(July 3, UPDATED 6:30 p.m.) Leaving a legacy of cutting-edge produce merchandising and industry leadership, retired industry leader Bob Backovich, 76, died June 30 in Carlsbad, Calif.

“It’s a shock,” said longtime friend and colleague Ray Klocke, president of The Klocke Advantage, Scottsdale, Ariz. “He was a true gentleman and a great individual and, it goes without saying, a great merchant,” he said. “He will be missed.”

Winner of The Packer's Produce Marketer of the Year in 1983, Backovich at the time was corporate produce merchandising manager for Safeway Stores Inc., Oakland, Calif.

The Packer recognized his work in initiating chainwide promotion of produce in heavy supply, in addition to his decision to merchandise only mature fruit.

The award also recognized Backovich’s service to the Produce Marketing Association’s nutrition committee and working with shipping and commission groups in promotion.

Marketing success at Safeway

In 1993, Backovich — then a 39-year veteran of Safeway — retired, succeeded in the post by Ray Klocke.

Klocke said he talked with Backovich in early June and found him in great spirits.

“He was getting ready to go to Hawaii in October and he sounded great,” he said.

The best attributes of Backovich were his people skills, honesty, likeability and knowledge of the industry, Klocke said.

“He ran a good ship at Safeway.” Klocke said. “Everybody liked Bob.”

After he retired, some of Backovich’s consulting work included introducing produce snacks at San Francisco Giants baseball games, Klocke noted.

Don Harris, director of procurement and wholesale sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., worked for nine years with Backovich at Safeway.

He and Backovich shared a link in their past. Harris’s father had been boss to Backovich at Safeway, and Backovich knew Harris since he was about 6 years old. Harris said Backovich was his mentor and biggest influence.

“He was my second father, and I’m pretty sure he taught me, along with my dad, everything I know,” Harris said.

Backovich was very demanding but always gave credit to his employees, Harris recalled. “You wanted to do nothing but absolutely excel for him.”

Giving back to the industry

Harris also credited Backovich for instilling the principle of giving back to the industry through participation with PMA, United Fresh Produce Association and other groups.

“He was one of those guys you meet once in a lifetime,” he said.

First serving on the Produce Marketing Association board in 1981, Backovich was chairman of the PMA board in 1987. His other leadership positions included chairman of PMA’s nutrition task force before in 1981, convention chairman in 1984 and 1985 and treasurer in 1985.

“Bob Backovich was one of the warmest people one could imagine,” said PMA President Bryan Silbermann in a statement. “He was an instinctive leader who spoke his mind and listened with care. He was a pioneer in marketing the nutritional benefits of produce and strongly believed in the power of a well-trained produce department workforce. Our community has lost one of its truly great leaders.”

John Ledeboer, director of international business development for Columbia Marketing International Corp., Wenatchee, Wash., said he first met Backovich in the 1970s when Ledeboer was a produce manager of a small Safeway store in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

Later, Ledeboer became a produce buyer for Safeway and then worked with Backovich at the corporate headquarters on merchandising issues.

“Bob was always on the cutting edge as far as maintaining the displays and teaching people how to work it right at retail.”
“He became a mentor to me,” he said. “He was a big part of my life. I loved the guy.”

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. July 10 at the Elizabeth Seaton Catholic Church in Carlsbad.

Former Safeway marketer dies at 76
Bob Backovich