Davis Yung, president and co-founder of Vancouver, British Columbia-based Fresh Direct Produce Ltd., likes to think much of his success in the fresh produce industry stems from a people-first, business-second philosophy he learned from one of his mentors.

Today, the 43-year-old oversees 150 employees at Fresh Direct, which distributes some 600 products across Canada and abroad.

Davis Yung, Fresh Direct Produce Ltd.Since 2003, Yung and his staff have chalked up many awards, most recently as one of Canada’s 50 best-managed companies. Their Simply Asian meal kit will vie for a packaging award at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit in Anaheim, Calif.

Yung came to North America in 1987 as one of thousands of children from Hong Kong who landed in Vancouver to study English.

After graduating from Simon Fraser University, a brief stint as a financial analyst confirmed that Yung wasn’t cut out to sit in front of computer spreadsheets from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. So he joined a produce company.

His first mentor, Jason Du, president of Vancouver-based Van Whole Produce Ltd., was a good listener and generous with his time. Yung was a salesman and over the course of a decade Du gave his young recruit opportunities in logistics, sales and marketing, procurement and global sourcing, skills Yung uses daily to run his own company.

“His style was people first, business second,” said Yung, who earned a masters of business administration degree and an accounting designation in his spare time.

“I learned that working well with customers, suppliers and staff is critical.”

In 2003, Yung and two partners created Fresh Direct as a local company with a global reach to serve Vancouver’s exploding southeast and south Asian communities. The 10 employees started small, selling produce to independent retailers, but soon caught the attention of national chains.

Two years later, the partners decided to start marketing produce as a consumer product, not just a commodity. When consumers buy a box of Chinese mandarins from Fresh Direct, they’re not just supporting the BC Children’s Hospital. They also have a chance to win a trip to China or Hawaii.

Inspired by the Japanese tradition of doing more with less, the father of two challenges his staff daily to find more efficient ways to get the job done.

“When we work together, we achieve amazing things,” he said, “more than each of us can achieve alone.”

He also leads by example.

“I wouldn’t ask my staff to do things I wouldn’t do myself,” he said. “Having high standards and expectations drives performance.”

In the next few years, Yung hopes to increase sales abroad and partner with innovative companies in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Jozef Hubburmin, Fresh Direct’s chief financial officer since June 2010, calls Davis a fearless entrepreneur with an infectious laugh who makes employees feel like they’re working with him, not for him.

“Leading the growth of a profitable and cash positive company from zero to over 5 million cases annual turnover in nine years in an industry crowded with mature competitors is no small accomplishment,” Hubburmin said.

Vancouver global consultant Dawn Gray, who has conducted strategic planning sessions with Fresh Direct, also is impressed with Yung’s leadership style.

“He has that winning combination of a desire to innovate, the ability to embrace change, the flexibility to see opportunities in the toughest of challenges and a belief that the people on the front lines are as important as the people on the top,” Gray said.