Celebrating 35 Years: Vanguard Awards

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s Vanguards are Joe Procacci of Procacci Brothers and Tom Stenzel of United Fresh Produce Association

Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Joe Procacci
Procacci Brothers (1927–2017)

Though from unassuming beginnings, Joseph G. Procacci (Joe) became one of the most influential pioneers of the produce industry and one of its most iconic leaders. He started his produce career at eight years old (in 1935) by helping his father sell bananas from a pushcart in Camden, NJ. By 1948, at the age of 21, he and his brother, Michael, founded the tomato sales and repacking business, Procacci Brothers Sales Corp. By 1968, Procacci diversified and began handling all fruits and vegetables. With steadfast focus on customer service, Procacci expanded his growing portfolio over the coming decades, growing the business into one of the industry’s most successful vertically integrated, innovative companies.

Yet perhaps the most defining aspect of Joe Procacci is that everybody knew him as simply Joe. “His name was Joe,” says Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Brothers. “No matter who you were — a dock worker, union employee, truck driver or competitor — he wanted to be called Joe. He was a humble and gracious man as well as a competitor of the highest class.”

Joe led his company with a constant future perspective. “He would say ‘If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward’,” says J.M. Procacci, chief executive of Procacci Holdings, and Joe’s son.

He was also revered for his incredible work ethic. “Nobody could out-work my grandfather,” says Joseph Procacci III, director for Procacci Holdings Co. “He set the standard and instilled it in me — to always give 100 percent no matter what job I had, from sweeping floors to working a sales desk.”

Integrity formed a key part of Joe’s work ethnic. “In produce, your word is your bond, and Joe Procacci’s word could be taken to the bank,” says J.M. Procacci.

Joe built an organization still grounded in his standards and values. “The foundation of every decision we make is what my grandfather established,” says Gabrielle Procacci, director of special projects for Procacci Brothers. “We always come back to the question ‘What would Joe do or think’ even if we’re looking at taking things into the future. He is really present in our everyday lives at work.”

A lot of what’s ingrained in the company culture started with Joe’s vision of what he wanted the business to be, relates Rick Feighery, vice president of sales for Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation. “Not the acquisition of land or commodities, but the way he treated people,” he says. “He had a talent for not just saying people were part of the team, but actually making them part of the team.”

Joe possessed an uncanny ability to remember names and information. “He even knew of wives and kids,” says George Binck, COO of Procacci Holdings. “Even into his 80s he had an incredible ability to recall information. He also honestly cared about and sought out everyone’s opinion. He would say ‘Three heads are always better than two’.”

An Innovative Empire

Procacci built a vertically integrated company from scratch starting with recognizing a repacking need. “Joe started packing tomatoes with his brothers,” says Maxwell. “He realized very quickly that a retailer needed product uniformity. Back in the 50s and 60s, tomatoes were picked with all colors and grades in the same box; the retailer had to grade and separate in the backroom. Joe saw opportunity and started repacking tomatoes to save store labor and sell a more uniform pack to customers.”

He created the model for sourcing and repacking to meet customer needs, explains Gabrielle Procacci. “He’d find the best product, figure out what customers wanted and how to get it to them on time,” she says.

In the late-nineties, as the exclusive distributor of the authentic Santa Sweets F1 variety, Joe introduced the national U.S. consumer market to grape tomatoes. “The grape tomato brought a whole new product line to the tomato category and transformed the flavor profile of the tomato category,” says Binck.

In 1999, after 20 years of developmental research, Joe introduced the heirloom, beefsteak-style UGLYRIPE tomato. “The UGLYRIPE opened up the heirloom as a commercial category for the entire industry,” says Feighery. “These products are examples of how Joe always looked at the sale-ability of products. And if he couldn’t find it, he grew it himself. He had a knack for understanding a market and being able to speculate on its increase or decrease like nobody else.”

Industry Leadership

In addition to building his own produce empire, Joe was integrally involved in the industry at large and contributed to numerous triumphs. He was instrumental in the new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM). “He was one of the key reasons why the new Philly market was built,” says Maxwell.

J.M. Procacci explains Joe delighted in the terminal market business. “He would say ‘During selling hours, we’d cut each other’s throat for a quarter to make the sale, then at lunch we’d break each other’s arm for the check’,” he says. “He loved the competition of the terminal market and wanted everyone to succeed.”

Joe was a leader in establishing the North American Perishable Agricultural Receivers (NAPAR) and served as the Chairman of the Board. “My dad always thought like a receiver and formed this organization to represent the receivers in various issues,” says J.M. Procacci.

In 1995, he helped preserve the Perishable Agriculture Commodities Act (PACA). “While serving as Chairman of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association’s Government Relations Committee, he was instrumental in lobbying for PACA and the essential elements of it,” says J.M. Procacci.

He also was active in trade and many other regulatory issues including pallet standardization, grading standards, food safety, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades) and setting trade standards between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.

Leading by Example

Joe led, mentored and influenced by example. “We were brought up under Joe’s work ethic,” says Maxwell. “I started as a salesman on the terminal market. Every morning at 3:30am, the phone would ring and it was Joe calling to find out what was going on at the Market. He could be anywhere, even in Italy, and he’d still call at 3:30am.”

He wasn’t a guy always behind the desk, relates Binck. “He’d be on the floor showing you production methods and QC,” he says. “I can tell stories of him riding the jack when we were short of people. Whatever it took to service the customer, he led the way.”

Joe’s approachable mentorship provided upcoming company and industry leaders with the tools to be successful. “Many people in the tomato industry worked for Joe at one point or another and then went on to spread their wings in other companies,” says Feighery.

Gabrielle Procacci explains he was also a role model in the family even for cousins who aren’t in the produce industry. “They exhibit his ethic for loyalty and hard work in their individual fields,” she says.

Joe was known as a generous man. “If anybody needed anything, they could come to him and he would help,” says J.M. Procacci. “Giving back to the community was important to him. A few of his favorite charities included Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Ronald McDonald House of South Jersey, St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, and St. Joseph’s University, as well as local food banks, hospices, and little league teams.”

Tom Stenzel
United Fresh Produce Association

As president/CEO of United Fresh since 1993, and a powerful industry advocate in government dealings, Tom Stenzel has tackled some of the toughest produce industry issues head on. He has been on the front lines, testifying winningly in Congress, leading the industry through PACA negotiations, slotting fees, immigration reform, food safety regulations, and critical funding in the Farm Bill. With an attentive and steady hand, he’s cultivated far-reaching leadership training programs and landmark nutrition policy strategies to increase produce consumption.

“I’ve looked at Tom as not only a colleague, but also a mentor over the years, with his amazing, courageous and unselfish leadership, his ability to lead big changes across the industry,” says Jim Lemke, retired president of Robinson Fresh, who served as a chairman of United. “He’s just able to act in an effective way in a short period of time. He is a natural orator and very adaptable in the moment in speaking to government and big organizations that control a lot of money spent on our industry. There couldn’t be a better person to have as our advocate for the industry,” says Lemke.

“When you look at what Tom’s created and continues to create, he moves the industry forward — maybe it won’t always be apparent today, maybe not tomorrow, but there are many long-term effects for the programs and initiatives Tom started or had a strong hand in, and it’s not just in one aspect of the business, it’s in every aspect of the business,” says John Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration at United, who has worked for Tom 20 years of his career.

The impact of his influence can’t be overstated in securing government funds for specialty crops in the Farm Bill; and he has been relentless in ensuring their long-term viability. “Tom coordinated the Specialty Crop Bill Alliance and successfully lobbied for the industry during each Farm Bill negotiation. This led to the development of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative state block grant funding for specialty crops and other benefits,” says Toner.

He’s had pivotal roles in initiatives to get fresh fruits and vegetables into schools, including the Salad Bars in Schools Campaign, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to three million children by facilitating the donation of salad bars to over 5,000 schools in all 50 states. A spirited collaborative effort, the campaign spurred playful rivalry to see who could contract the most donations, generating a swell of support and momentum, according to Karen Caplan, president/CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce.

“One thing that always drove me toward supporting Tom was his focus on increasing produce consumption by expanding children’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Lemke. “Whether through federal nutrition feeding programs or through Salad Bars in Schools, these initiatives were really the basis for the Fresh Start Foundation,” says Lemke, a founding chairperson. “It built on United’s leadership in nutrition policy, and coming up with new ways to gain access in the school and outside of the school,” says Lemke, noting, “We later branched out to communities, sporting complexes, YMCA’s… and large health insurance companies, forming partnerships to contribute to healthy eating. It was really a broad expanse of the approach to create more consumption.”

“I’ve looked at Tom as not only a colleague, but also a mentor over the years, with his amazing, courageous and unselfish leadership, his ability to lead big changes across the industry.”

— Jim Lemke, retired president of Robinson Fresh

“Tom was a huge proponent in bringing the industry to the Washington Public Policy Conference,” says Fred Heptinstall, who was a chairman of United while executive vice president of Chiquita Fresh North America, and on the board of directors throughout his career. “I went to the very first meeting back in the 90’s; there was maybe seven people in the room. It was Tom’s leadership that really set programs like that in place. And with his continuity and leadership style, he was able to grow those programs from their infancy to what they are today. Another one of his strengths is building coalitions, which is not always easy when you have egos involved.”

Stenzel was a strong voice in calling for the Food Safety Modernization Act, recognizing that food safety should not be a competitive advantage, and he provided an avenue for small growers to demonstrate their food safety practices by creating the Harmonized Standard Food Safety Audit, which is currently the dominant audit used by USDA AMS, according to Toner.

In 1995, he led a coalition of the produce industry to amend and modernize the Perishable Agriculture Commodities Act (PACA). “This was seen as a monumental achievement for the fresh produce industry as they had to overcome the objections of the retail industry along with the powerful banking industry who all fought to eliminate this critical law,” according to Toner, adding, PACA is seen as the underlying law that guides and regulates the commercial trade of fresh produce.

“Tom drove the final legislation and regulations for a mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for the U.S. Despite disparate views from across the produce supply chain, Tom was able to forge compromise and consensus on an issue that had long been a controversial barrier between different parts of the produce industry,” according to Toner.

Stenzel also nurtured the renowned, Dupont-sponsored, Produce Leadership Program, now going on its 25th year. Dupont’s Coteva Agriscience executives knocked on United’s door with the idea and finances to establish the program, modeled on leadership excellence specifically geared for the fresh produce industry. It includes extensive involvement from professional trainers, faculty, principal United Fresh members and Corteva Agriscience executives.

The evolving program has graduated hundreds of fellows, who have become executives of major produce businesses, leaders of prominent organizations, and some of the most well-known people in the industry. “Out of Tom’s accomplishments, The United Leadership Program has brought one of the greatest returns to the industry, and to the individuals who support the Association,” says Toner, noting another collaboration, United’s Produce Executive Development Program, a partnership with Cornell University, impacting over 400 industry executives.

Stenzel currently serves as chairman of the International Federation for Produce Standards, a global body representing national produce associations from the UK, Europe, Australia New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Canada and the United States. He is also on the board of directors of the Center for Produce Safety. He has served in many government and industry leadership positions, including the first U.S. Department of Agriculture Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, president George W. Bush’s Transitionary Advisory Team for Agriculture, and as an advisor on the US. Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade, in addition to testifying in Congress numerous times to advance industry interests.

He’s been agile to confront industry consolidation, major disruptions, and adapt to competitive business pressures, collaborating on trade show formats, including co-locations with Food Marketing Institute, Specialty Food Association, and the Organic Trade Association. As the industry was beset by the coronavirus crisis, Stenzel led the first major food trade show on a virtual platform, recognizing the industry need to connect despite the pandemic.

“Tom said we need to look at virtual in the face of this crisis and make it work, to create new opportunities that we didn’t have before the coronavirus. The value of the internet and virtual trade shows will have a lasting impact on how we connect and do business,” says Toner. In any crisis, the response of the CEO to pull things together is paramount, to have the clearest vision of what it takes for the industry to succeed, to know the strengths and weaknesses of the customer and vendor base, and to lead with a steady hand. Tom has these qualities. “He’s a rock, he is consistent in his actions, he’s humble, and he’s never going to be the loudest person in the room; he listens first, and as much as he inspires and is inspired by others, he doesn’t change who he is at his core.”