Originally printed in the February 2019 issue of Produce Business.
Dear John Vena (age 36):
I have been following your career for some time now, and there are a few things I want to tell you. Congratulations on finally quitting cigarettes. Regarding your customers and suppliers — go see them more often. Take more time for your children and your wife. Not too much more, but some. Get a truck on the road. And finally, dream a little bigger, plan a little farther out.
John Vena (age 66)
P.S. Say thank you – a lot.
GO MORE: Make more regular visits to customers, potential customers and suppliers. During my time as a salesman, I often stopped in to see our retail customers. I visited customers that were nearby in Center City, South Philadelphia, and our roadside market customers in New Jersey. I had good relationships with them and enjoyed visiting them. Unfortunately, I didn’t take enough time to see customers that represented new opportunities or that were inconveniently far away. The business would have benefited from the new ideas, relationships and intelligence generated by such visits.
In the late 1980s, I began to travel to our overseas suppliers in Holland, Belgium and Israel. I didn’t think I could spend too much time away from the business, so I convinced myself those visits were my “vacations.” My wife often accompanied me when our kids were old enough to be left with a sitter, so that reinforced my thinking. However, I didn’t vary the destinations much and tended to visit the same suppliers. I should have spent time in the production areas in the Dominican Republic, Central America, Texas and California. Visiting fields, greenhouses and packing facilities is the best way to understand an item and the difficulties faced by the producer. It enhances your relationship with the grower and his team and allows you to provide first-hand product knowledge and good stories for your customers.
But we waited too long to change our minds about trucking. Five years ago, we identified delivery as a key to our future. We should have made this commitment 25 years ago.
DELIVER MORE: When I started in the industry, most of our customers picked up their own product or arranged third-party trucks. We did not have a truck of our own and relied on the customers to manage that service. Many small chains and independent supermarkets in those days did not have distribution centers, and store door delivery was common. A few “gypsy” truckers dominated that segment of the business. However, most failed to update equipment or provide any services other than delivery. I often spotted their trucks broken down on the streets around the Market or under the scrutiny of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Those trucks provided a steady income in fines to the state and were instrumental in shaping my own negative attitude about operating a truck of my own.
As those delivery service providers were forced out or left the industry, the door was opened for well-run companies to provide not only produce but delivery as well. We had made a conscious decision, based on our assessment of what we were capable of doing, not to have our own trucks. It made sense based on our product line at the time, since most of our products were low-volume specialty items. But we waited too long to change our minds about trucking. Five years ago, we identified delivery as a key to our future. We should have made this commitment 25 years ago. The percentage of customers requiring delivery grows every year, and we are late to the table.
PLAY MORE: My parents had a second home in a beach town, and that provided some opportunities to get away with my family. I did a fair job of allocating time to attend my children’s school plays, sports and extra-curricular activities. And yes, I coached little kid soccer and baseball. Of course, that meant that any free time I found was spent in the overly structured system of youth sports. However, I never had a hobby in those days. Perhaps I should have taken up golf. I have often regretted that I did not. I feel like I missed the chance to bond with friends and, certainly, I missed the chance to deepen relationships with customers and suppliers. I would not have been a great golfer, but I hear it is a lovely way to spend the afternoon.
DREAM MORE: Most importantly, dream bigger. Plan further ahead and take the company deeper. Very often, we are consumed by the everyday demands of the business. As so many business authors and pundits say, “Work on the business, not in the business.” I doubt that 36-year-old me would have listened. At that time, I was having a good time buying and selling fresh produce. We had a small team and we worked hard, but we were on a mission to sell the produce. I took some risks with technology and product lines, but those decisions were carefully considered and not really that risky. I satisfied the needs of the company at that time, but I should have been looking more at future needs and possibilities.
ONE MORE THING: Be sure to say thank you to those that mentor and advise you. The business would not be here today without them.
John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family-owned-and-operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth-generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.