Celebrating 35 Years—Vanguards Who Made a Difference: Tom Stenzel

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Tom Stenzel of United Fresh Produce Association

Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Tom Stenzel
United Fresh Produce Association

As president/CEO of United Fresh since 1993, and a powerful industry advocate in government dealings, Tom Stenzel has tackled some of the toughest produce industry issues head on. He has been on the front lines, testifying winningly in Congress, leading the industry through PACA negotiations, slotting fees, immigration reform, food safety regulations, and critical funding in the Farm Bill. With an attentive and steady hand, he’s cultivated far-reaching leadership training programs and landmark nutrition policy strategies to increase produce consumption.

“I’ve looked at Tom as not only a colleague, but also a mentor over the years, with his amazing, courageous and unselfish leadership, his ability to lead big changes across the industry,” says Jim Lemke, retired president of Robinson Fresh, who served as a chairman of United. “He’s just able to act in an effective way in a short period of time. He is a natural orator and very adaptable in the moment in speaking to government and big organizations that control a lot of money spent on our industry. There couldn’t be a better person to have as our advocate for the industry,” says Lemke.

“When you look at what Tom’s created and continues to create, he moves the industry forward — maybe it won’t always be apparent today, maybe not tomorrow, but there are many long-term effects for the programs and initiatives Tom started or had a strong hand in, and it’s not just in one aspect of the business, it’s in every aspect of the business,” says John Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration at United, who has worked for Tom 20 years of his career.

The impact of his influence can’t be overstated in securing government funds for specialty crops in the Farm Bill; and he has been relentless in ensuring their long-term viability. “Tom coordinated the Specialty Crop Bill Alliance and successfully lobbied for the industry during each Farm Bill negotiation. This led to the development of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative state block grant funding for specialty crops and other benefits,” says Toner.

He’s had pivotal roles in initiatives to get fresh fruits and vegetables into schools, including the Salad Bars in Schools Campaign, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to three million children by facilitating the donation of salad bars to over 5,000 schools in all 50 states. A spirited collaborative effort, the campaign spurred playful rivalry to see who could contract the most donations, generating a swell of support and momentum, according to Karen Caplan, president/CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce.

“One thing that always drove me toward supporting Tom was his focus on increasing produce consumption by expanding children’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Lemke. “Whether through federal nutrition feeding programs or through Salad Bars in Schools, these initiatives were really the basis for the Fresh Start Foundation,” says Lemke, a founding chairperson. “It built on United’s leadership in nutrition policy, and coming up with new ways to gain access in the school and outside of the school,” says Lemke, noting, “We later branched out to communities, sporting complexes, YMCA’s… and large health insurance companies, forming partnerships to contribute to healthy eating. It was really a broad expanse of the approach to create more consumption.”

“I’ve looked at Tom as not only a colleague, but also a mentor over the years, with his amazing, courageous and unselfish leadership, his ability to lead big changes across the industry.”

— Jim Lemke, retired president of Robinson Fresh

“Tom was a huge proponent in bringing the industry to the Washington Public Policy Conference,” says Fred Heptinstall, who was a chairman of United while executive vice president of Chiquita Fresh North America, and on the board of directors throughout his career. “I went to the very first meeting back in the 90’s; there was maybe seven people in the room. It was Tom’s leadership that really set programs like that in place. And with his continuity and leadership style, he was able to grow those programs from their infancy to what they are today. Another one of his strengths is building coalitions, which is not always easy when you have egos involved.”

Stenzel was a strong voice in calling for the Food Safety Modernization Act, recognizing that food safety should not be a competitive advantage, and he provided an avenue for small growers to demonstrate their food safety practices by creating the Harmonized Standard Food Safety Audit, which is currently the dominant audit used by USDA AMS, according to Toner.

In 1995, he led a coalition of the produce industry to amend and modernize the Perishable Agriculture Commodities Act (PACA). “This was seen as a monumental achievement for the fresh produce industry as they had to overcome the objections of the retail industry along with the powerful banking industry who all fought to eliminate this critical law,” according to Toner, adding, PACA is seen as the underlying law that guides and regulates the commercial trade of fresh produce.

“Tom drove the final legislation and regulations for a mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for the U.S. Despite disparate views from across the produce supply chain, Tom was able to forge compromise and consensus on an issue that had long been a controversial barrier between different parts of the produce industry,” according to Toner.

Stenzel also nurtured the renowned, Dupont-sponsored, Produce Leadership Program, now going on its 25th year. Dupont’s Coteva Agriscience executives knocked on United’s door with the idea and finances to establish the program, modeled on leadership excellence specifically geared for the fresh produce industry. It includes extensive involvement from professional trainers, faculty, principal United Fresh members and Corteva Agriscience executives.

The evolving program has graduated hundreds of fellows, who have become executives of major produce businesses, leaders of prominent organizations, and some of the most well-known people in the industry. “Out of Tom’s accomplishments, The United Leadership Program has brought one of the greatest returns to the industry, and to the individuals who support the Association,” says Toner, noting another collaboration, United’s Produce Executive Development Program, a partnership with Cornell University, impacting over 400 industry executives.

Stenzel currently serves as chairman of the International Federation for Produce Standards, a global body representing national produce associations from the UK, Europe, Australia New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Canada and the United States. He is also on the board of directors of the Center for Produce Safety. He has served in many government and industry leadership positions, including the first U.S. Department of Agriculture Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, president George W. Bush’s Transitionary Advisory Team for Agriculture, and as an advisor on the US. Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade, in addition to testifying in Congress numerous times to advance industry interests.

He’s been agile to confront industry consolidation, major disruptions, and adapt to competitive business pressures, collaborating on trade show formats, including co-locations with Food Marketing Institute, Specialty Food Association, and the Organic Trade Association. As the industry was beset by the coronavirus crisis, Stenzel led the first major food trade show on a virtual platform, recognizing the industry need to connect despite the pandemic.

“Tom said we need to look at virtual in the face of this crisis and make it work, to create new opportunities that we didn’t have before the coronavirus. The value of the internet and virtual trade shows will have a lasting impact on how we connect and do business,” says Toner. In any crisis, the response of the CEO to pull things together is paramount, to have the clearest vision of what it takes for the industry to succeed, to know the strengths and weaknesses of the customer and vendor base, and to lead with a steady hand. Tom has these qualities. “He’s a rock, he is consistent in his actions, he’s humble, and he’s never going to be the loudest person in the room; he listens first, and as much as he inspires and is inspired by others, he doesn’t change who he is at his core.”