Stories speak to me. Ever since I was little, I found that writing narratives came as naturally as breathing. If I stilled my thoughts and listened hard enough, the story would tell itself.
Of course, there are stronger stories than others, those that whoosh through me and take hold of the pen, demanding to be written. These are the stories that sync inside of me, align with the values I’ve learned in my time in the produce industry: ones of blood, passion, and greatness.
125 years ago, such a story began.
Such a span of time is incomprehensible for many of us. It’s easier to think of this collapsing of the years when a person stands prominently in the center.
In our story’s case, this man is Joseph J. Castellini, known widely as J.J., who left a small brokerage firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, to begin the Castellini Group of Companies. At the time, Cincinnati was a diversion point for the railroads and accommodated traffic from the Ohio River. The location would later enable the company to expand its distribution status throughout the Midwest.
With only a few employees and a steadfast belief that the city’s location was of vital strategic value, J.J. defied the odds and quickly built an operation recognized for its innovation.
One such marker of this was J.J.’s interest in machines and how he insisted that the company begin using dictaphones and other mechanical equipment. One of his own inventions, the celery washer, set a precedent for the company’s subsequent efforts to provide value-added services to its customers.
“His spirit of entrepreneurship and industry leadership still flourishes throughout the Castellini Group of Companies 125 years later,” Bob Castellini, Chairman, tells me. “We have grown from a small purveyor into a large, multifaceted operation with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues that encompasses virtually every aspect of the produce business from wholesale distribution, brokerage, transportation, repacking, and ripening to light assembly for produce boxes and box meals.”
Bob, who is sometimes referred to as Robert H. to differentiate from his father, Robert, is a third-generation family member, who succeeded the Presidency from his father.
Another industry innovator, Robert became President in 1927. He recognized the benefits of grower-cooperatives, and in 1935, he advised and encouraged more than 100 local produce growers to band together and organize the Cincinnati Produce Growers Association. For many years after, the Castellini Group of Companies was the sole distributor for these growers.
“Over the past 125 years, the Castellini Group of Companies has survived the changing market dynamics of the industry with tenacity, perseverance, and focus on the customer.”
Bob Castellini, Chairman, Castellini Group of Companies
Robert’s sudden death at the age of 48 shocked the entire company. At the time, Bob was only 10 years old. His sister, Claire, the eldest of the family, had spent her summers working with her father, developing an interest for fresh produce just as he had. With the mentoring of her uncles, Albert and Jack Castellini, and the loyal support of the sales force, she assumed a leadership role in a unique team effort that would become synonymous with the family name.
“That legacy of Robert Castellini’s determination and spirit carried the company into the 21st century,” Bob shares of his father. “That same spirit continues to dominate the operation today.”
The words innovation and growth are used quite often in the world of business, but it’s rare to meet a company that embodies these two words to its very core.
Bob took up the mantle of President in 1970, where he led the Castellini Group of Companies through an unprecedented growth spurt during the 1990s and into the 2000s.
“Combined with our affiliates, we are one of the largest wholesale distributors of fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States,” Bob notes with pride. “Over the past 125 years, the Castellini Group of Companies has survived the changing market dynamics of the industry with tenacity, perseverance, and focus on the customer. Those same qualities are foremost in this unique company today as it moves forward with confidence into the next chapter of service to the produce industry.”
The firm itself supplies the fresh produce needs of the foodservice and retail industries through a broad range of distribution services and value-added products. It employs over 1,400 people and has facilities throughout the Midwest and the East Coast.
Encompassing all the major segments of wholesale produce distribution including FOB purchasing, consignments, general wholesaling, service wholesaling, brokerage, ripening, repacking, and transportation, the company has also transformed itself into a full-service produce supply chain provider, from managing its partners’ entire distribution to complete inventory management.
This wouldn’t be possible without another industry leader, Castellini’s current President and Chief Executive Officer, Brian Kocher. Brian has been instrumental in the company’s most recent strategy to position itself for the next two decades of growth. As part of this strategic plan, Castellini has introduced a new identity to the industry, bolstered its offerings to feature complex supply chain services, and expanded its physical distribution assets and transportation fleet.
“Castellini has pivoted and provided different solutions to the industry throughout our 125-year history. Over the past two years, we realized that our tremendous supply chain network and our various supply chain solutions allow our partners to reach new markets or supply existing channels more frequently, and at a lower cost than before partnering with us,” Brian explains. “This is something we are very excited about, and we are continuing to streamline in order to optimize our offerings so we can continue to provide our partners with solutions that improve service to their customers and help them grow volume and profits.”
One such solution was the announcement of its new technology platform, which leverages Castellini’s capabilities to create an efficient solution to partner with growers and shippers across the temperature-controlled supply chain.
“Castellini has pivoted and provided different solutions to the industry throughout our 125-year history.”
Brian Kocher, President and Chief Executive Officer, Castellini Group of Companies
“If you want to be a leader in the industry, you have to employ technology platforms that are state of the art,” Brian says adamantly. “Platforms that can handle the complexity of the modern supply chain, providing transparency and scalability for our customers, are essential. It was no easy task to simultaneously introduce a new supply chain management platform and a new warehouse management solution, but it was necessary, and we are well on our way to tackle the next chapter at Castellini. Weaving our people, our processes, and our technology into a solution for our customers allows us to quickly recognize trends and opportunities critical for growth.”
Streamlining its internal structure, Castellini optimized its physical footprint throughout the Midwest and the East Coast to make sure that its organizational structure was ready to handle growth, all without impacting existing supply chain partnerships.
Throughout its 125-year history, Castellini has risen to prominence with the dedication of both its family and employees—many of which are one and the same.
“It means a lot to the company to have many members of the family working there over the years,” Bob expresses. “Many of our employees have been with us for 30–40 years, even some as long as 50 years. They are very, very proud of our 125th anniversary.”
In order to celebrate this anniversary, the Castellini Group of Companies is thrilled about a charity fundraiser coming up later this year that it is calling the 125 campaign.
“During the second half of the year, we will introduce a fundraiser and raffle off a huge number of spectacular items during our industry events. For every 100 dollars we raise, we will contribute 25 dollars from Castellini,” Brian explains. “We are planning to donate the proceeds to a national foundation investing in produce talent, fighting food waste, and supplying produce to the food insecure in our community.”
“Weaving our people, our processes, and our technology into a solution for our customers allows us to quickly recognize trends and opportunities critical for growth.”
Brian adds that, as one of the oldest wholesalers in the United States, Castellini is proud to honor its legacy in a variety of ways.
“That we were able to adjust to market demands yet again and provide value to our partners is very meaningful to us,” he says.
Adjust and expand. These are another two words that Castellini Group of Companies feel to its core.
“First and foremost, we want to expand with our customers. We have opportunities to help our current customers expand their offerings through our produce sourcing and value-added offerings to, in turn, better service their customers. Additionally, we experienced and will continue to see our supply chain service offering grow disproportionately to the rest of our business,” Brian concludes. “The produce supply chain has efficiency and service needs, and we have the ability to fulfill those needs. With one of our more recent customer arrangements, we now have the ability to broaden our cross-dock, case-pick, and delivery offerings in the Northeast so we will work hard to grow customer offerings in that geography as well, allowing us to efficiently service the entire Midwest and Eastern portion of the U.S.”
Over centuries and across generations, stories echo. They embed themselves into our everyday lives, waiting to be heard. By the end of this story, it’s easy to think that history makes legends of us all.
But really, it’s the legends making history.