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Siblings revel in each other's company at Johnson Produce

Sibling rivalry isn't an issue for brothers Jay and Glenn Johnson at the Johnson Produce Co. in Pompano Beach, FL.

It's more of a team effort for this third-generation duo at the company founded by their grandfather, John Bill (JW) Johnson, 60 years ago.

As a matter of fact, the family owns and operates three related concerns: the Johnson Produce Co., shipping out of Pompano Beach and Santa Fe, FL; JGL Produce, shipping out of Immokalee, FL; and the J.W. Johnson Tomato Co., a packinghouse outside Waynesville, NC. "That's just a summer deal," Jay Johnson pointed out.

The tomato house started out as a vine-ripe tomato deal, he said, but added bell peppers about 10 years ago. JGL and Johnson Produce have extensive lines, primarily dealing in cucumbers, squash, eggplant, watermelon and a variety of peppers.

The brothers divide their time among all three businesses. Jay, 26, is a 2002 graduate of the University of Florida in Gainesville with a degree in finance; he minored in agribusiness sales. Glenn, 24, graduated from the same school, where he was a marketing major, in 2003. Both are single.

And both couldn't be happier to be carrying on the family's produce tradition.

"It's never boring," Glenn Johnson said of his chosen career. "I'd rather be on the phone all day or out in the fields looking at product" than following the routine of other jobs he could have pursued.

"We do office stuff, packinghouse, everything," Jay added. "You're interacting with a lot of different people all the time - customers, growers," Glenn said.

The pair started working summers at the packinghouse when they were in their early teens. They began by loading trucks and then moved on to working the whole deal, Jay said. "We'd sell it, ship it, pack it," he said. The routine continued through summers during high school and college until it was time to head back to class.

The brothers still work the North Carolina deal, with the difference being that now they stay and finish the season before moving on to Florida.

In Florida, their work is distributed chiefly between sales and visiting the growers. Their base is usually Pompano or Immokalee. "We also have a little deal in north Florida, an old Santa Fe growers cooperative in Gainesville," Glenn said. "I started doing it when I was still in college."

The brothers work closely with their dad, Johnny Johnson, and mom, Claire Johnson. Johnny Johnson took over J.W. Johnson Tomato and Johnson Produce in 1974 and founded JGL (named for offspring Jay, Glenn and Lauren, a sophomore studying business at the University of Florida) in 1990. Mrs. Johnson handles finances and employee relations.

Their grandfather still lives down the street from the Pompano State Farmers Market. "He's worked with some of the same growers we've worked with -- they pretty much keep us going. Without them it wouldn't work," Glenn said.

The two young men credit their own experiences as well in making them who they are today.

Both coached sports -- soccer and ice hockey -- at an early age in addition to working part time at restaurants before beginning the packinghouse commitment.

Drilling kids from about age 8 to early teens was a challenge and a responsibility. "It taught us leadership skills mostly," Glenn said.

The packinghouse, where they worked 16 to 18 hours a day, taught them a good work ethic. "You had to work 'til it was done, it wasn't a set schedule," Jay said, adding that he learned how to interact with all different types of people on that particular job.

The brothers cited their energy and fresh outlook as two of the bigger advantages their youth lends them in the produce field.

If there are any disadvantages, "people might not trust our experience," Jay said. People would be wrong. "Looking at us, people might not expect that we worked in a packinghouse," he said.

"We've known the business for a while, but as we're coming in, the business is changing drastically," Glenn pointed out. "So we have a fresh perspective."

Jay noted that this is especially true of technology. "Technology plays a big role in getting things done," he said.

The brothers cited the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 as the most difficult periods in their tenure at the Johnson companies.

"That was my first two years [full time]," Glenn said. In 2004 flooding rains in North Carolina washed out "our bins & into other towns," Glenn said. "That ended our season up there a month early."

And 2005's Hurricane Wilma devastated Immokalee, Jay added. The pair empathized with the growers who were so hard hit by the storms.

"We lost out on the product they lost, but they lost out even bigger," Jay said.

More rewarding times include showing off the packinghouse when buyers come to look at product.

"I like going out in the fields, being outside -- the transition from field to harvest," Jay said. "And when it's not so hectic, you get to talk about other things besides produce."

"That's rare," Glenn joked, and added, "I like meeting the people you talk to on the phone all the time. And doing a good job for our farmers and customers -- it's a balance." The brothers are a team off the job too. "Even outside of work we're pretty much always together," Glenn said.

The young men date, Jay more steadily with "a more serious girlfriend," Glenn said. It's tough to nurture a serious relationship while working in the produce industry, both said.

Surfing is their favorite recreational activity, mostly in the West Palm Beach, FL, area. They have traveled to Costa Rica in pursuit of waves, and Jay has been to Hawaii a couple of times.

Ice hockey is another passion, which they acknowledged is "kind of weird" in Florida. "We started playing in eighth grade and ended up on a pretty good team," Jay said. The brothers pursued the interest to college, initially enrolling in Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, which had a Division 1 hockey team. "It was just that possibility of playing in college," Jay said. Both ended up playing in a junior league, but transferred to the University of Florida, where they played on an intramural team, after Glenn's freshman and Jay's sophomore year.

Nowadays, "I'd rather surf than play hockey," Jay said. "We surf a lot," Glenn said.

Whether it's riding the waves or managing the family business, it's a team effort for the Johnson brothers.