January, 1989

Fruits of Thought

Moving On Up

I sit in our new office in Boca Raton, Florida. The smell of freshly hung wallpaper and newly laid carpet lingers in the air and I look out over the atrium below and see the palm trees sway and the fountain rise and fall, and I think about my grandfather. If my grandmother, Bebe, was alive, I could show her my new office, and I know she would love it. But in truth, if I showed her the unheated, un-air-conditioned storage room in the Bronx we once worked out of, she would have said that that was great as well, for she could never have said a word to discourage me. My grandfather, however, had his opinions and was not shy about explaining to his family how we could do things better. But still, as I sit in the silence of an office filled with nothing but dreams, I can imagine my grandfather looking down from the great fruit market in the sky and I see him there with my grandmother. “Use it in good health” they would say, and I wonder if I flatter myself too much when I think that maybe, just maybe, Harry Prevor is turning to some other old fruit man and saying with a little bit of pride, “Look at what my grandson built.”

At least since Horace Greely admonished young men to “Go West” (while, it should be noted, staying safely in the secure East), moving in search of greater opportunity has been a classic strategy of Americans. Indeed as a country populated by immigrants, most Americans are descended from an extraordinary group of people; people who were willing to give up the comfort and familiarity of home in order to pursue a dream in the U.S.A.

Yet regardless of the romance of the notion, the practical obstacles to moving an ongoing business are tough enough to frighten anyone from the concept. Files to move, people to relocate, phone and fax connections to establish, insurance, workers’ compensation, etc. To take on all this while trying to run a business is enough to make anyone stay put.

But once you get past the problems of moving, a decision to move is an important one that can change the life of a person and the future of a business. My uncle Sydney, for example, had just gotten out of the Army about thirty years ago and he had won a trip to Hawaii in a contest. My grandfather, who at the time was selling some produce down in Puerto Rico and though that market had potential, encouraged my uncle to give up the trip to Hawaii and instead go down to Puerto Rico and meet the customers. As my grandfather reasoned it, both Puerto Rico and Hawaii had the same palm trees. Well today, thirty years, a wife, and three children later, Sydney is still under those palm trees. But in retrospect, Sydney’s decision all those years back to stay in Puerto Rico was a key factor in bringing success to my family’s produce company.

One of the classic ways of creating wealth is to move to a place where your knowledge and skills can give you an edge. Sydney, through his family, had intimate connections with the produce trade all over North America. Though his skill could earn you a living in New York or Chicago or L.A., in Puerto Rico, it was a rare and valuable commodity thirty years ago. When a Puerto Rican importer would call a U.S. shipper and ask the price of a commodity, somehow the answer was always “the market is firm and heading higher.” Sydney, working with his family, was able to buy right. The flip side of this was that by moving to Puerto Rico, Sydney was better able to watch the credit and collect his money. A stateside shipper selling to Puerto Rico would usually want a higher price to compensate for the perceived credit risk and the fact that when a U.S. firm sells to a Puerto Rican firm, the U.S. firm is subject to the PACA, but the Puerto Rican firm isn’t. All this, combined with his natural sales ability enabled him to quickly grab a substantial share of the market in Puerto Rico. Not only did Sydney’s move help my family make money in Puerto Rico, but it made the business a big player. All the sudden my father, buying for Sydney in New York, was purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars of produce, chicken, eggs and other items each week. Once you are buying and selling in quantity, people notice and start offering you deals. A farmer selling you six trailers of potatoes a week calls you when he’s hung and asks you if you can handle a few loads for him on commission. The shipping lines approach you and start asking what rates you need to do more business. Other firms in the industry start to refer people to you as a good one to work with on export. My father’s saying is, “If you saw wood, you’re bound to get a little sawdust.”

When we started PRODUCE BUSINESS, we did it with what little resources we had available. Space wise, this was barely adequate, but somehow we managed. One of the ways we managed was because I absolutely refused to allow our crowded and unattractive circumstances to limit the vision of our people. I used to drive them crazy as I would give instructions to bring a guest into the “conference room,” offer someone directions to the “men’s room” and suggest they bring something over to the “copy center.” The problem was that we didn’t have any of these things. We had a table where we talked to people, one restroom and a copy machine all so close together it was amazing. I tried to make it my job to have our people look not at where we were, but where we could be. Today, our office is beautiful. I chose it because I believe that great architecture inspires great thoughts and that all our people will function more productively with spacious, pleasant surroundings. But the need to improve is never ending and we rededicate ourselves to building a better future. So I have it all planned, our staff will be coming down in a week or so and I am going to show them around the facility. When we reach the new conference room, I think I will call it an auditorium. I can almost hear the laughter…and the challenge.  pb