by learning from others’ actions. I spent hours watching Ubbie sell on the old Pittsburgh terminal market, and often listened in on his phone conversations with our growers and shippers. From day one, Ubbie included me in every aspect of his produce life.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned was from an incident that occurred just about a month after I joined the company. A solid load of California cherries arrived from Nash De Camp Company, and I was helping the warehouse supervisor by checking in the load and making sure the product count was correct.
I carefully counted the pallets as they came off the trailer, and my tally amounted to 22 pallets of 99 for a total of 2,178 boxes. The bill of lading called for 20 pallets totaling 1,980 boxes, 198 less than I counted. I double checked the count and called over the warehouse supervisor to recheck with me and once again, we came up with two extra pallets.
Today’s sophisticated computer tracking systems almost eliminate the possibility of untraceable shortages, but it doesn’t change the business value of honesty and integrity.
I was raised by my parents to be honest, and to treat others as I would wish to be treated. But this was “business.” What should I do? Even 40-plus years ago, cherries were an expensive commodity; those 198 extra boxes were worth close to $5,000, which was more than three months of salary for a first-year salesman. My instinct was to sign for the extra boxes, but I was new on the job and decided to call Ubbie and ask what to do.
I told Ubbie the load was over by two pallets, and he told me to count them again. I had worked with Ubbie long enough to know it was easier to recount rather than to tell him the load had been counted four times already. After the fifth count confirmed the first four, I called Ubbie back and told him with absolute certainty that we received 198 more boxes of cherries than the bill of lading called for.
These cherries were shipped from Linden, CA, out of a packing shed that was operational just six weeks per year. To this day, cherry deals operate at a frantic pace with packing lines going and trucks loading around the clock. The year 1973 was way before anyone used computers in their daily operations; though larger companies may have done electronic invoicing, shipping and inventory were handled by some sort of manual system. There was very little chance that the shipper would realize they were missing two pallets, and even if they found the shortage, there was almost zero chance they would know where the product went.
I asked Ubbie what I should do, and how many boxes I should sign for. Ubbie responded: “What do you mean, what should I do?” he yelled through the phone. “You sign for what we received.”
He explained that like our customers, our suppliers were the lifeblood of our business, and that mutual trust was the key to those relationships. He then asked what would happen if we had a load come in and didn’t realize we had a shortage until after the bills were signed. Wouldn’t we want the shipper to treat us the same way? He then told me that he was disappointed that I even asked the question, and that when it comes to honesty, the answer is always an easy one.
Today’s sophisticated computer tracking systems almost eliminate the possibility of untraceable shortages, but it doesn’t change the business value of honesty and integrity. I’m proud to say that when I left Consumers Produce a couple of years ago, my relationships with my suppliers were still built on that same solid foundation.
I’m sure many of you have learned some life lessons while working in our industry. If you’d care to share your story, I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].
Alan Siger is chairman of Siger Group LLC, offering consulting services in business strategy, logistics, and operations to the produce industry. Prior to selling Consumers Produce in 2014, Siger spent more than four decades growing Consumers into a major regional distributor. Active in issues affecting the produce industry throughout his career, Siger is a former president of the United Fresh Produce Association.