Many of us would consider ourselves blessed to have a single lifelong love. Dick Spezzano has two: his wife, Carole, and the fresh produce industry.
“I have had a passion for this industry ever since I was a kid.”
Dick’s words boomerang back to me from the summer 2021 revelation that he was stepping away from active produce duty after more than six decades.
In short, Dick’s story is more of a saga. One in which he either had a front-row seat to historic business events, or a direct hand in their direction. He has served the supply-side through his consulting business, Spezzano Consulting Service, since 1997. Before that, he spent more than 30 years working in retail, where he started on the ground floor as a part-time Clerk at the Star Market when he was 19.
The only way I can articulate such a journey is to view it in the major acts that were its turning points, ultimately shaping a career that has left deep footsteps for others to tread.
"When my wife and I were back East for a visit, one of my relatives said, ‘Who the hell put these goddamn labels on the produce?’ And I had to say, ‘Well, that would be me.’” Dick laughs, reflecting on one of the largest moves of his 61-year-long produce career—bringing consistent PLU codes to produce.
What would it be like if we knew in the moment we were living history? That these were the days that would make us, break us, or simply be the moments worth reliving as we get on in years?
“When I pursued consistent coding at the time, I didn’t realize how huge it was,” Dick points out.
Flipping through the countless meetings and milestones of a lifetime in fresh produce, he settles on the chapter where he and a few other industry stalwarts dug their heels in to carve out true change in our business.
“That was the first step in getting syndicated data for produce and floral. If we had not done that, how would you track produce?” Dick asks.
Bryan Silbermann, former Chief Executive Officer of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), was happy to step out of retirement for a moment to look back on the decade-long adventure he and Dick traversed to make history.
“I could write a book about the decade-plus in which Dick and I worked to develop standard codes for produce,” he shares, concerned he might not be able to distill his recollections “into nuggets rather than coal.”
Believe me, the entire journey was gold.
Serving on PMA’s Retail Division Board in 1985, a lengthy discussion took place on the lack of any consistent coding for produce, impacting both bulk and bar-coded produce.
“I got assigned to staff the group and we met in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for the first of what would be regular meetings at this central hub for the next eight years! Dick was the perfect leader for this role. He was determined, energetic, knew produce inside and out, was highly respected, understood the meaning of deadlines and commitments, and wasn’t afraid to call out others to hold to their commitments of lists, suggestions, and revisions,” Bryan tells me.
He explains how the group met with leaders of the Uniform Code Council (UCC), the predecessor of GS1 US, at its headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, to make produce’s case for standardizing numbers to help the department effectively manage its exploding growth.
“When my wife and I were back East for a visit, one of my relatives said, ‘Who the hell put these goddamn labels on the produce?’ And I had to say, ‘Well, that would be me.’”
Dick Spezzano, Founder, Spezzano Consulting Service
“Dick convinced the UCC’s Hal Juckett and Tom Wilson that retailers and their suppliers needed this exception to unique coding—which was the hallmark of the UCC coding system then—and we left Dayton with an agreement in principle to move ahead,” Bryan recalls. “I left with insight into Dick Spezzano’s ability to state a case and argue a point using facts and vision that were unquestionable. It was the first of many such exchanges.”
Along the campaign road, retail produce leaders like Chuck Tryon of SuperValu, Harold Alston of Stop and Shop, Kroger’s Database Manager Dave Harris, as well as Bob DiPiazza, former Senior Vice President of Perishables at Dominicks, worked with Dick and Bryan on the project.
“We went from state to state to convince each operator to implement the system and what the benefits were, to the point that I had an extensive memo I used for my senior management that went out to retail on how the conversion process was going to go. I even let a competitor take that memo,” Dick says of one key moment. “It helped convince him to make the change, and he, in turn, convinced his management to do the same.”
What it came down to for Dick was how, eventually, these codes would go right on the produce. Somehow, he understood the doors that could open, even if he couldn’t see where they might lead.
“Now, you’re able to track product by grower, proving what sells better and why some products need a premium,” he reflects.
Shrink measurement, traceability, even a new avenue within the industry were made possible by this initiative.
“If you walk through a modern fruit packing house, for example, and see the computer-controlled, multiple-sizing, air-jet labelers applying PLU stickers—some are now using two-dimensional bar codes too—understand that none of this would have been possible without the pioneering work of Dick Spezzano and a handful of others who realized the system needed to be changed. They developed an alternative, and then led the industry on a decade-long journey to get it done,” Bryan assures me. “In my mind, and with four decades of experience, there has been nothing like it when it comes to consensus building across our industry.”
Karen Caplan, Chief Executive Officer of Frieda’s Branded Produce, was quick to point out how fervently Dick would fight for something he believed in, and how he knew he couldn’t do so alone.
“Dick was always a visionary in our industry and could be quite demanding. He was my first big retail customer when he was Vice President of Produce at Vons. At the time, we were selling him lots of passion fruit, tamarillos, Spaghetti squash, and other specialties, and he came to me asking if we would label the bulk products we were selling to make it easier to get the products rung up properly at the front end,” Karen recalls.
At the time, Frieda’s had already started labeling all those items with the name of the product, something Dick said shows how innovative the specialty company has always been. However, he needed them to take one more step.
“Dick wanted us to add the—then new—PLU number for each product in addition to the name. Well, I kept telling him that we were working on it—which we were, but, admittedly, I had not made it a super high priority. So, one day, Dick calls me and says, ‘I really need you to make this a priority. You have until the first of the month. After that date, you will not get any orders unless every piece of produce has the PLU number on it!’ As you can imagine, we immediately redesigned every one of our labels, adding the PLU to each one!” Karen shares.
In echoing the exchange, Dick assures me he has always seen Frieda’s as ahead of the curve. In this case, though, Karen gives him the lead, sharing that those PLU labels not only benefited Vons but all Frieda’s retail customers nationwide.
“Karen is forward-thinking, and she is a very, very good businesswoman. We did a lot with her and her category, and we learned a lot together,” Dick smiles as he recalls the story.
It’s a fond one, and he argues that such moves need to be matched on the retailer’s side to ensure success; something as true today as it was then.
“...life’s not full of guarantees, especially when it comes to fresh produce. You’ve got to try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, move on.”
Dick Spezzano, Founder, Spezzano Consulting Service
“You have to make sure what you are saying is not unreasonable. If a vendor came to me and said, ‘It’s going to increase my costs,’ I would say, ‘Charge me.’ If we like a product, we’ll pay for it. Oftentimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t. One thing about produce, should it fail at retail: Just push it out of the stores, drop your retail below cost, move it through, and you’re done,” Dick says, falling easily into the role he mastered for over 30 years. “The chance for this doesn’t happen often today because retailers want guarantees. But, life’s not full of guarantees, especially when it comes to fresh produce. You’ve got to try it. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, move on.”
The necessity of understanding and willingness to test new products, Dick shares, is what makes for the best produce. Change, he says, needs buyers willing to push boundaries as well as growers.
“We have to have control of the buyer and the seller. Today, the buy-side talks about quality, service, and price, but they’ve got bottom line hurdles they have to make, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have their job. So, the price becomes more and more important,” Dick observes.
In reflecting on the current state of the industry as he steps further back, Dick’s thoughts rest on the magic made when all sides of fresh produce come together, but also his concerns when it does not.
“I think valuing vendor relationships is an easy thing to say, but, if you go to the selling side of it, oftentimes, that’s not always the case. There’s always that squeeze on the buyer to sell, and now the grower/shipper’s cost goes up every day, whether it’s imported or domestic,” Dick shares, alighting on his unique perspective. “At the same time, growers tell me they’ll have different state officials coming in that tell them what to do; there are so many regulatory boards that they have to appease. So, it makes it harder for the inputs, and cost goes up to get to an FOB. Meanwhile, transportation has gone through the roof.”
The result, Dick shares, prompts industry members to work to be the smartest in the room, able to get costs down, and be elite merchandisers, effectively trying to determine the cosmic question: How do we control the supply chain process in its entirety?
A space in which hope and hard work is sure to show ROI is mentoring. Dick reminds me that throughout the majority of his accomplishments he was working for The Vons Companies, maintaining and exceeding both sales and profit goals. But a leader is only as strong as they help their team to be.
“Over the years, I was blessed with a great team, and we always hit or exceeded our financial targets. Many of my team left Vons after I did in 1997 for other pursuits, and I am so proud of their accomplishments in their various new ventures in the produce business,” Dick reflects.
Brimming over with knowledge and passion, few people can foster the motivation to tackle the challenges in the next generation of produce professionals like Dick Spezzano and those he has already taken under his wing.
“Dick has always donated a lot of time and knowledge to the industry, whether it be a PMA function or a local one. He really enjoys coaching future or existing leaders and has always been accessible and willing to help. Dick is a pillar of the fresh produce industry in the United States. On top of all he has accomplished, he is a lot of fun too,” Steve Barnard, Founder and President of Mission Produce, says of the produce veteran.
One thing about our business, Dick and I both agree, is that you either love it or you don’t. It’s as true for my seven years as it is for his six decades.
“If you hate it, don’t waste your time and energy,” he says resolutely. “Get out and find where your passion is. If you love this business, then be willing to give back in any form that works for you.”
“I consider Dick to be one of the giants of the retail produce world. Dick has always been innovative, progressive, and attuned to changing consumer demand [...] Dick is a visionary, a trusted partner, and a loyal friend.”
Bruce Taylor, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Taylor Farms
John Corsaro, Chief Executive Officer of Giumarra Companies, shares how Dick’s unique perspective brings a learning opportunity like no other.
“Dick was a strong leader in Southern California retail, always pushing for innovation in our industry and sharing his expertise with retailers across the U.S. He has been a mentor to many folks in produce who became leaders themselves, and we are lucky to count him as both an advisor and a friend. We wish him the best in his retirement,” John shares.
And in retirement, Dick will be able to continue his favorite part of coaching—catching up.
“To be part of those exciting milestones in a person’s life—when they get married, have kids, buy a house—that, to me, is really exciting. It’s like having my own kids, without the headaches,” Dick laughs.
In addition to mentoring, another way to give back to the industry is participating in associations and committees. It is these spaces Dick does not see himself vacating, even in retirement.
“I am open to serving on Boards and committees of interest, particularly in fostering the next generation of produce professionals, since I’ve been working with PMA’s Center for Growing Talent for more than 10 years,” Dick shares. “I like working to attract young, educated, diverse talent to our business, and I think the Center has been very successful at doing that, too.”
This is made even more exciting, the produce vet shares, with the new possibilities to entice those who might otherwise not think of ag as an ideal profession.
“We have a spot for anyone in our industry, and a lot of the university students don’t realize all the kinds of jobs we offer. Especially in the last 20 years, we’ve seen marketing and merchandising take off," Dick advises in seeking to expand and bolster future prospects.
With PMA and United Fresh opening the doors on its newly merged International Fresh Produce Association, he sees this as yet another exciting opportunity on the industry’s horizon.
“I am excited for what is to come with someone like Bruce Taylor, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Taylor Farms, leading that executive committee. In my opinion, you could not have found a better person to lead the executive committee of a brand-new association. He’s been a champion of the produce industry and the Center for Produce Safety. He’s an initial contributor on the capital campaign for The Center for Growing Talent by PMA and encourages his people to be involved. He’s all in for the betterment of the company and the industry,” Dick recounts.
Reflecting on the incoming Chair’s knack for innovation and leadership, Dick says the opportunity to work with Bruce, and others like him, are definite mile-markers of his career.
The impression he has left on each is just as impactful.
“I consider Dick to be one of the giants of the retail produce world. Dick has always been innovative, progressive, and attuned to changing consumer demand. He went ‘all in’ early on, taking the chance to launch the packaged salad category in Southern California with great success. Dick is a visionary, a trusted partner, and a loyal friend. I wish him and Carole the best!” Bruce comments.
From witnessing defining moments that shifted the trajectory of fresh produce to having a direct hand in the momentum, I can’t imagine trying to pick one aspect to summarize such a career.
“I was fortunate to turn the clock back and work with guys like Howard Marguleas, who was the Chief Executive Officer and Principal Owner for Sunworld International, and different men and women, like Bruce and Steve Taylor, Dennis Gertmenian, Tonya Antle, Frieda Caplan, then with her daughters, Karen and Jackie [Caplan Wiggins],” Dick ponders. “That’s probably the true highlight of my career. I got to work with some really effective, creative, innovative people.”
It is safe to say that, for both Dick and the produce industry, this has been an epic love story that has left us wanting more. Luckily, like many true romances, there is plenty to be found in the changes that love story has left for others to experience.
Thank you, Dick, for your devotion, tenacity, honesty, and, as always, your heart.