Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Dick Spezzano of The Vons Companies / Spezzano Consulting Services.
Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
“Dick Spezzano is unquestionably the finest industry leader I have ever met anywhere in any trade association,” says Bruce Peterson, former senior vice president of perishables at Walmart. “Even when we were competitors, he inspired tremendous loyalty, rallying people around a particular cause with fervor and charisma,” and he championed many groundbreaking causes.
“I count him as a dear friend, but a great mentor, because Dick taught by doing,” Peterson adds. “He led by example, and it’s one of the highlights of my professional career to have had the privilege to have known and to have worked alongside of him at the PMA.”
Spezzano, former vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company, and current president of Spezzano Consulting Services in Monrovia, CA, has never lost his eminence as a visible head of the industry. He has been an unstinting volunteer industry leader over the years in prominent roles at PMA, United Fresh, Fresh Produce and Floral Council (FPFC), Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), and the Center for Growing Talent (CGT), among others.
Spezzano played an instrumental role in galvanizing the industry to institute standardized PLU’s and UPC’s.
Industry executives often credit Spezzano for driving significant supply chain improvements to reduce shrink and waste and increase productivity, especially when it comes to standardized hard wood pallets. “At the time, there was what we called one-way junk pallets, all different-sized pallets for different commodities,” says Spezzano.
“Sometimes the wood was terrible and would collapse, causing a safety issue, and it became really problematic for slotting,” says Bob DiPiazza, former group vice pre of perishables at Dominick’s, and later senior vice president of perishables at Sam’s Club and president of Sun Pacific. By standardizing pallets, loading trucks became more efficient with evenly distributed loads. “Before, you had product shifting around creating damage and shrink. It made a huge difference safety-wise and from a labor standpoint as well.”
Again undeterred, Spezzano played an instrumental role in galvanizing the industry to institute standardized Price Look Up (PLU’s) numbers and Universal Product Codes (UPC’s), a critical turning point in increasing produce sales and profits. With proper identification of items at checkout, retailers were open to an explosion of new items and varieties enveloping produce department shelves to excite consumers and increase consumption.
“This was a game-changer, one of the major breakthroughs of the industry,” says Spezzano. “We were struggling. We lost two percent of revenue on the front-end because of product misidentification, which was exacerbated as we were increasing the amount of SKUs being stocked that didn’t have a package. It was a nightmare. Everyone had their own numbering systems,” he says.
With a lot of pushback on the grower side, Spezzano credits Bryan Silbermann, who was a vice president at PMA then, who worked very hard to get other key retailers on board. Spezzano recalls how he and Harold Alston from Stop & Shop, Bob DiPiazza from Dominick’s, and Ed Odron from Lucky aggressively traversed the country meeting with retailers, grower organizations and suppliers, imploring them to adopt generic codes and persuading them to make it happen. “We covered every major city, every retailer… It was like we were stumping for a campaign, and Dick was running it, so we won,” says DiPiazza.
Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Frieda’s Inc., says, “Dick Spezzano kept me on my toes.” Dick was an early customer, she says, noting that her mother Frieda Rapoport Caplan took him under her wing at the Los Angeles Wholesale Market when he became a buyer at Vons. The professional relationship with the company blossomed as he advanced to director, and then vice president of produce and floral.
“Dick was well aware of the challenges and errors they were having on the front-end. If you ring up a purple passion fruit or a red tamarillo as a plum, which they kind of look like, you’re losing money. It cost them a $1 and they rung it up as 10 cents. When your biggest customer tells you either label it or you’re going to eat it, it creates a sense of urgency,” she says, adding that Dick was on the PLU board and he made sure there were PLU numbers assigned to the specialty items.
Working for the Vons Companies for 34 years, Spezzano was part of the start-up team for many new store formats, the most famous being Pavilions. Spezzano was “all in” on the Euro greens packaged salad track back in the 80s, collaborating with Dennis Gertmenian, CEO of Ready Pac Produce. “At that time, we were selling a 1-lb pack of salad at about $1.49. The new Ready Pac Euro salads were 8-14 oz, and we had to retail them at $2.49-$2.99. For that price, you could have bought a whole case of romaine for a Caesar salad,” he says, yet he quickly realized how it would become a wild success.
“Because of my extensive travel, I was able to see the most innovative equipment, packaging, merchandising, and operational systems in the world for both produce and floral and take them back to Vons and ‘Vonsize’ them in multi-deck cases, refrigerated free-standing cases, multi-temp wall and table fixtures, ripe fruit sections, melon and juice bars, state-of-the-art fixtures for floral, and many others,” Spezzano says.
He also developed chainwide full-service floral departments at Vons, transforming in-store cut flower and plant displays to full-service florist shops.
As a non-voting board member of the California Avocado Commission, Spezzano was also instrumental in helping to develop a preconditioned avocado program. “This was a result of working with CAC to test two displays, and we found we increased avocado sales by 35 percent, reduced shrink and had more satisfied customers,” says Spezzano. “Keep in mind, this was back in the late 1980’s and the industry didn’t start a preconditioned program until the mid-1990s.”
On the PMA board of directors for 12 years, and its chairman in 1995/1996, Spezzano says, “Of the committees that I have served on, the ones I’m most proud of are the PLU/UPC committee and being the chair of the Center for Growing Talent. As the chair of the CGT, I had a second opportunity to serve on the Board for the PMA, with 20 years in between.” Spezzano is the only past chair who served on the Board of Directors after being a chairman. Bridging the generations, and fully engaged in the transformational changes through the years, Spezzano continues to remain active in the industry, committed to mentoring new industry talent that will contribute for years to come.