Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Joe Procacci of Procacci Brothers.
Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Produce Business.
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.”
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.”