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Ben B. Schwartz's Jake Billmeyer looks forward to executive status in career

In May 2009, 22-year-old Jake Billmeyer stepped out of his graduation gown and cap and positioned himself behind a desk in the sales department at Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc. in Detroit. He is the son of Chris Billmeyer, the company president and chief executive officer, and also a fourth-generation family member working at the company.

"I graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in business administration," said Mr. Billmeyer. “I’ve been around the business all of my life. During high school and college, I worked for the company during a couple of summers, and I always enjoyed being in this atmosphere. I work with a great team of people, it is an interesting and competitive industry, and it moves at a very fast pace — all of which I enjoy. That it is my family’s business gave me a lot of added motivation to come on board and to help it grow and evolve in the future.”

Mr. Billmeyer does not hold back on voicing his goals at Ben B. Schwartz. He hopes to reach executive status some day. And he does not mind the idea of working hard and learning a lot in order to achieve his goal.

“Since I have been here full time, I realize how much I like that things move fast and are constantly changing,” he said. “Several companies right down the street, and even in our own building, handle the same produce items that we handle, so you have to think and move fast. It is highly competitive in that respect. But our customers know they will get the right product at the right price and with outstanding service — and the combination is what keeps them coming back.”

Mr. Billmeyer said that among the stronger trends in the produce industry today, at least from the view at Ben B. Schwartz, is the locally grown movement. “Select Michigan” is the state’s brand-identification program. It promotes the sale of food and agricultural products grown, processed and manufactured in Michigan. Its logo can be found on Michigan products sold at retail grocery stores, farmers markets and on-farm markets throughout the state. Mr. Billmeyer said that the biggest push for locally grown produce comes in the summer.

“Retailers in the state are aggressively using the 'Select Michigan’ materials in their produce departments today,” he said. “I think the down economy is helping to spur this movement. People look at locally grown produce as a value and as being fresh, and they like to know they are supporting local growers.”

Ben B. Schwartz also handles an extensive line of specialty items. Mr. Billmeyer said that the category continues to do very well for the company. He personally handles and is responsible for strawberries, Southern peaches, cantaloupes, honeydews, mixed melons, tomatoes on-the-vine, grape tomatoes and imported peppers. He also assists in handling other imported products from Holland and Canada.

Mr. Billmeyer feels that food safety initiatives have changed the industry in the past and will continue to do so in the future. “Everyone is on this curve today,” he said. “It is imperative today to stay on top of HACCP and other certifications, including traceability.”

Mr. Billmeyer is one of about 12 sales representatives working for the company. He said that the entire staff enjoys the camaraderie and shares laughter among themselves and with their customers. But even in the midst of some work-time enjoyment, they still get the job done — and done right.

“That we are personable is one of the things our customers like,” said Mr. Billmeyer. “That adds to good relationships, but it would never take the place of great product, good prices and outstanding service,” he said.

Mr. Billmeyer’s great-grandfather Ben B. Schwartz founded the company in 1906. It began as a wholesaler in the Detroit Produce Terminal, where the company remains today. The firm has expanded its space at the terminal market, and it now has nine new docks and a new office.

Ben B. Schwartz is also on the cutting edge of the sustainability trend. It does not require reefer units to keep produce cool, and it uses the highest level of environmental efficiencies in its offices.

“I spent a lot of time in the office while I was growing up,” said Mr. Billmeyer. “My grandfather Barney Schwartz, my mom, Janice, and my uncles were involved in the business during those years, so it was always a family environment for me. It felt totally natural to join the staff when I graduated from college.”

Mr. Billmeyer enjoys playing basketball and soccer in his spare time. He played throughout high school, and he continues to play recreationally today. During Michigan’s colder winter months, he plays on indoor courts. His most memorable sports moment was at a soccer game in his junior year of high school. “Our team was in the state semifinals,” said Mr. Billmeyer. “It was a home game, and I scored the game winner with 30 seconds left. The entire school rushed the field. It was pretty cool.”

He also likes to watch sports, adding, “My friends and I hang out, and we are big [National Basketball Association] Detroit Pistons fans. I go to the team’s games as much as possible.”

Mr. Billmeyer is also well traveled. In the summer of 2009, he and some friends visited London, Paris and Amsterdam. “It was simply a fun trip,” he said. “It was sort of one of those backpacking excursions. I had a chance to see a lot of cool culture that I had not had an opportunity to see before now. During college, I traveled with my eight best friends to Rome, Florence and Venice. That, too, was a great cultural experience.”

Mr. Billmeyer also enjoys spending time with his family, including his brother, 25-year-old Drew, who is an options trader in Chicago.

“It’s a great industry to work in, and I have a great family,” said Mr. Billmeyer. “I feel like I’m off to a great career start.”