FFVA meeting focuses on produce sales, health careNAPLES, Fla. — Meeting ahead of the start of their fall production, Florida’s leading grower-shippers packed their annual convention in record numbers.

Participants at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Sept. 17-19 convention heard about fresh produce marketing trends and learned the latest on the sticky issue of employee health care rules.

The industry’s 71st convention attracted more than 370 participants, higher than the 300 that attended last year, said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Maitland-based group.

“We are enjoying record attendance this year and have continued to see attendance grow at this convention year after year,” she said. “Attendance is up 20% from last year. That indicates people think this is a good meeting and they want to be here to hear about the latest issues and want to be with their industry.”

During Sept. 18 sessions, Rich Dachman, vice president of produce for Houston-based Sysco Corp., and Reggie Griffin, a former vice president with Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., and owner of Hilton Head, S.C.-based Reggie Griffin Strategies, provided perspectives and trends for produce in the retail and foodservice segments.

FFVA meeting focuses on produce sales, health careNearly a decade ago, restaurant operators including Orlando-based Darden Restaurants Inc., and Dallas-based Brinker International, were opening 200-300 locations a year.

Today, they’re opening only six to eight, Dachman said.

“In the foodservice distribution business, there is an extraordinary amount of pressure now,” he said. “We went through a downside in the economy but never really recovered. We’re doing well, so don’t worry about us but what’s happening is there’s just not enough organic sales growth.

“We are dependent on having to take business from our competitors. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and that’s the way we gain business today.”

Griffin said an abundance of food offerings in new formats, including convenience stores and drugstores, is making the retail business more competitive.

Suppliers should look beyond the buyers who take their purchase orders and consider their ultimate customers’ needs, Griffin said.

Billy Heller, chief executive officer of Palmetto-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., moderated a Sept. 18 session on navigating the maze of health care reform.

“There are still people out there that think this isn’t coming,” he said. “I hope you’ve learned from these folks that it’s here. All the information we have is something will be in place that will affect some or all of us, especially on the reporting portion.”

Sheldon Blumling, an attorney with the Atlanta-based Fisher & Phillips LLP, said new tax reporting rules are onerous and require business owners to report lots of new data.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is are there going to be more delays?” he asked. “As of today, we don’t have any. We’re at a point now to where it (health care implementation) will all come to pass in 2015. I don’t see any across the board reprieve like we got last year. For those of you holding out for another yearlong delay, I don’t think it will happen.”