Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: TIM YORK

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Tim York of Markon Cooperative.

Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.

CEO, Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA)
Former President, Markon Cooperative

With grace and gumption, and breadth of knowledge and experience, Tim York, chief executive of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) and former president of the Markon Cooperative, initiated groundbreaking produce industry improvements, and has been generous in his volunteerism to better the industry.

“Whether in the realm of food safety, supply chain efficiencies or sustainability, Tim has stepped up to the plate often to help lead industry initiatives,” says Bryan Silbermann, who spent 20 years as president and chief executive of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “His selfless style of leadership of committees and boards has enabled the associations to engage a wide range of others, often his competitors, because he never makes the task at hand about him or his company. It’s always about what is best across the industry.”

York has been on the frontlines to address problems with a long-term outlook and a tenacity to bring others into the mission. In tackling food safety, and similarly sustainability, he’s been resolute in the importance of specificity, and measurable and verifiable results, his relentless mantra.

Understanding the strength and importance of industry-led food safety initiatives, York corralled key stakeholders to implement stringent industrywide standards and advances, keen on preempting and outpacing government regulations.

“I think Tim York has been able to play so many leadership roles for our industry because, as head of a cooperative, he has always understood the need for communal purpose and collaborative leadership,” says Silbermann.

Since taking the reins at Markon in 1990 for three decades, York became a trailblazer in industry foodservice distribution, identifying how needs were different from retail and that of other wholesalers or distributors, and instituting transformational changes widely practiced today. Under his leadership, Markon grew to be the largest fresh produce foodservice purchasing cooperative in the U.S., servicing more than 150,000 accounts, with collective members’ annual sales exceeding $26 billion.

“One of the first things we did was introduce some stability in pricing based on our needs at foodservice,” York says. “For years, commodity pricing was done on a day-by-day, if not sometimes hour-by-hour, basis, and distributors could not adjust that quickly. So, we negotiated with suppliers to have a consistent, set price orchestrated around weekly shipping schedules.” This transformed how foodservice distributors set pricing with their customers and longer-range strategies on how growers/shippers price foodservice products.

Markon itself was a novel concept. “There were other national buying groups that our distributors belonged to. However, foodservice distributors were evolving into full line distributors, including fresh produce, and we knew it was critically important to get fresh produce right,” he recalls. “The idea of setting up a foodservice buying office for fresh produce was unique. And eight months later, Sysco, set up their own fresh produce buying office, a recognition of that fact.”

York has been on the forefront of industry sustainability, as well as within his own company. He worked with Sambrailo Packaging, based in Watsonville, CA, to develop a sustainable package that protected strawberries. By converting plastic strawberry clamshells to fully recyclable cardboard, nearly 30 tons of plastic can be saved from going into landfills, according to Markon. The innovation culminated in Markon winning the Joe Nucci Innovation Award at the New York Produce Show in 2019.

York took a lead role in working with numerous stakeholders to develop peer-reviewed industry metrics around sustainability, centered on measurable and verifiable parameters. And that’s the genesis of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.

“It really came out of our work in food safety,” says York, who was a powerful force in implementing standardized industry food safety initiatives, triggered and accelerated by the 2006 spinach E.coli food safety crisis. “Our mantra was specific, measurable and verifiable metrics around food safety.”
This was the origin of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, he adds, identifying the fact that the industry needed common measures around food safety.

“It required us to pull together other buyers to join hands with us,” he says, pointing to other advocates including Dave Corsi at Wegmans Food Markets, and Mike O’Brien at Schnucks, who were instrumental in getting other retailers on board, as he worked with other wholesalers and foodservice companies to build a buyer-led food safety initiative, with 25 companies that were original signatories.

York received the Bryan Silbermann Collaboration Award from PMA in 2017 in recognition of his work around food safety.

After 34 years at the helm of Markon, York began a new chapter in his career in late 2020 as the new chief executive of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

“I feel like my whole career has brought me to this role, the work that I’ve done in food safety, my leadership roles at PMA and engagement in numerous industry efforts,” he says. “Whether it’s the Produce Traceability Initiative, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Advisory Council or the Stewardship Index or other things I’ve been involved in, this is just a natural step for me. It allows me to use my interest and passion around food safety and my love for this industry and put my knowledge and skills toward something that is really significant and meaningful.”