Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is John McAleavey, Eastern Produce Council.
There are matchmakers, and then there are match-mentors. John McAleavey, who served as executive director of the Eastern Produce Council (EPC) for 25 years, is one of the latter.
“John’s entire existence was to put people together, stimulate thoughts and ideas and instigate change and improvement,” says Vic Savanello, regional vice president of produce and floral for Grand Rapids, MI-headquartered SpartanNash. “His ability to develop relationships and use them to drive new thinking in our industry made him the biggest vanguard I know.”
“His impact on our industry will never be truly realized because he worked behind the scenes and never strived to take credit. His legacy will always be the wonderful family he created and loved, the EPC organization he built and nurtured throughout his career and all of us who he mentored and helped us to find our way through this industry,” adds Savanello, who is a former EPC president.
McAleavey was born and raised in Newark, NJ. He graduated from Seton Hall Preparatory School, and served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Leyte, before earning his bachelor’s degree in marketing from Rutgers University’s Business School. McAleavey’s produce career spanned roles in sales, marketing, merchandising and consulting for organizations such as the California Pistachio Commission and Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, where he represented New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Eastern Canada.
He also worked with the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, several regional produce commodity groups including the New York Apple Association, as well as the T. Marzetti Co.
McAleavey joined the Eastern Produce Council in 1980 and a decade later become the organization’s executive director.
The EPC, first known as the Produce Sales Club, was formed in 1966. When he became executive director in 1990, McAleavey transformed a club formed to hold monthly dinner meetings into an organization laser-focused on advancing the sales and awareness of fresh produce.
“John’s relationships and reputation throughout the produce industry brought the EPC together with other powerful organizations to partner in several incredibly important causes,” says Savanello.
Whether it was pulling the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association together in a two-day seminar to educate the EPC and neighboring New England Produce Council members about food safety, or partnering with Produce Business magazine to bring The New York Produce Show from idea to reality, “John was always thinking about our industry and how he could use his vast amount of relationships and the EPC membership to continue to always make it better,” says Savanello.
Under McAleavey’s leadership, the council became an organization committed to education and improving the industry. Additionally, the EPC grew into a powerful philanthropic force and supported industry organizations, agriculture education associations, local and national children’s health organizations and even put salad bars in schools.
“John wanted to make each connection a relationship,” says Paul Kneeland, vice president of Fresh Operations at Encino, CA-headquartered Gelson’s, and an EPC past president. Kneeland says it was McAleavey and Procacci Bros’ Mike Coppola who first mentored him when he moved to New Jersey to become the vice president of produce and floral at Parsippany, NJ-based Kings Food Markets.
“He knew who to connect to, and there was always a why, always a reason for what he did,” Kneeland adds. “Through this incredible talent, he expanded and built the Eastern Produce Council, as connecting people really is the essence of the organization. He knew the more people he could connect, the more value the EPC would have.”
McAleavey’s efforts to grow the EPC included recruiting members from across multiple facets of the industry and attracting a more diverse membership.
“He was instrumental in establishing a Women’s Leadership Committee and offered unconditional support for our efforts,” says Marianne Santo, senior category manager for produce and floral at the Keasbey, NJ-based Wakefern Food Corporation, who first met McAleavey in 1986.
“This took place at the very beginning of the produce industry’s really embracing the idea of inclusion for women. What this led to has manifested in very strong membership from women, a platform to highlight our accomplishments and a powerful recruiting tool to ensure that all these efforts successfully go forward,” says Santo. “I am the first woman president of this council and that alone is testimony to John’s trailblazing for all of us.”
Colleagues are hesitant to use words like ‘cutting edge’ to label McAleavey’s accomplishments, for as Al Murray, former assistant secretary agriculture for the Trenton, NJ-headquartered New Jersey Department of Agriculture and currently executive director of the NJ Agricultural Society, says, “John hated email and all the other technological advances.”
But that wasn’t a bad thing. “John would much rather pick up the phone or have an in-person visit with someone,” explains Murray. “He was definitely old-school and that is what made him stand out in what has become such an impersonal age of emails, Zoom conferences and voicemails.
“John showed that the produce industry is still very much a relationship-oriented business.”
McAleavey was inducted into the EPC Hall of Fame in 2008. He died in 2015.