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Tracie Levin in the family business for the long haul

PHILADELPHIA -- There is not much that is lost on Tracie Levin.

For example, she enjoys the symmetry that her family business, M. Levin Co. Inc., based here, has with a large part of its sales going to first-generation immigrants. She noted that her great-grandfather Mike Levin was just such an immigrant when he arrived from Lithuania. In 1906, he began supporting his family by selling produce from a pushcart in Philadelphia, as is essentially the case with M. Levin's customers in 2009.

Ms. Levin, who is 25, has also grasped the fact that she has an opportunity to be "a lot more than 'Tracie in Philadelphia.' I want to get out and be a part of the produce industry." Her work toward that goal is well underway.

She was selected to participate in the Produce Industry Leadership Program of the United Fresh Produce Association. She told The Produce News that she is the youngest person by a decade in United's 2009-10 leadership class.

Ms. Levin is also a participant in the marketing committee of the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market. The goal of the marketing committee, which is headed by John Vena of John Vena Inc., is to attract new sales to support the new $200 million facility, which opens in the fall of 2010. "The big question is: 'How do you market a market?' We have to grow to be successful in the future."

It certainly has not been lost on Ms. Levin that she will be working in the new Philadelphia wholesale produce market until she retires. Because of the lease agreement with the city, Ms. Levin looks forward to buying outright, for one dollar, Levin's space on the market in 40 years when she is 65 years old. "We'll fare well" in the new market, she said. "We plan to stay in business and continue it for future generations." She hoped for continued success for all companies moving into the new market.

M. Levin Co. will use six units on the new market to ripen bananas. Its existing primary warehouse, which faces the current 50-year old market, will also be used for ripening bananas and for additional warehouse space. She said that the old warehouse has modern pressurized banana ripening rooms but that the new facility will apply the very latest ripening technology.

Ms. Levin has a full appreciation "of my really rich family history" in the produce business. "There are not many businesses that last this long. I want to keep it going. I am really proud of my family business. I watched my grandfather [the late Leon Levin] and my father [Mark Levin, company president]. I worked in the office when I was in high school, and I worked summers when I was in college." She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and business four years ago from the University of Delaware in Newark, DE.

At M. Levin Co., Ms. Levin said, "It's a rite of passage that, for your first year after college, you learn to ripen bananas." Since doing that, she has worked in all phases of the business to acquire a broad understanding of the firm's operations. She noted that her business card "has no title because I have no title. My title is 'family,' " she half-joked.

She called the United leadership program "exciting." In June 2009, on her first program field trip, she saw her first California fields, including those of one of Levin's grape suppliers. In September, the leadership group attended United's Public Policy Conference. The group then visited leadership program sponsor DuPont in Wilmington, DE, and Ms. Levin gave her peers a tour of Philadelphia's up-and-coming wholesale produce facilities.

Ms. Levin said that there is an irony that M. Levin Co., which has always been run by men -- including her father and his cousins -- is welcoming a fourth generation in the family into the business that is four young women and no men.

One difference between the youngest Levin generation and its fathers is that the current company executives have very specific and separate roles within the firm. For now, at least, the young women are working more as a team and share responsibilities.

Ms. Levin focuses mostly on developing the firm's computer systems and its food safety programs. "I'm a jack of all trades. I also handle our donation program for Philabundance," she said.

In her spare time, Ms. Levin is an avid reader. "I'll read a book in a few days, or even a day." She lives in an apartment near Philadelphia's art museum and rides her bike along the scenic bikeways extending upstream from the museum along the Schuylkill River. She goes to Philadelphia Phillies games as often as she can and revels in the team's wins. Ms. Levin likes tropical vacations and "I like fashion. I like to shop."

She said, "I want to be a leader. That's why I am in the United leadership program." I want to get out there and be as involved as I can. It's my generation's turn to step up. We are the future of the industry. There is no doubt about that. I am fortunate, in the short time since I was in college, to have done and seen a lot. I am looking forward to doing that for the rest of my life."