(Jan. 2) COLUMBUS, Ohio — Finishing its 32nd year in the fresh produce distribution business, the Joseph Mercurio Produce Corp. is being transformed into an employee-owned company. At the same time, Mercurio president and chief executive officer Joe Mercurio Jr. said the company is opening itself to mergers or acquisitions.

Mercurio completed an employee stock ownership program transaction this summer. The seven-figure transaction will allow 30% of the retail and foodservice produce wholesale distributing business to belong to its 50 employees.

“It’s one of the most exciting things so far that our company has done as a whole,” Mercurio said. “We are probably one of very few produce companies in the U.S. to do this.”

Mercurio said his third-generation family-owned produce company is shopping for a mate.

“Our company is still poised and still open for any type of mergers and acquisitions that can take place,” he said. “We still feel that our company is able to enhance a larger corporation outside of Ohio that may want to come into the state and distribute.”

Mercurio said he isn’t looking to sell the company, but instead to create more of a partnership. Some individuals have made initial contacts regarding a possible merger, he added.

“We’re still interested in growing our business,” he said. “We may explore the possibilities of a merger with companies of $100 million or more in revenues.”

Mercurio could only think of one other prominent produce company that is owned by its employees. That firm is the Tom Lange Co., Inc., Springfield, Ill., the large produce brokerage.

“I have to look down the road and see how I will position this corporation for the next 10-15 years as I start approaching some type of age of retirement,” Mercurio said, adding that he wants the ownership transition to be a part of an employee-driven process.

“We have a lot of good employees,” he said. “This was one of our ideas of an exiting plan for my family and myself to someday allow the employees to run this corporation as a profitable business.”

As a child, Mercurio’s grandfather, Joseph, an immigrant from Sicily, pushed a produce cart. One of Joseph Mercurio’s sons, Joseph A., the semiretired company founder who serves as Mercurio’s chairman of the board, chose to go into the produce industry. The younger Joe Mercurio Jr. has only one child, a daughter, who isn’t interested in the produce business. Joe Mercurio Jr.’s sister, Midgie Mercurio, and mother, Mildred, continue to play viable roles in the organization.

“There’s still plenty to learn as we enter into future years here,” Mercurio said.