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Mike Casazza heads in a fresh direction

Mike Casazza has been changing keys within the produce industry for a few years now.

The 27-year-old aspiring musician works as a sales manager at Fresh Directions International, an avocado house in Ventura, CA. Mr. Casazza grew up in the small farming town of Hughson, CA, and was exposed to the trade at an early age.

"I have family that's involved," he said. But the way I got fully involved was when my father was a vice president at Del Monte.

Since about age 14, Mr. Casazza has been a member of the produce fraternity, meeting his fathers friends and colleagues and making professional contacts. His dad, Mike Casazza Sr., is now a vice president at Apio Fresh in Guadalupe, CA. (Mr. Casazzas parents live in Orange, CA; adult sisters Nicole and Angela live near their parents in the same town.)

In fact, his first job in the industry after graduating in 2003 from the University of California-Irvine with a degree in psychology came about when a family friend at Calavo Growers, now headquartered in Santa Paula, CA, thought I was capable and after about three months of interviews, offered me a job.

Mr. Casazza credited Calavo with providing him with a tremendous education. When Calavo relocated its operations about 10 months ago, he took a job with Index Fresh, another avocado house in Bloomington, CA, where his employers and colleagues really amplified my potential, he said. He just recently made the move to Fresh Directions. Im extremely excited about this opportunity and looking forward to growing with a company that has a massive amount of potential, he said.

His jobs in avocado sales stand in contrast to his first official foray into the trade at age 20, when he worked for about six months for a produce brokerage house. It leathered my skin, he laughed, acknowledging that the job required a fuller commitment than he was able to make while still in school.

But I knew that once I graduated college, [produce] would be a good deal to get involved in, he said. He handles retail, wholesale and foodservice accounts for Fresh Directions, which sells product from Mexico and the Dominican Republic to customers in the United States, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan and South America.

Mr. Casazza has traveled for business and called such trips a valuable experience for the interaction with customers and the opportunity to plant the seeds of future business relationships.

Such travel stands out for other reasons too. One of his more memorable business trips was a visit to Cleveland. I couldnt find my hotel [which was actually right next to the airport] for about two hours and had to drive through the alley behind a fire station to find its entrance, Mr. Casazza laughed.

Such persistence and accountability were born at an early age  six  when he began working in his grandfathers ravioli business helping to move boxes. Taking pride in yourself and in your job was an early lesson. In the long run, it makes you a better person, he said. My grandfather used to say, 'If youre going to be a broom-pusher, youd better be the best damned broom-pusher. 

Later he honed his work ethic in a soccer store, where he sold shoes and balls.

As always with the next generation of the produce trade, age is a factor in business relationships. Im trying to sell in 15 minutes vs. guys who have been selling for 15 years and have a 10- or 15-year relationship with their customers, Mr. Casazza said, noting that when he works with people in his own age bracket, my relationships are solidified much quicker than with older people.

His youth has other advantages as well. The biggest advantage is that I dont have major expectations because Im still getting used to things, he acknowledged.

As for the rewards of a career in sales, Mr. Casazza said, When youve been calling somebody for [a lengthy period], that one time they give the OK after putting in so much time is pretty notable. The sense of accomplishment is the same whether the order is for one pallet or a full truckload, he said.

Outside work, traveling is one of his great pleasures. I love traveling, he said. Ive lived in California all my life, so everything else is so new to me. I fall in love with all the cities I travel to.

A four-month stay in Italy after graduation from college has so far been the highlight. He lived in Sienna and also traveled to Venice, Florence, Brindisi and the Cinque Terre coastal region, which he called the most beautiful place in Italy. The lifestyle there is unparalleled, Mr. Casazza said. Every time I think of Italy, I long to get back there.

Aside from exploring his roots  Mr. Casazza characterized himself as a second-and-a-half generation Italian-American, with one set of grandparents born in the United States and the other in Italy  he took time for trips to England, France, Switzerland and Greece. Favorite spots on U.S. soil include New York, San Francisco, Indiana, North Carolina and Oregon.

Travel is his pleasure, but it is music that is his passion.

Ive been working on recording an album for a couple of years now, said Mr. Casazza, who has been playing guitar for about 10 years. He and his roommate, Anthony Knight, form the core of the band The Half, which he described as a cross between [musical artists] Jack Johnson and DAngelo.

The pair have a $10,000 studio in their Newport Beach home and have played a few gigs to good response. I feel like we create some good music, Mr. Casazza said. He is responsible for the backbone, with chord structure and lyrics; my partner creates the rest.

How important is his music to him? I will never give up my guitar, Mr. Casazza said.

At Fresh Directions, he is reaching for the high notes as well, working hard to establish myself in certain markets, pitching deals for new companies to come along with Fresh Directions.