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Detroit wholesalers overcome 2009 challenges, are optimistic about the upcoming year

by Daniel Jalil | January 24, 2010
DETROIT -- The economic challenges of 2009 were more than many businesses could bear, but Detroit wholesalers found success among the obstacles and have a positive outlook going into 2010.

"It was a good year," Dominic Riggio, president of Aunt Mids Produce Co., here on the Detroit Produce Terminal, said of 2009. "Package count on a lot of items is up. We have been able to maintain a lot of things and grow a lot of things. And - obviously in a down economy - we are doing pretty good."

At Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc. on the terminal, Nate Stone, chief operations officer, said of 2009, "We didn't cut any bonuses. It was a good year. We seem to have met all the challenges and then some. For us, if your eyes are open, it is easy to see some of the challenges that people in any predominantly manufacturing city are dealing with. And there have been some job losses and there are people that would like to be doing better than they are doing right now. But that is only a small percentage of the population. We tend to focus on what is good in and around the city and the surrounding areas. And we choose to focus our energies on what is positive. And there is a lot of good going on."

At R.A.M. Produce Distributors LLC on the market, Mike Badalament, sales representative, said, "With everything being said and the hits we have taken out here economically, we have done well. I think when you look back at this time of year, you have to give a lot of thanks to God. R.A.M. is very thankful." At Rocky Produce Inc. on the Detroit market, President Jack Russo said that 2009 was "a good year. It was a little tougher year. Margins are just down slightly, volumes are up, which happens. We jumped ahead of the curve. Some of these guys were going for value. We saw right away what was going on and we went right with it."

Andrews Bros. Inc. on the terminal saw the effects of 2009 most pronounced in pricing. "In general, produce prices [were lower in 2009], so we are selling produce for lower prices, and I think that is indicative of produce," Jeffrey J. Abrash, president of Andrews, said. "The dollars are down as a result of the prices being down."

Looking ahead to 2010, most of the wholesalers with whom The Produce News spoke were optimistic for themselves and the industry as a whole. "I'm expecting 2010 to be a good year. It seems the economy -- although I'm not an economist -- can only go up. We have our eye on some of the bills [in Washington, DC] that can affect our business. But I have every expectation that 2010 will be good," said Aunt Mids' Mr. Riggio.

At Ben B. Schwartz, "It is exciting already," said Mr. Stone. "Our crew is so young -- I think our youngest might be 22 -- and then we have a lot of people in their early 30s with a couple of older guys. And that gives you a group that has a lot of energy and has so much hope for their futures and the futures of their young families, that we think 2010 is going to be a record year. We are well positioned for success, and we wish others well."

Considering the industry as a whole, Mr. Stone said, "I think that when the industry takes the time to think about the green thing that individual companies will want to do more that reflects sustainable and environmentally friendly business practices. Whether it is recycling your office paper or using less wooden pallets, successful carrying companies really will start to focus on their children's children's children."

Rocky Produce expects 2010 to seamlessly follow 2009. "Status quo," Mr. Russo offered as a characterization of 2010. "These are still tough economic times for a lot of people. We understand that. We just have to continue offering our customers value, quality and price."

R.A.M.'s Mr. Badalament expects that a renewed focus on core business values and customers will spread across the industry in 2010, as well as an increasing importance placed on marketing innovation. "Values. The older I get and the grayer I become, I seem to think that values don't change," he said. "I think that the customer is No. 1, there is a corporate responsibility to your suppliers. I don't think that you take anything for granted any more. You have got to test the waters. It is not necessarily a R.A.M. thing; it is just people coming up with a different way of marketing produce. You see it in all areas of the industry."

Andrews Bros.' Mr. Abrash thinks that the economic conditions will keep value and price among buyer's top concerns, but he believes the trade will continue to be able to satisfy those concerns.

"Our customers are still going to be seeking out value. We'll try to meet that demand," he stated. "Some of the reasons for my optimism is we have a good customer base that works hard to promote produce, and the availability of produce from around the world still gives us great opportunities for sales."

(For more on Detroit, see the Jan. 25, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)