It’s a different industry thanks to Frieda Caplan

02/01/2013 09:58:00 AM
Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson, EditorGreg Johnson, EditorTUCSON, Ariz. — Few people talk about Frieda Caplan’s business advantage growing her specialty produce company, Frieda’s Inc., which she founded in 1962.

Her honor with the 2013 United Fresh Lifetime Achievement Award Jan. 28 in Tucson was well deserved, but she hinted at a big part of the success of her company as it moved from specialty firm to industry leader.

It’s been well documented that Caplan entered a male-dominated industry, but much has changed in more than 50 years, to where it’s not unusual to see a female chief executive officer, produce buyer, major award winner or president of a certain publishing company.

This business advantage that started decades ago refers not to female intuition or using the “fairer sex” notion in negotiations.

As the produce industry failed to give talented women jobs and then business responsibility, Caplan jumped at the opportunity to hire them and promote them.

As Frieda’s Inc. grew and Caplan’s two daughters assumed more of the decision-making, they also hired talented women.

It’s not uncommon at all to see modern female produce leaders who list Frieda’s Inc. on their resume.

Frieda’s gave them this opportunity and both the company and the employee benefitted from it.

That advantage is eroding, as wiser managers give female applicants a much more serious shot at employment, and female workers earn and receive promotions within produce and retail organizations.

Of course, I’m somewhat kidding about this “advantage,” but no doubt a significant legacy of Frieda Caplan and her company will be its role in mentoring so many of these leaders and giving them a taste of the produce business, in which they’ve continued their career.

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Frieda Caplan and her daughter Karen referred to the momentous occasion when Karen finished her year as chairwoman of United Fresh Produce Association at the 100th anniversary in 2004.

It was actually longer than a year, as United Fresh’s convention changed from February to May that year, likely making Karen Caplan the longest serving chair and ensuring she and the industry got their money’s worth.

It doesn’t seem like nearly a decade ago that Karen Caplan addressed the industry in the Chicago Union Station for United Fresh’s Centennial Gala Celebration before former first lady Barbara Bush told her broccoli tales.

Karen Caplan also earned The Packer’s 2004 Produce Person of the Year award at the event. In 1979 Frieda Caplan was the first woman to win the award, another pioneering moment.

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Frieda’s daughter Jackie Caplan Wiggins, chief operating officer of the company, talked of her mother’s relentless optimism.

“If someone spits on you, you think it’s raining,” she told her mother from the lectern.

And Karen Caplan’s daughter, Alex Jackson, who joined the marketing staff more than a year ago, said she gets the ultimate immersion in her grandmother’s wisdom, as she lives in Frieda Caplan’s home.

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There was an obvious warmth in the room as Frieda Caplan was honored, despite the unusually chilly Tucson weather that played havoc with the United Fresh Foundation golf tournament earlier in the day.

It made me wonder if a combined PMA/United group would lead to such an atmosphere.

The sentiment I hear since the failed merger seems more like grumbling rather than outrage or hostility.

There’s a sense of disappointment and missed opportunity.

But I think there’s also a sense of finality — that it didn’t happen, so let’s make the best of the structure we now have.

Judging by the Tucson event, maybe two strong associations working for the industry isn’t such a bad thing.

gjohnson@thepacker.com

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