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Robert Sanders of Ben B. Schwartz stays on top of the produce game

When it comes to the produce industry, Robert Sanders really knows the ropes.

The 29-year-old salesman and buyer with Ben B. Schwartz & Sons, a wholesaler on the Detroit Union Produce Terminal, has been working in the trade since he was a teenager and has been exposed to the business since he was a preschooler hanging out - and helping out - in his uncle's fruit market.

That uncle, Sam Katz, a survivor of the Holocaust, operated Sam's Fruit & Vegetable Fair in Madison Heights, MI, where from the time he was 4 years old, Mr. Sanders would help rotate produce and gather buggies. "I was helping out in the coolers from the time I was 7 or 8," Mr. Sanders said. He performed similar chores at a small fruit store, the Union Lake (MI) Fruit Market, owned by his father, Gerry Sanders.

Since those early days, he has worked in a variety of segments of the produce trade.

"I didn't go to college," he said. "My college was starting in this business and going through every step." Mr. Sanders is a graduate of Walled Lake Central High School in the Union Lake area of Oakland County in Michigan.

"When I was 16, I got a job at a very successful market here in Michigan called Nino Salvaggio's," Mr. Sanders recounted. He had been working as a stock boy and a produce clerk for a couple of years when he made the decision to get his truck driver's license at age 18. So he put himself through truck driving school and hit the open road, where, as something of an amateur weather buff, he could indulge that hobby to a certain extent. "I'm infatuated with the weather," he acknowledged.

He returned to Nino Salvaggio's for a time as a truck driver hauling produce, but found he was becoming more intrigued with the wholesale side of the business. "Retail is good, but I enjoy the action in the wholesale side of the industry," he said. "Things are always happening, things are always changing."

His new role at Nino Salvaggio's, where he also acted as an assistant buyer, exposed him to the Detroit market, where he would pick up produce. "After three or four years, my interest grew to the point where I really wanted to get downtown, I wanted to learn about bringing in produce from all over the world," Mr. Sanders said.

Chris Billmeyer, one of the owners at Ben B. Schwartz, gave him the opportunity to join the firm as a salesman-buyer, and Mr. Sanders completed the transition from the retail end to the wholesale end of the business. He has been with the company for five years.

At Ben B., Mr. Sanders picks up new commodities every year. Among other products, he handles citrus from California and Florida, wet vegetables from Texas and the entire watermelon deal. "I'm just now starting to handle Chilean stone fruit and grapes for Ben B.," he added.

Mr. Sanders has a good handle on the industry and understands the needs of both his customers and his suppliers.

He has a particular insight when it comes to transportation. "Getting my license got me downtown," he said. "Having driven a truck, I understand when a truck breaks down or has weather-related issues. I understand what [the drivers] go through. That was an interesting job."

Mr. Sanders attends industry conventions and finds them to be a useful networking tool. "We'll be going to San Diego for the PMA convention, we went to United [last] year," he said. "Conventions are great because you do all kinds of business with your shippers, you're building relationships, you're seeing people you don't see all the time - you're meeting people you've never met before."

This year's PMA convention will be a special one for Ben B. Schwartz & Sons. "We're having our 100th anniversary celebration at the convention," Mr. Sanders said.

Mr. Sanders credited his early experiences at his uncle's and dad's stores as well as his first "paycheck job" at Nino Salvaggio's with teaching him responsibility and accountability.

"Everybody talks about how much money you can make in this business, but you can lose so much money if you are not responsible," he said. Even after a 12- or 14-hour day, he said, "if you make that last call at the end of the day, you might save some money on a load of oranges."

He continued, "You've just got to really care and really like what you do. I've always treated any place I've worked like it was my own business."

Single for now, Mr. Sanders is looking forward to having a family of his own and sees certain advantages in the hours a wholesale unit on the Detroit market has to keep.

"Working the hours we work, it allows you to watch your families grow up," he said. "I don't have a family but I can't wait - you can watch your kids play baseball or do swimming or dance after school."

His age has not been a factor in his career, he said, noting, "It's such a hard business - we get up at 1 or 2 in the morning. If you're willing to do that they'll give you an opportunity."

There are no easy days in his chosen field, Mr. Sanders said. "I think every day is rewarding and difficult at the same time," he said. "When you're bringing in all this fresh produce, the minute it hits the dock, you're ready to move it. The difficult part is predicting what you're going to sell and when. The rewarding part is when you do get those big orders and you do sell."

His current position lets him stay involved with the weather - watching patterns, preparing for the effects of snowstorms and generally anticipating the impact far-off events might have on supply and quality. For example, "all the rain in California is really affecting the Navel business this year," he said.

He enjoys tracking winter snowstorms and summer hurricanes, except for their sometimes tragic consequences. "Summertime weather is most interesting," he said. "We have so much more information [on line] these days -- access to radar and all sorts of fun stuff you can do."

Besides following the weather, Mr. Sanders is an avid reader and works out five times a week using his own equipment.

He is also a big sports fan, and attended this year's first round of the NCAA college basketball championships in Auburn Hills, MI.

"We love the Detroit Pistons here," he said. "And I was a huge [Detroit] Tigers fan growing up and still am, even though they're terrible now."

He also participates in fantasy sports leagues. Mr. Sanders lives in Birmingham, MI, about a half-hour's drive north of Detroit. An older sister, Carolyn Sanders, a professional horseback rider who trains jumpers, also lives in Birmingham. His parents, who divorced when he was a young boy, also live nearby.

Mr. Sanders turns 30 on June 14, Flag Day. "I think it's nice of them to have a holiday for my birthday," he joked.