2013 New England Produce Person Of The Year
One sharp gentleman. A class act. An industry icon. These are just a few of the ways colleagues, co-workers and competitors describe this year's New England Produce Person of the Year. This is an honoree that you – the members of the New England Produce Council – have chosen and that PRODUCE BUSINESS is pleased to award today.
Like the first eight recipients of this award - Paul Kneeland, Jack Salamon, Domenic D'Antuono, Will Wedge, Mike Giza, Mike Maguire, Bob McGowan and Mark DeMichaelis - this year's award recipient showed a passion for produce at an early age. In fact, as one industry veteran aptly noted, "You could say this award is nearly a century in the making!"
The professional fate of our awardee was sealed before he was even born. He was named for his grandfather, who in 1897 started buying and selling fruits and vegetables off the back of a horse-drawn wagon.
It shouldn't be surprising with roots this deep that our honoree's company owns the oldest active PACA license in the country. One of our recipient's first business lessons came from this turn-of-the-century era. His uncle taught him to "hire well so he didn't have to fire often."
He illustrated his point by telling his nephew the story of a day when a worker whose job it was to deliver the produce got sick. His uncle filled in, set out on the route and noticed that the horse kept stopping at all the neighborhood watering holes instead of the stores awaiting the delivery. It seems the worker was literally "off the wagon" and hoisting a few while on the job. Needless to say, the man was canned.
Our awardee didn't set out to work in the produce business. In fact, his family encouraged him not to. His elder relatives believed that the industry's future was dismal with the advent of frozen and canned produce. So, our honoree headed to the University of Maine and set his sights on a degree in accounting.
He admits his grades weren't the best during his earlier years. However, a bum knee from a baseball injury that didn't let him hobble too far from the dorm… combined with a couple of hard-partying room-mates… actually proved to be a blessing. It honed our recipient's keen skill of concentration – so much so that his grades skyrocketed, and he finished Phi Beta Kappa to boot.
Unfortunately, academic success didn't translate into a positive bottom line when our honoree started doing the books back home at the family business. The company was in the midst of a decade-long money-losing streak – just as his elders had predicted.
It was at this time that our awardee turned on his faculty of focus. He switched from the books to sales and started studying the markets with the keen interest of a kid in a candy shop. A year later, the light bulb flashed on: He discovered how to predict future markets. In other words, when he saw the proper time, he increased his supply and hit the hot market with his magic secret and gave the company its rebirth.
After that, every day at work for our honoree was like a day at the races. That was a half century ago.
Today, it's the fourth and fifth generation at the helm of this historic wholesale house. Our honoree still comes into work each day. With the wisdom of the ages and the ability to stick his head outside of the day-to-day business, it's his job to think, analyze and share his forecast for the future.
Interestingly, he records his thoughts and has his grandson transcribe them and email them out as daily memos. It's a far cry from the days when telephones were the latest in technology and anyone who telephoned his company simply told the operator 'Boston, Long Distance 1' and would get our honoree or a family member – not the mayor.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating the 2013 New England Produce Person of the Year – Sam Strock, President of S. Strock & Co., Inc.
The original excerpt can be found in PRODUCE BUSINESS (May 2013, Vol. 29/No. 05)
1897-1997: A Century Of S. Strock & Co.
My grandfather Samuel Strock founded S. Strock & Co. in 1897, only a few years after arriving in the United States from Germany. He bought local produce and sold it off a wagon to consumers. Then he arranged to deliver to nearby stores, and acquired a second horse and wagon. Business grew in the next few years, but very slowly.
It was extremely time consuming for the horse and wagon to deliver to those stores, until a quirk of fate. The trusted driver got sick, and Grandpa told his oldest son, Moe, "You take the wagon, here's a list of stores, the horse knows the way." So off went my uncle, and surprising everyone, he took the same time as the experienced driver. He explained he'd have done better but he couldn't find any stores on a half-dozen horse stops. This same thing happened for a few more days; the horse stopped, Moe found the store and delivered, and occasionally could find no store. He finally figured it out. These phantom stores in reality were bars where the trusted driver stopped for a few pops. By the end of a week, Moe was completing all of the deliveries in a couple of hours rather than the customary 12 hours.
Grandpa expanded the delivery territory. He put more horse and wagons on routes. Eventually he brought in his own long distance loads to take care of the added demand. He grew the business with his four teenage sons at his side, Moe, Dave, Lou, and John. He started different ventures, as diverse as a raincoat manufacturing business. He helped others at will, loaning, or giving them money to start their own ventures. He was a true philanthropist who started the Strock tradition of helping their neighbors.
In the footsteps of my grandfather, his sons expanded the business which grew by leaps and bounds. They realized the important role of the telephone, and they went out and got the best phone number in Massachusetts at that time (and probably the best in the produce world). It was L.D. One, Boston (where L.D. stood for long distance). But along came progress 30 years ago: direct dialing; and there went the best produce number in the country. Setbacks arrived on the scene, one by one. Canned goods replaced fresh - for a while. Frozen foods and chain stores followed with more pressure on wholesalers. Horizons were expanded with ventures in Florida and California to counteract the Boston slowdown, but Boston always remained the center for operations.
I came into the business despite the negative urging of my dad, John, and uncles, that we were in a dying business. They told me to do something else (accounting was my studied field). I came directly from college, with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a command of all the best swear words in the English language. The latter served me far better when I left the office desk and entered sales.
My two uncles who ran the business died a few years later in a short span of time, and left me, my two novice cousins, and dad who headed the finances of the shaky business. Uncle Dave Strock in his prime was among the produce greats that Boston has supported through the years. To mention a few - Murray Albertson, Lew Gussman, Arthur Silk, Tony DiMare, and George Condakes. When Dave died, we were a ship without a rudder. Our combined produce ability was close to zero. A couple of years later we were mired in problems. I told my dad to close down before we lost all his 50 years of labor. With the guts of a true produce man and nothing on the horizon, Dad strongly stated, "I say when we close the doors, not now!" I saw the futility of keeping good books for a dead operation and announced I would also buy and sell lettuce (an item I thought could sway the tide). For one year I was still a great bookkeeper, but a horrendous lettuce man, until I found the "secret" of predicting future markets. We all know how great it feels when you are light on stuck markets and long on hot markets. Needless to say, the pocket book felt good too.
The company was based for several years in the old Boston Market Terminal in South Boston, then it was moved to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea after it opened in 1968. I've been very fortunate. My grandfather entered a great industry. My father and uncles instilled in me the idea of "going above and beyond." My wife enabled me to work 16 hours a day, and my two sons, Rick and Bruce, enabled me to enter a relaxed role as an advisor and crystal ball gazer for the best ways down the road.
Since I started as a bookkeeper for S. Strock & Co. in 1950, our sales, which grew several times over from inflation, actually grew a few hundred fold. It's estimated that we've handled more than 7 billion pounds of produce over the last century. We hold the oldest active PACA license, issued September 5th, 1930, amongst the hundreds of thousands of licenses issued.
And so it goes with all businesses: ups and downs. Nothing stays the same forever, but here we are over 100 years later. Maybe nothing in all our lives has been as hard, but then again, maybe nothing has been as much fun.
This narrative has two other versions, one in THE PRODUCE NEWS (October 13, 1997, Vol. 100/No. 41) and another in THE PACKER (April 7, 1997, Section C).