Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: JIM LEMKE

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Jim Lemke of CH Robinson.

Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Jim Lemke
President (retired)
CH Robinson

Jim Lemke, a visionary at the pulse of innovative change, helped thrust the produce industry into the modern age. He spent three decades in leadership at Eden Prairie, MN-based CH Robinson, retiring in 2019 as president of Robinson Fresh, and was a master at being nimble and reinventing the business to adapt to changing customer needs and industry transformations.

Lemke also jumped into broader industry roles, crossing multiple disciplines to collaborate on vital solutions to drive productivity and increase produce consumption. He served on the first USDA industry advisory committee, chaired the United Fresh Produce Association board, was on the Food Marketing Institute’s Fresh Executive Committee, and numerous other roles for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and Produce for Better Health Foundation. Lemke was the founding chairperson of the United Fresh Start Foundation, which was created to provide children with greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables. He currently serves on the board of directors for Second Harvest Heartland.

It is no surprise Lemke won a coveted spot in the Produce Business inaugural 40-Under-Forty Awards Program in 2005.

Along with his team at CHR, Lemke played an instrumental role in developing state-of-the-art “front-end” analytics to assist Walmart in its famous central procurement model, and he and his team worked with other retailers and foodservice providers to streamline their supply chain sourcing and procurement systems.

He was involved in transitioning the industry’s long-held perception of CHR as a “broker” to a direct supplier. Under Lemke’s helm, several acquisitions of produce companies that were specialists in commodity procurement (Rosemont, FoodSource and Timco) came under CHR’s wing. Lemke also was part of the Robinson Fresh branding and licensing of well-known brands now on produce department shelves, including Mott’s, Welch’s, Tropicana, Green Giant Fresh, and Glory Foods. Under his watch, Robinson Fresh also provided the proprietary brands MelonUp!, Rosemont Farms, Happy Chameleon and Tomorrow’s Organics.

“CH Robinson played a key role in taking the industry into the modern age, especially in the refrigerated logistics industry, which was the side of the business I was in,” says Lemke.

Lemke did his part to write the next chapter, upending traditional ways of doing business.

“My passion over the years was being able to take the technology span that Robinson had and turn it into innovation for our customers,” Lemke says.

Lemke was involved in transitioning the industry’s long-held perception of CHR as a “broker” to a direct supplier.

Robinson facilitated the building of the Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI) platform in the industry. And over the years, as technology systems and coding processes developed, Robinson turned it into supply chain management software for the foodservice industry as well.

The other key logistics achievement during Lemke’s tenure was taking the breadth and scope of CHR’s logistics and connecting it to produce transportation systems.

“As I grew up in the industry, people looked at transportation as just a separate cost. As logistics costs increased, the transportation to get product from Point A to Point B through the forward distribution before it gets to the store shelf, in some cases, could be even more than the cost of the box of produce itself,” Lemke says. “We were able to be really transparent about all those costs with the customers and where they could save.”

The other big change taking place during Lemke’s early involvement was the move from retailers using wholesalers around the country to buying direct. The wholesale business of CH Robinson was the largest customer group in the late ’80s. Then, over the next decade, many customers, retailers especially, built their own warehouses and became self-distributors. “We had to completely shift our customer base from the declining wholesale business to the retail business.”

Lemke spent a lot of time converting the business from wholesale to retail and foodservice, and building the model to support the new direction. Taking that process forward, customers became more comfortable purchasing their own goods, and the concept of direct sourcing followed.

“We ended up having to convert our business from being solely a brand marketing, logistics and automated-ordering company to being a grower controlling the supply,” Lemke says. “We felt we could bring not only experience on the supply side to the growers, but the experience of all our product marketing, the consumer analytics, the transportation activity, the warehouses we had set up for distribution.”

On the cutting edge of global sourcing, CH Robinson made a number of acquisitions to meet the new demands of year-round sourcing. “In my time there, we were able to go from selling produce and sourcing produce from two or three growing areas of the U.S., Mexico, and a little bit from South America — and we were able to turn that into sourcing from over 30 countries.”