EASTERN PERSPECTIVE: Frank Weichec's retirement brings flood of memories
February 21, 2005
by Tad Thompson
PHILADELPHIA Frank Weichec Jr. wasn't around to speak for himself for a story on his retirement. He was with his beautiful wife, Alice, cruising his 41-foot motor yacht off South Florida.
Instead, his son, Chip Weichec, hunkered down in Norm & Lou?s Restaurant, the social center of the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, here, to discuss his father?s career.
While Frank attended Philadelphia?s Drexel University " first as an engineering student, who switched to business administration " he began dating Patricia Hunter. Ms. Hunter?s father, Robert Hunter, had started the produce company Hunter Bros. Inc. with his brother, Earl. Drexel had a work-study program comprised of six months of work followed by six months of study. Frank was invited to work at Hunter Bros. for the work-study program. At Drexel, he also was part of the Reserve Officers Training Corps program.
Frank eventually married Patricia, went into the army as a lieutenant and was promoted to captain, serving for a year in Vietnam. This included duty at the infamous Checkpoint Charlie.
When Frank returned from Vietnam, he went back to the Philadelphia produce market. His son said that his dad, through his reserve officer status, "kept a lot of guys on the market from going to Vietnam."
Among those was Jimmy Storey, owner of Quaker City Produce, here. "He saved a lot of rears here from going to Vietnam, including mine! Mr. Story confirmed.
?I spent a year on active duty in the army, and seven on inactive, due to Frank Weichec?s support. I was a military policeman for seven years," Mr. Storey recalled. "I was just out of high school and drafted. When I got my orders to dye my underwear green, I called Frank." Instead of going to Vietnam, with Frank?s influence, "I went to MP school and became a military policeman. Then I was a VIP driver and drove generals."
You must have been an imposing driver, huh Jimmy? "No, then I was very skinny. I stopped smoking and gained a person."
Mr. Weichec?s military exploits over, he bought Hunter Bros. from his father-in-law in 1968.
The Hunters? first child, Chip " who is actually named Frank Weichec III " was born in 1961. A second son, Mike, came along in 1963, and Steve was born in 1968. Steve made Hunter Bros. a second career, beginning eight years ago. Chip Weichec bought the business from his father in 1990.
?I remember my dad would say, "The worst thing that ever happened to the produce business was refrigeration," Chip Weichec said. "To a degree, that?s true," because after refrigeration became part of the industry, "people felt they didn?t have to sell something. They could keep it. Before there was refrigeration, you had to sell it or you would smell it by the end of the day. People would hustle and product got sold. The irony was that we were the first company to install refrigeration here? at what is now called the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market.
The market was built in 1959 without refrigeration. "Farmers would ship things here in heavy wooden crates. That was before my time," Chip Weichec added. "Product moved through terminal markets, and chains did not necessarily have warehouses and distribution centers like they do now. They used markets as a source of supply, and did a little direct buying. The reverse is true now."
Chip Weichec continued, "My dad was always progressive and encouraged the use of technology. He converted our whole store to refrigeration and was among the first people to buy electric pallet jacks."
Among the responsibilities assigned to Chip by his father was was installation of computerized sales tickets in the early 1990s. After that was installed, "no one hated it more than he did. If you hit button "B? instead of button "E? you didn?t get the answer you were looking for. But in the long run he was always very progressive and forward thinking."
Mr. Storey confirmed, "Frank was the pioneer in putting together the refrigeration additions to the Philadelphia market in the mid-1990s. He was the market president for five or six years before me. I was his vice president, and he worked very diligently and very hard with the Philadelphia Development Industrial Corporation? to improve the market with refrigeration.
Frank Weichec grew up across the road from the small airport, Wings Field, in Plymouth Meeting, PA. He went on to become a pilot and owned two planes. He sold his second plane last year to focus on his yacht, which is kept outside his Punta Gorda, FL, home.
While Plymouth Meeting is now considered a big Philadelphia suburb, at the time it was rural, and young Frank worked on farms in the area. His father, Frank Weichec Sr., was not a farmer but rather a physical therapist and a trainer for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1949 to 1961. Traveling with the Phillies was part of Frank Sr."s lifestyle, and knowing Philadelphia sports stars was a way of life for Franks I, II and III. (Chip Weichec, perhaps a little tired of family name confusion, named his son Max.)
Chip Weichec said that his father was a believer in industry associations and served on the terminal market division of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association. He subsequently was invited to join United?s main board.
In the early 1990s, he worked with Joe Procacci of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., the late Pete Class of W.D. Class & Sons in Jessup, MD, Mr. Storey of Quaker City
and others to create the National Association of Perishable Agricultural Receivers.
Mr. Storey said of Frank Weichec, "He is one of the best guys I ever knew. He is very nice and very honest."
Chip Weichec said that Hunter Bros. has always been "primarily a vegetable house. We would pull vegetables from no farther west than McAllen, Texas, originally. Plus, we bought out of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and all the way to Ontario and Ohio. We bought potatoes from Maine and PEI, but we did no West Coast business. That changed as the business changed. People used to handle certain areas. Pinto Bros. [in Philadelphia] was all West Coast veg. You had people who were East Coast veg and you had people who were in fruit. They all stayed within their core items. There was not much overlap, but as the business changed " wholesalers are like farmers " if they see someone make a buck, they branch off and try other things. But we are still known principally as an East Coast veg house. But we managed to make inroads into Western vegetables and we?re a respectable fruit house. We?re not the biggest on the street, but we try to be the best. Integrity is first and foremost with my dad, and that?s not easy sometimes. If the truth is ugly, you still have got to tell the truth. One key to success is that no one ever said a bad word about my dad."
Chip Weichec added that his father?s business philosophy was "the first loss is the best loss. It's tough to sell when you?re losing money, but if it's a dog, you get rid of it and make room for something else."
Frank Weichec "always had a life outside of the produce business," his son continued. "There are people in this business who die with their boots on, but he always wanted to fly. When he could afford it, he became a pilot and got a plane."
Frank first flew in 1975, and he flew for business and pleasure from Florida to Canada. As Chip swam on scholarship at Clemson University in South Carolina, Frank would buy season tickets for Clemson football games and fly in for each game. He also flew the short hop across New Jersey to his beach home there. He sold his plane, a Piper Saratoga, two weeks before Hurricane Charley?s 170 mph winds destroyed it and its Punta Gorda airport in August.
Now in Punta Gorda, enjoying his 41-foot Carter christened Seapiper, Frank is commander of his yacht club. The retired Weichecs moved onto the comfort of air conditioned Seapiper when Hurricane Charley knocked out power to their home last summer. Frank and his second wife, Alice, have owned the Florida home for several years.
Looking toward the future of Hunter Bros., Chip Weichec said, "We are getting back to our core things." After an expansion plan spawned in 1999 created some problems, "we decided that instead of being a jack-of-all-trades, we would specialize in what we do well."
DNE touts strong clementine season, looks toward Chile
February 21, 2005
by Tad Thompson
PHILADELPHIA " The venue for a lunch meeting with The Produce News on Feb. 15 was a fitting scene for Bill Weyland. Across the street from the restaurant was the historic U.S. Customs House, quite relevant to the general manager of imports for DNE World Fruit Sales Inc., based in Ft. Pierce, FL. Mr. Weyland works from an office in North Brunswick, NJ.
In mid-February, as Mr. Weyland prepared to travel to Chile to finalize DNE?s plans to begin importing Chilean clementines this summer and to travel to see his Spanish clementine suppliers, he reviewed the Spanish clementine season as it drew to a close and discussed the broader clementine marketing scene. He said that this season, DNE will market 15-18 percent of the Spanish clementines brought into the United States. This percentage "is up a little from last year."
He said that about 80 percent of DNE?s Spanish clementine import volume is marketed under the "Ocean Spray? label.
?The fall-winter deal is winding down a little bit," he said. "We?ve finished receiving bulk vessels. This week and next week we will receive a few containers from Spain. Our sales window will run into the first week of market, and we will finish at that point in time.
?We are ending on a very positive note," Mr. Weyland continued. "The market is active and prices are firm. The quality has been outstanding. This year has afforded us the opportunity to extend the season with good supplies and good-quality fruit through the entire month of February. We?ve not had this opportunity for an extended marketing window in many years. The lack of some Florida citrus, primarily grapefruit," has made an unusual market. Retailers countered the Florida citrus losses to 2004 hurricanes with citrus category profits from Spanish clementines. This gave Spanish clementine growers and marketers "a great opportunity."
Mr. Weyland said that the northeastern United States is a fairly mature market for clementines, but other parts of the country still offer "opportunities to increase consumption a lot. Many people don?t know what they are. In many developing markets, they are still perceived as an exotic, unknown piece of fruit. As marketers, we need to continue to make that connection to the trade and consumers on the benefits of eating clementines."
To do this, Mr. Weyland said that Spanish exporters contribute to a general marketing program that is coordinated through the Spanish commercial office in New York. U.S. importers make recommendations to the commercial office and exporters on what key markets need a special introductory focus. The promotion is a decade old.
The New York public relations agency Weber Shandwick promotes Spanish clementines in designated markets, which vary from year to year. The consumer media promotions this year focus on Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte, NC, St. Louis and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Given limited promotion funds, Mr. Weyland called this "the best situation for what we have to work with at this time."
He emphasized that DNE, "with our trade partners," promotes the "Ocean Spray? label through its independent promotions.
On the matter of Spanish clementine production, Mr. Weyland said that expansion of acreage is less than 1 percent per year. There is, however, a great deal of replanting, with the removal of "certain varieties that are not in demand and are not profitable to the growers. Newer trees are planted on the same property, so Spain is not seeing a huge increase in net producing acreage."
The new trees are varieties "that allow us to extend on the front and back ends? of the deal. Research and development is ongoing to expand Spain?s clementine-shipping season.
The marketing window is particularly available for earlier fruit.
Mr. Weyland said that this season, the first Spanish clementines arrived Nov. 1. Traditionally the season begins Oct. 25, and, except for this year, ends the first week of February.
He said that most of the Southern Hemisphere?s citrus shipments are completed by the first week of October, while Florida shippers don?t have major volume in October. More specifically, he said, "South African Midknights are winding down and Florida grapefruit is just starting. Thus, there are a lot of opportunities on the front end. There is a four- or five-week window. Spanish clementine varieties don?t exist now [to fill that window], but they?re working on it. It takes years to do this."
The replacement acreage being planted now is for mid-season varieties such as Nules, Oro-Grande, Arufatina and Oro-Nules. These varieties "are absolutely well received in the United States," Mr. Weyland said.
Moroccan clementines are "parallel with Spain," the DNE executive continued. "The quality from Morocco this year was also outstanding. All we received from Morocco this year was also "Ocean Spray? brand."
The Moroccan clementine deal also runs from November to February. The Nour is a late Moroccan clementine variety that starts in late December. "It is an excellent eating variety and the quality is fantastic. The overall characteristics of the fruit are very, very good."
He noted that the Moroccan program is slightly more complicated than Spain because all the fruit is shipped via container. Container ship connections must be made in Spain for the Moroccan fruit. So containers and ship space must be reserved in advance for container ships. Maersk is the primary clementine carrier from Spain to New York.
Mr. Weyland said that the California clementine season this year ran from late November into mid-February "with the later varieties. The quality has been very, very good from what I have observed and from what I've heard from customer feedback. With 280 million people in this country, there is plenty of room for both domestic and imported clementines. I'm not worried? about too much competition.
He added, "Any time your competition produces good fruit, it just raises the standards in the market and the consumers accept the fruit more, and their frequency of purchasing and prices rise."
Mr. Weyland credits North American retailers for being "committed to support clementine programs with promotions, advertising and in-store demonstrations. They see clementines as opportunities to put good gross profits into their citrus category. The clementines have the characteristics " easy peel, sweet flavor and being virtually seedless " that appeal to consumers in the marketplace." With such a product, retailers will have to have in-store merchandising and good advertising support levels.
Mr. Weyland plans to travel to Chile in early March to finalize DNE?s clementine import plans. This winter, the USDA finalized phytosanitary approval of this fruit for export to the United States. The first Chilean fruit arrivals to the United States are expected in the second half of May. The last of the season?s fruit will arrive in the first week of August.
Nules is the main variety shipped from Chile, which has successfully exported clementines to Canada, Europe and the Far East for many years.