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Muller Trading in aggressive growth mode at national level

LIBERTYVILLE, IL — The produce brokerage Muller Trading Co. Inc. is systematically expanding its national service, according to Mike Fleming, the company’s sales manager.

Mr. Fleming said that the firm now sells “quite a bit to the Southeast and Southwest, but also to the Northwest” regions of the country. “Our goal is the cover the United States in a few years.”

The Muller sales staff is divided into five commodity groups, he said. Mr. Fleming’s commodities are Georgia and Florida vegetables, such as peppers, cucumbers and squash. Others on the staff have an expertise in tomatoes. A third group covers mixed vegetables. Potatoes and onions are a fourth Muller category and fifth are “California salad bowl” items and fruit, he said.

The five categories “cover about everything,” he noted. The fruit category does not involve apples, but includes citrus, stone fruit, grapes and avocados.

“We are in the growth mode now. We are over the recession now and are bringing people on,” he said.

Mr. Fleming said that Muller is also working to organize five groups to focus on five national quadrants. There would be five people assigned to each region, with a total sales staff of 25 targeted for the next three or four years.

Currently for Muller, Pat Wedge sells fruit to the Southeast. Brian Allen handles California salad bowl sales to the Southeast. Brian Weiner works the sale of mixed vegetables, such as cucumbers, squash and peppers in the Southeast. Lauren Bugner handles tomato sales in the Southeast. Greg Lynn sells potatoes and onions to the entire country, while Mr. Fleming’s mixed vegetable category is sold to customers in Chicago and the Southwest. Eric Muller handles tomato sales to the Midwest and Southwest.

The commodity groups as described are broad and inexact, he added. But the designations represent to Muller customers the importance of having a sales staff that is focused on a relatively narrow category.

“It would be overwhelming” to try to know everything about all commodities, Mr. Fleming said.

Eric Muller started the company in 2000. Mr. Fleming joined Mr. Muller in October 2001. The firm has worked from its present location in Libertyville since 2004. The company has a spacious loft in elegant downtown Libertyville, which is in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. There is plenty of room to meet the firm’s expansion plans.

“The Northeast is the next logical choice for expanding business. The Northwest is the last area we will fill,” Mr. Fleming said.

The arrangement’s down side is that “customers find it annoying” to deal with five different contacts within one company. “We tell them if they want service to be done right, they need to talk to an expert. But, if a customer insists on a point person, that’s OK.”

Mr. Fleming said the sales staff works together to coordinate shipping to individual customers. The more product shipped on a load, the easier it is to arrange transportation, he added. A less-than-truckload shipment “can take days” to arrange, he noted.

Muller Trading “is a pure broker,” Mr. Fleming said. “We have no warehouse. We see nothing.” If truck transportation were more easily arranged the company could service smaller customers, “but we have to limit truckloads to a couple of drops. There was a day you could make multiple drops.”

The role of a produce broker remains strong in Mr. Fleming’s view.

“A receiver has to weigh buying what he needs from a wholesaler or us. Over the course of a year he will make more money with us” because of the additional effort and expense needed to arrange deliveries, federal inspections and all the other services performed by brokers. In light of these services, “we can save the customer money,” he said.

Going through brokers brings an advantage for shippers, too, because, “rather than reach out to one buyer, they can deal with us” and enjoy sales to a larger number of customers, Mr. Fleming said. “We are problem solvers that do the process over and over again,” thus are well qualified to serve the trade.