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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Pundit’s Mailbag: Bruce Peterson Hits 'Nail On The Head' When It Comes To Retailers Hiring Credentials Over Experience

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 12, 2015

Our piece, Bruce Peterson, Founder Of Wal-Mart Produce Program, Will Urge Industry To Rage Against Mediocrity, Value Experience Over Education, And Merchandise To Wow The Consumer At The London Produce Show And Conference, brought much response, including these letters:

The interview with Bruce is very enlightening. I’ve told everyone on our sales and purchasing desk that it’s required reading. Bruce’s points about the individuals who are hired by retail so resonates. I’ve always known Bruce is smart, but he’s brilliant here.  

— Tim York
President
Markon Group
Salinas, California

**************

Bruce Peterson is spot on. His insights into the current state of the produce industry, retail produce execution, produce buyer/seller engagements, the power and importance of “experience” in our industry, the power and importance of the marketplace and being in the stores, the importance of our produce Consumer, the importance and power of being a “merchant” or a student of our industry, produce retailing, and the Consumer.

It is a GREAT article that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thank Bruce and thanks PerishablePundit.com

Chuck Sweeney
Director of Category Development
Driscoll’s
Watsonville, California

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Love your articles!

Bruce has hit the nail on the head. I had the pleasure of knowing Bruce when he worked at Meijer, and dealing with him as a supplier when he was at Wal-Mart.

As to his story about the stone fruit, remind him of the special buys that his individual warehouse buyers used to do that really pumped sales on a particular item. This also allowed the buyers who were closest to the consumer to make these decisions.

I started in the produce business as a produce clerk at the A&P store near my home when I was in high school, and I worked in the stores all through college, unloading the meat and produce trucks in the morning, then going to school, and coming back in the afternoon to work in produce and other areas of the store.

I then became a produce department manager, and then went into the office as a buyer. I walked the Detroit Produce Terminal every day, and bought from the terminal, and also did FOB buying, both for our local plant that packed tomatoes, spinach, cole slaw, popcorn and nuts, and also for merchandise that went directly to the stores.

Today we are food brokers that specialize in selling nuts and dried fruits into the produce departments.

When I started in the brokerage business, the buyers didn’t need a spreadsheet to tell them when lettuce was moving from one growing area to another, or sense when United Fruit or Standard were long on bananas and needed to move them, or which stores to send those bananas to and what price to put on them when the person in charge of the ripening rooms came in and told us that we were long on bananas and they had to go to the stores that night.

Contrast that to a call I just made to the headquarters of one of the largest retailers in the country and the new category manager, who was just put in charge of about $200 million worth of business had never worked in a store!! As Bruce points out, if you never worked in a store and learned how to merchandise produce, how would you know what and how much to buy.

Jim, this is the most frustrating part of the business for me. I call on buyers who don’t have a clue about the produce business. They don’t make any decisions either because they don’t have the authority, or they don’t know what is the right decision to make.

I don’t think it is coincidence that Wal-Mart’s produce started going in the tank when Bruce left.

Please let this letter be my personal salute to Bruce.

—  Chuck Batcheller, President
Chuck Batcheller Co., Inc
Lathrup Village, Michigan

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There is a fundamental problem in that few retail CEOs came up through produce or perishables, so they are not always aware of the impact of hiring policies on the success or lack of success of the produce department.

Our society has become heavily weighted to a kind of “credentialism” that both blocks opportunities for individuals and results in less-than-optimal outcomes.

The problem is that organizations value people with degrees from top schools, not because of the value of what was learned there but because these school names are a kind of brand and they allow people ignorant of the substance of the matter to evaluate a law firm, accounting firm, investment opportunity, etc., by quickly seeing that this organization has hired a lot of smart people.

The problem is that selecting for high-prestige degrees is selecting for people who are good at the things that success in these schools demands. Those traits may or may not have much to do with success in the produce industry.

To some degree, this is all an outgrowth of the switch from predominantly privately-held supermarkets to predominantly publicly-held.

This inherently disadvantages produce, which is much more prone to wild fluctuations of price and supply than manufactured foods — fluctuations that disturb the market’s desire for steady increases in sales and profits.

This inherent issue is made worse by publicly-held companies that devalue produce experience in order to show investors a credentialed staff.

Many thanks to Chuck Sweeney, Tim York and Chuck Batcheller for weighing in on this important industry issue.

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