Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
It was 35 years ago around four in the morning when Ken Whitacre and this columnist pulled up at the James A Farley building, the main post office in Manhattan, a great Beaux-Arts building designed by McKim, Mead & White, located just across the street from Madison Square Garden. At the time (1985), it was still open 24 hours a day, and we climbed the unbroken flight of stairs that covered the whole city block to drop solicitations in the mail for something new. It was to be a new idea, a magazine for the produce industry. It was to be called Produce Business.
As I looked up at the monumental building, I read the famous inscription: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” As we got back in the car to head to the airport where we would catch the first morning flight to San Francisco and unveil our new magazine to the industry at the PMA convention, I remember thinking that we too would confront obstacles, but we would not allow those obstacles to prevent us from serving and elevating the industry into which I had been born and to which we had dedicated ourselves in launching this project.
With despair in great supply, I feel no despair. Partly because we are fortunate to be in such an important and necessary industry, but also because the people of this industry are a source of great inspiration.
The ensuing 35 years have been vivid. As the magazine grew, the world changed and we changed with it, finding new ways to serve the industry. Like Produce Business, AOL was born in 1985, but as late as 1997, there were only ten million email accounts in the whole world. When the 9/11 attacks hit the US in 2001, and the upcoming PMA convention was threatened, we utilized emails to make the first mass plea urging the trade to come to Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence, for that October’s show, spurring the industry to not let the terrorists win by shutting down the world.
Over the decades, we were asked to help across the globe and at home:
- When the Woolworths Supermarket chain in Australia began building produce distribution centers and cutting out the terminal markets, we were asked to head Down Under and explain the way the trade could transition and thrive. We gave a dozen speeches, made lifelong friends, was inducted into Australia’s famous Cuckoo Club and still can hear the voices as the whole industry rose to sing a farewell Waltzing Matilda as we prepared to head home.
- After apartheid ended in South Africa, we were asked to fly to Cape Town and Pretoria and travel all across the country. I remember assuring an uncertain country that in America they would always find a friend and support as they would try to build a democracy.
- Fidel Castro wanted to gain access to American markets, and the country’s leaders invited me down to see Cuba, from which my grandfather had once been an important importer. I saw only totalitarianism and came back warning our industry and our country to not be fooled.
- When United was on the verge of collapse, we worked with leaders such as Al Vangelos and Al Siger to reorganize the association, redirect it, and find the core purpose that would allow it to not merely survive, but to thrive. Coming to be recognized as indispensable and irreplaceable for its government relations role, United Fresh has endured.
- When the Spinach Crisis hit the industry, we were able to fight for and defend an industry under attack. Countless television/radio appearances and newspaper interviews let us give voice at a moment when the industry needed someone to speak on its behalf.
For three and a half decades, we’ve poured many hours of thought, words and speeches into this industry. We have tried to help individuals and companies succeed as we endeavored to help the whole industry grow.
What started as one magazine became several… What started as solely print, became digital… What started as media became live events, trade shows, conferences and share groups.
In years past, when this magazine celebrated anniversaries, we focused on trends, but this time, it is people. Obviously because people always make the difference but also because, in my career, in my life, they have been the source of love, of happiness, and of hope. This year, with despair in great supply, I feel no despair. Partly because we are fortunate to be in such an important and necessary industry, but also because the people of this industry are a source of hope and great inspiration.
I think of the hundreds of industry dinners I have attended and seen the fiercest of competitors fight just as fiercely for the chance to pay the check. I came to realize that the vigor of competition was part of what helped us as an industry to move ahead.
At the beginning, I wanted to find a way to take this industry in which my family had worked for as many generations as we know and make it better. I think we have pushed on that incline. I have often been told that we helped. But I know we have found in the rigors of competition a way to know friendship and, after 35 years, that is an accomplishment which, maybe, I had not thought of when dropping mail in that post office so many years ago.