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Ralph Laderoot III enjoying second stint with produce

About six years ago, Ralph Laderoot III, a salesman and buyer for Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc. in Detroit, returned to where he had grown up after living in Arizona for several years.

"As I was graduating from high school, my dad was moving to Arizona," said Mr. Laderoot. "I was looking for a change of scenery after spending my life in Michigan, so I moved with him. I tried my hand at several careers for a few years. I was an electrician, and for a while my brother and I had a landscaping company."

As a teenager, Mr. Laderoot had worked in produce departments of grocery stores in Michigan. Before relocating to Arizona, he worked for more than four years for Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace, a retail operation with stores in St. Clair Shores and Troy, both in Michigan.

"After trying my hand in the landscape industry, I got a job with Bashas' Supermarket as a merchandiser in the produce department," said Mr. Laderoot. "My past experience was a benefit."

About six years ago, he returned to Michigan and reconnected with one of his good friends from childhood, Robert Sanders, who is also a salesman and buyer for Ben B. Schwartz & Sons.

"Robert told me that the company was looking to hire another salesperson," said Mr. Laderoot. "I applied, was interviewed and hired. Again, my experience in the produce business was beneficial. Having been on the retail end, I knew the importance of making sure that customers receive the right product in their stores so they will have what they need to satisfy their customers."

Mr. Laderoot said that the entire staff at Ben B. Schwartz & Sons strives to stay on the cutting edge in its product lineup, but service is of utmost importance.

"Chris Billmeyer, our president and CEO, says we are not in the produce business - we're in customer service and we just happen to sell produce," said Mr. Laderoot.

Ben B. Schwartz & Sons has a 110-year history, but it focuses on the great plans it holds in place for the future. It is known for its good pay rating, high business ethics and moral standards. The company stays on the cutting edge of industry trends and movements, but holds firm to its original ideals of high-quality product and impeccable customer service as it moves into the future, he said.

Asked what he sees as the biggest changes in his six years with the company, Mr. Laderoot responded, "Food-safety initiatives are among the biggest change. Today, our shippers are able to track product in minimal time. UPC codes and other information now on labels ensure that every shipment is traceable from grower to retailer.

"But despite any changes in trends or initiatives, we continue to focus on customer service," continued Mr. Laderoot. "If you make the customer happy and give them the right pricing, they'll keep coming back."

Mr. Laderoot added that the locally grown trend is another major change in the industry, and it continues to increase in momentum.

"We do a lot of business with Michigan growers," he said. "Summertime is major for locally grown vegetables and fruits. Our Michigan apple program is quite large, but we also support other produce items grown in the state." Mr. Laderoot and his wife, Constance Mwansa-Laderoot, will celebrate their first wedding anniversary Sept. 27.

"Constance works for hospice taking care of the elderly," said Mr. Laderoot. "It takes a special person to do that kind of work. It's hard and can be very emotional. She has the right personality for the job."

The couple are dedicated to their families, which Mr. Laderoot said are sizable on both sides. They spend as much of their free time as possible with family members at get-togethers like barbecues and dinner parties.

At Ben B. Schwartz & Sons, Mr. Laderoot handles the entire Northwest product movement, including Washington and Oregon apples and pears, California stone fruits and offshore tree fruits.

"I also handle avocados, limes, asparagus, pineapple and kiwi and the citrus deal from Texas and California," he said. "And I handle pomegranates, persimmons and quinces from California. The berry category is also my responsibility, and it's booming due to the health, nutrition and disease- prevention attributes that consumers are aware of today."

Mr. Laderoot said that all the crops are looking good this season, although California plums will run a little short because of earlier freezes in the state. "Whatever the commodity or the season, I try to excel and make it better than the last movement," he said. "Our staff, shippers and customers are just great to work with, which makes it feel like I'm working with close friends. There's a lot of laughter and good conversation, but we always get our jobs done. Working with these wonderful people is inspiration to always put your best foot forward and give 110 percent."

Mr. Laderoot added that he likes the produce industry because it is unique in that he learns something new every day. "It's hard work, and it requires a strong commitment, but the great people and the company's outstanding reputation help to keep it fresh and fun," he said.