May, 2014

Fruits of Thought

A Flight To London

As we have prepared for the grand unveiling of the inaugural edition of The London Produce Show and Conference, I have often felt like Henry Kissinger doing a shuttle of my own — in this case, back and forth across the pond.

When I fly over the ocean, I now actively seek to fly only airlines with new airplanes offering transatlantic Wi-Fi. To be honest I hate it. I’m connected 24/7, and with the business now more international than ever, I had come to relish a few hours of refuge from it all. Yet I have surrendered to the reality: one chooses to engage in the new global economy or one limits one’s potential.

As I sit on the plane, I watch my screen as copies of e-mails appear in my inbox. Scrolling down, each one signifies someone signing up for a booth, doing a sponsorship or registering to attend the new London Produce Show and Conference. As each one appears, I imagine the human being behind it. I think of an earnest young man trying to make his mark, and I remember flying with Ken Whitacre to San Francisco back in 1985 to launch the first issue of Produce Business at the PMA convention.

I love launching these events. We don’t just throw up a trade show. We invest, heavily, on the student programs, the chef demos, workshops, seminars, tours, networking events and so much more. I travel the world seeking brilliant minds to gather in one place at one time and give that community a window to a world beyond its confines.

Each event has its own pulse and personality. In the end, we are usually successful for the same reason: Because we care. Because wherever I stand, I carry the legacy of a multigenerational produce family.

My father, Michael Prevor, has passed, yet in the U.K., I often feel his presence with me. Old Covent Garden is an urban shopping mall now, but they preserved the buildings and have pictures of the old market on display. I pause just a moment; I look at the photo of the old Louis Reece company preserved in black and white in a photo on the wall. I remember they were once our big apple customer in the U.K., and I know my father was right there, shaking hands with Wally Olins as they, together, shipped countless apples across the Atlantic on little more than a handshake.

Now, I shake hands with Wally’s son, Laurence Olins, and his grandson, Ben Olins. Louis Reece is but a memory, but the Olins family, including Adam Olins and Jonathan Olins, have, along with a crack management team, revived a storied produce firm known as Poupart.

I make a pilgrimage from America to ask for their help in building something exceptional, something that never existed before. Something to make the world of produce pivot and turn to London.

Maybe they liked the idea. Perhaps, in this land of British reserve, they enjoyed this Yank for so earnestly crossing the pond and, like a meteor crossing the British sky, painting the picture of what we could do together. Or was it some mystic bond of memory, crossing time and an ocean, and a shared respect for those whose commitment to the trade is as deep as their own? In the end, just as Wally and my father worked together, so would we work together once more.

There were a lot of old names my father traded with in the U.K.: Fagin, Saphir, Emanuel, Elliot, Weiser, Glass, so many more — some still around and some long gone. Yet this effort is not about yesterday; it is about tomorrow, and how will I ever thank properly the industry leaders who joined our efforts?

John Shropshire at G’s (sort of the Tanimura & Antle of England); Chris Mack at Mack Multiples (a company type that doesn’t exist in the U.S., the closest being perhaps the relationship of RLB Food Distributors with Kings but on a national basis); Tony Reynolds at Reynolds Catering (a company similar to Sysco); and Mark Peachey at Prophet (a leading technology provider) each so generously shared their time and knowledge to teach this student all about the U.K. market and the broader European scene. What a brain trust. I am greatly in their debt.

Then there was the market. New Covent Garden stood up quickly, offering its support, as if they instinctively knew that this son of the Hunts Point Market, 3,500 miles away, would stand by the wholesalers, as we shall. Soon Spitalfields joined us as well.

The decision to launch an operation in another country was not taken casually; it had to do, of course, with our assessment of industry need. With the U.K. market fracturing as deep discounters and upscale retailers both gain market share, the trade is in flux. As retailers seek to buy direct, traditional market channels are fraying, and as the population evolves and culinary trends move, the whole U.K. market — retail, wholesale and foodservice — is superseding an old vision in which there were only four retailers to sell.

Yet, there is more. In business, the temptation is always to do what one knows and, indeed, in the short run, we surely could have made more money by simply throwing up a domestic show in Chicago or someplace else, but it wouldn’t have made me smarter or our company better. In this adventure, I have already learned so much and made such good friends, and our company, which originated from a dream and a piece of paper, has acquired new competency as a global player. Our place in the industry is to help lead, so anything I can do to gain knowledge helps everything we do get better, and you can’t improve if you just keep doing things you know how to do.

My father was just 18 years old when something told him that in addition to his accounting studies, he ought to add a minor in International Trade. He ultimately made his company a global force, which at one point became the largest independent exporter of produce from America. How he saw an opportunity and somehow acquired the competency to take a small terminal market wholesaler onto the global stage is, as a famous Brit (half American actually) once said, in a different context, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

There are about 50 minutes left on my flight. I think I will turn off the Wi-Fi now. After all, they didn’t have Wi-Fi when my Dad took his first trip to London. And it worked out just fine. pb