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Innovation Through Collaboration

Innovation Through Collaboration


e all have an internal compass that syncs up when we are on the right path. A calling home. It is how we measure our distance or proximity from our recollections of the past to our visions of the future. When navigating by chance alone, we find ourselves in many places, but by compass, we find our way to the edge of our potential, and if we are lucky, we find our destiny waiting for us there.

This distinct dynamic marked by both a wavering path and a strong magnetism to our destiny is something I find surfacing often with Steve Junqueiro.

If you ask him, he will say that, at first, much happened by chance, but I would argue he saw the opportunity where others did not. He sensed a gateway to his own future in fresh—all during a time when produce was moving from a commodity to a category and from a fixture to a destination.

“When you have been in the business as long as I have—nearly 43 years at Save Mart and a lifetime overall— you have the great gift of watching things change,” Steve says, taking a deep breath as he dives into his story. “There is a kinship, a camaraderie, and a level of willingness to put it all on the line that is sacred to this industry.”

I settle into this reverie sparked by reflection. Steve is good at striking a pause like this, and I think it is one of the reasons that his work has had such gravity in the industry over the years. He has a deep desire to leave something behind, something that will still grow after he has set it adrift or handed it off.

Working inside that broad swath of time has granted him some amazing milestones as well—moments of transformation we can only dream to witness and be participants of during our own tenures.

"There is a kinship, a camaraderie, and a level of willingness to put it all on the line that is sacred to this industry."

Steve Junqueiro, Founder, Steve Junqueiro Associates, and Former President and Chief Operating Officer, The Save Mart Companies

“Back in the day, retail and grower relations had a bit of a rough nature to them—more posturing and protection than productive communication. It was a different time,” he says. “The introduction and implementation of category management in fresh produce in the late ’90s was key to transforming the way we worked together. Before then, the relationships were often adversarial at best. In my eyes, category management marks the moment when the fresh produce department actually started to become a competing space in grocery.”

Led by Steve, fresh produce became the first department to embrace and institute category management for Save Mart.

“This really changed the relationship between the suppliers and retailers. Before, it was about price, first and foremost. With the advent of category management, information sharing and collaboration became the new solution to increase productivity, sales, profit, and the ability to compete in the grocery store and in the market,” Steve reflects.

This transformative moment in Steve’s career and the progression of Save Mart’s differentiation in the retail environment sparked the desire for not only more innovative thought, but innovation through collaboration—a cultural pillar that marks the retailer’s ongoing success within its supplier and buyer relationships.

“We are a strong, resilient, and unique bunch. We are, in fact, a mirror of what our farmers grow,” Steve considers. “Fresh produce is unlike any other department or food category. Because of the nature of the variables, demands, urgency, perishability, you cannot treat it like a box of crackers. Collaboration is a major part of what helped us succeed and fill in those challenging gaps and jump those hurdles in the past and we need to recommit to collaboration now.”

This comes from Steve like a subtle warning, as he senses a storm just over the horizon.

“There has been some reverting back to the old ways in terms of the adversarial nature of buyer and supplier relationships that will only hurt us,” he says, and his words confirm my sentiment.

It is only with such essential observations over the course of 40-plus years that Steve can see the challenges and solutions with this level of clarity. To know we have turned a corner in the past tells us that we can turn a corner again. And he believes that a better relationship beyond the purchase order will do that.

Fresh produce already has to face so many challenges outside of any internal rivalries, he suggests.

“There are challenges facing us both equally and that is where our attention should be—and we should be on the same page,” Steve tells me.

It is at this point in our discussion that he connects the dots and floats a phrase across the table that I have heard rarely.

“We are fighting ‘produce agnosticism,’” Steve says, saving me from the silence. “This is a belief that produce is the same as any other category or department and should be managed by the same rules as other grocery segments, and non-perishable ones at that.”

He chuckles at my pause.

I am immediately taken back to the box of crackers that Steve mentioned a few moments ago.

“Produce agnosticism is extremely dangerous. If you don’t develop your fresh department with its own unique set of rules, you cannot be optimally successful in the produce business,” Steve says.

What we need to do is educate the new leadership coming in and develop the leadership we have now to understand fresh as the integral qualifier of fresh produce. It is not a component of the category, it is the crux.

“We have a lot of really sharp and intelligent leaders and buyers in the retail and wholesale space who are great at navigating grocery from a 40,000-foot view, but who have not developed a lens and toolkit specific to fresh produce,” Steve adds. “For this reason, we need to refocus and reintegrate collaboration to bring fresh up to the standard it deserves to be held at all of the time.”

Such actionable solutions are the beauty of this conversation. And they are right at our fingertips.

"We are fighting ‘produce agnosticism.’ This is a belief that produce is the same as any other category or department and should be managed by the same rules as other grocery segments..."

“We have more access to information, data, and resources than ever before. If we can all come to the table and collaborate under a renewed commitment to collaboration then we can reach the consumer and drive consumption on a whole new level,” Steve says.

It is at this point I feel the deep desire to straighten my back, put a little more strength in my step. It feels like a rallying cry. Many of the issues we are faced with these days have far-off, abstract solutions. But what Steve speaks of is tangible and we have done it before. To Steve, we can now do it even better.

This energy that Steve employs and radiates is contagious. And while his opinions and insights hold the weight of truth for many, they have taken decades to evolve into what they are now: a compass always pointing due north. Starting over a gentle rise in Tracy, California, with a handful of tomatoes as a homing beacon, Steve set his course toward a produce path.

“My life was unfolding the path before me before I even had a choice. I grew up around agriculture. My grandparents had a ranch where they grew crops like asparagus, tomatoes, and alfalfa,” Steve reminisces. “I loved it. I did not know it then, but it planted a seed and deep appreciation for what it takes to grow food and run a farm.”

Steve followed that passion and while attending college, he took a part-time job in a Save Mart produce department. His internal navigation told him that this was the right place, that the choices were syncing up to fuel something bigger. Something lifelong.

Steve went on to spend about 12 years in-store as a Produce Clerk and Produce Manager before he moved up to Produce Merchandiser and then Supervisor. By the time he made it into corporate, he had become only the second Produce Director for the company, as his mentor and predecessor Frank Siciliani retired.

“Frank taught me everything I know about the business. I watched him harness innovation and innovative thought like a second skin. It was inspiring and the impact Frank has had on me is lasting and evolving, even today,” Steve shares, detailing how this drive that is bone-deep in him now was years in the making and grew with each location the team opened.

With just 22 stores in 1974, Steve watched the company expand to approximately 245 stores by the time Steve retired from his position as President and Chief Operating Officer in 2017.

“I have an amazing career behind me and in front of me still. I have been lucky during my tenure to be involved with thought-leaders in organizations like Produce for Better Health, the Produce Marketing Association, and even the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service where we took trips abroad to help other countries handle their cold chains with their domestic and international business,” Steve says. Lingering for a moment while I take it all in. “Surround yourself with leaders and learn from them.”

Now, Steve is the leader of leaders. With all the knowledge and tools that Steve has gleaned over the years, he knew his work was not done and retirement only provided another sway of the compass. In 2017, he founded Steve Junqueiro Associates.

"Collaboration is a major part of what helped us succeed and fill in those challenging gaps and jump those hurdles in the past and we need to recommit to collaboration now."

Today, he gets to lead and support, cultivate and champion on his terms with his consulting firm. While his reach is extensive and not restricted to grocery or fresh produce, he finds that nearly 95 percent of people who come to him want to talk to him about fresh. It is the Rubik’s Cube which, to many, feels unsolvable. But, for Steve, the need for more fresh thought—pun intended—allows him to circle the home he loves so much in ag.

“I am privileged today to bring growers, suppliers, and buyers together to not only encourage innovation but execute it,” Steve expresses. “By coordinating the introduction of innovation to the retail side and using my experience and relationships to bridge that gap, I find that I can help companies make headway faster and that is a boon for everyone.”

Like an amazing coach, he always turns the gratitude back on the players, the industry members he works with as they exercise the values and understanding that will take produce to new heights and concretize its importance as a destination in the grocery store.

As companies continue to grow, evolve, and adapt to the changing dynamics of the day, Steve is helping teams through reorganization and restructuring strategies for their business models, enabling them to better understand and elevate fresh in all its unique ways.

“It is an amazing thing to be a witness to—watching the produce industry grow up,” Steve says, a smile creasing the edges of his voice. “I mean look at what has transpired, Save Mart was one of the first test markets for products such as mini carrots and cello head lettuce, spinach, and mushrooms. We worked with Fresh Express when they first came out with salads and were being hand-sealed at the end of a conveyor belt. I was able to watch the value-added segment boom. That desire, passion, and ability to be first to market and to innovate is a part of the way I see the world.”

Having been a part of so many changes and events that have transformed fresh produce, Steve reveals to me quickly that he is simply that mirror of our industry, reflecting back on what is inherent in its roots.

While Steve’s eternal compass kept him steady on his path, it has grown to be more than just a part of how he ticks these days.

It is a part of how we tick.

So, please, Steve.

Steer us. 

Innovation Through Collaboration