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MONTEREY, CA -- From a buying co-op founded in 1991 by six visionary independent distributors, PRO*ACT has grown to become what it has called America's leading distributor of fresh produce to the foodservice industry.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the group today is comprised of 45 distributors with over 70 distribution centers, all leading specialty distributors in their markets, who together represent more than $3 billion in sales and more than 50 million cases of fresh produce purchased and sold through the PRO*ACT network annually.

In the late 1980s, PRO*ACT's founders recognized that consolidation was underway at all levels of the foodservice industry and that securing a long-term position within it for independent distributors required new ways of doing business. They set out to pool their volume and shift their purchasing programs from terminal-market centered buying to negotiating with and buying directly from grower-shippers.

"Cutting through the various layers of the industry was tough initially," Manny Costa, president of founding member Costa Fruit & Produce in Boston and a driving force behind the creation of PRO*ACT, said in a March 1 press release. "Our notion was that the only way we could grab someone's attention was by having consolidated programs that had real volume behind them. At the time, it was a pretty radical concept, but we had a shared vision of what it could be."

By 1991, PRO*ACT (an acronym for Produce Regional Operators Advancing Cooperative Trade) had established a small buying office in Salinas, CA. Soon, additional distributors were recruited, and PRO*ACT's focus began expanding from buying to marketing. Programs and services were developed to strengthen the group's competitiveness and value as a supplier to multi-unit chains and other contract customers. As more customers were added, more distributors wanted in -- and PRO*ACT grew steadily.

"To appeal to national foodservice accounts, we knew we needed to show real value," Harold Van Eerden, vice president of founding member Van Eerden Foodservice in Grand Rapids, MI, said in the release. "We needed to set ourselves apart with real advantages. It couldn't be smoke and mirrors."

Indeed, PRO*ACT set itself apart in key ways over the past two decades. Top among them are food safety and technology. PRO*ACT's comprehensive approach to food safety has become a model for the industry, according to the release. All of its distribution centers are third-party-certified superior, and the group maintains gold standard requirements for the grower-shipper partners that supply its products, from national-brand corporations to local farms. Plus, its technological sophistication is second to none. Through its suite of e-Services, PRO*ACT provides customers with complete, one-source produce supply chain management and reporting.

"There isn't another organization out there like PRO*ACT," Charles Gilbert, president of founding member Hearn Kirkwood in Hanover, MD, said in the release. "It's amazing to think that when we started out, we were struggling to fill a couple of trucks a week from Salinas, and now 1.2 million packages a week go through the buying office. It's a great, collaborative group of people, and we continue learning and sharing best practices as we grow."

Looking ahead to PRO*ACT's next 20 years, PRO*ACT President Max Yeater said that innovation will continue to be the group's cornerstone. "We have some very exciting new initiatives coming up that will take us in new directions," he concluded in the release. "At the same time, we remain firmly committed to the practices and principles that have guided us so well during our first 20 years."