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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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Loss Of Two Industry Leaders —
Bob DeBruyn And Frank McCarthy

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 22, 2009

One of the special joys of going to industry events each year is the opportunity to see old friends. In an industry that spans the globe and relies mostly on phone and e-mail to get business done, these annual meetings are often the only opportunity to see people one feel’s closer to than neighbors.

As the industry prepares to head off to PMA, we are looking forward to seeing such friends, enjoying our annual dinners and late night commitments to raise a glass in good cheer.

Yet each year, when we head off to PMA looking forward to reunions, we are also confronted with the sometimes bracing reality of reunions that have been held for the last time.

Obviously this is a big industry and many people pass away each year, almost always including some luminaries. But it is, of course, the loss of personal friends that moves one to sadness.

For this Pundit, a few losses have led us to write about them.

One year, we lost in quick succession Ralph Pinkerton, Dave Stidolph and Carl Fields. We wrote a piece about these stalwarts, titled Ralph, Dave and Carl.

There was, of course, that horrible year we lost Joe Nucci.

And it was just last year that we wrote Jim Nolan, A Man Of Honor And Integrity, Passes Away.

Now, as we prepare to head off for Anaheim, we received word of two other friends who will not be there.

Bob DeBruyn was an unassuming man but one of great achievement. His DeBruyn Produce Company quietly grew into one of the largest and most diversified onion suppliers in the country, while he served his industry and community on many association and non-profit boards. He won many awards including the Distinguished Service Award at Miichigan State.

The Pundit owes Bob a special debt. In the early years of Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, Bob ran frequent ads promoting his Debco brand, providing sustenance for a then new and unproven idea. In addition, Bob was kind enough to share from time to time his ideas for how we could make this a better industry.

His support and contributions will be missed.

We also got news that Frank McCarthy had passed away. Frank is no stranger to the readers of these pages, having weighed in on diverse issues.

He thought that United and PMA should remain separate:

“Partnerships” aside, the economic and political interests of the growers, shippers and distributors are fundamentally opposed to those of the retailers and food service operators. United, FFVA and WGA saved PACA not so very long ago when PMA sat on its hands.

There are any number of issues where PMA and United must disagree. They have different franchises. We need them both. The issue is how to fund United. Income from produce growing, shipping and distributing is notoriously unreliable, and when those involved have a bad year, there is no choice but to hock the jet, fire all non-family staff, cut the advertising and skip United.

I wish there was a simple solution to this problem, but hopefully those more creative than I can come up with one.

— Frank McCarthy
Vice President of Marketing
Albert’s Organics/United Natural Foods
Dayville, Connecticut

He believed Ernest Gallo was a genius:

He was one of the creators of the American wine industry. His early vision was to make wine accessible to the average person. His early wines were made from inexpensive grapes, but they were always technically excellent and a great value for the money.

His company essentially controlled the price of wine grapes in California, but you never heard a grower complain. Gallo’s price was always fair and sometimes generous. This, of course, put a floor under the table grape market as well.

His real genius was in marketing. He knew the value of distribution and he fought constantly for every placement and every facing. He also played fair in what was sometimes a dirty game.

Some of his later wines were superb, made from the best Napa and Sonoma had to offer, and still a bargain. In a world full of pretense and pretension, he was an honest merchant. We are poorer for his passing.

— Frank McCarthy
Vice President of Marketing
Albert’s Organics/United Natural Foods
Dayville, Connecticut

He saw the global economy as a threat to American food producers:

The simple and uncomfortable truth is that we live in a global economy. We have already seen close to a quarter of the Washington State apple business move South or off shore; virtually all of the frozen fruit and vegetables are already imported precisely because of high US labor costs.

The supply chain must maintain its margins to be viable so a $.05 a pound cost increase for apples ($2 for a 40-pound carton) is equal to roughly $.15 per pound at retail. For that kind of money (and much less), consumers and retailers will change vendors.

I believe that the export of American food production is the cheapest form of foreign aid and that the State Department has used this as a policy to help and bring stability to our neighbors to the South and West.

— Frank McCarthy
Vice President of Marketing
Albert’s Organics
Bridgeport, New Jersey

He admired family businesses:

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Ernest Gallo in another career about twenty years ago. He wanted to upscale the image of his wines. I explained to him that he’d spent a half billion dollars over a forty year period positioning Gallo as good cheap wine. (Remember Gallo Hearty Burgundy?) I told him it would take a generation and a billion dollars to accomplish this task. He said, “I better get started right away.” Family companies have options that public companies don’t.

— Frank McCarthy
Vice President of Marketing
Albert’s Organics/United Natural Foods
Dayville, Connecticut

He warned against the trend of using cartoon characters to sell produce with which they had no connection:

First, Jim, thank you so much for spreading your abundant common sense on a daily basis. It is most refreshing. As a fellow pundit and sometime curmudgeon, I’d like to comment on cartoon characters and marketing to children. Specifically, an effective brand spokesperson must epitomize the product. Thus Bugs Bunny can sell carrots, Popeye can sell spinach, but Garfield can’t sell apples. “Borrowed interest” is never an effective marketing tool.

— Frank McCarthy
Vice President of Marketing
Albert’s Organics/United Natural Foods
Dayville, Connecticut

Frank’s frequent contributions to this column showed not only a lively intellect but a generosity of spirit as he was anxious to try to make this industry stronger..

His frequent advice to this Pundit certainly made both the Perishable Pundit and sister magazine, PRODUCE BUSINESS, more lively and intelligent.

His friendship and input will both be missed.

* * *

We’ve been writing this piece with a particular tune running through the head.

The Pundit lost another “acquaintance” recently. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary shared a physician with the Pundit some years ago and we would sit and chat in the waiting room.

Although perhaps best known for children’s songs such as “Puff the Magic Dragon” — by the way, Mary gave assurance that the song had nothing to do with drugs… it was just a song of lost innocence — and for covers of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer,” plus their number one single Leaving On A Jet Plane, written by John Denver, as well as for children’s albums — Peter, Paul and Mommy from 1969 and 1993’s Peter, Paul and Mommy, Too — it was Mary’s haunting, almost achingly beautiful voice, that took the group to a different level.

It helps this Pundit to think about Bob DeBruyn and Frank McCarthy and all those other friends who are now far away, by hearing a mournful Mary singing an old standard. Here is an ancient clip of Peter, Paul & Mary performing 500 Miles:

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