As Paul Kneeland helped put the finishing touches on the newest Kings store in Old Greenwich, Conn., in late September, he harkened back to the first tasks he had in retail when his career began at Roche Bros. in 1981.
From stripping wax floors and cleaning basements in the maintenance department, to bagging groceries for the Boston, Mass.-based retailer, Kneeland, 47, learned starting at the bottom of the ladder.
“Eventually I found my love in produce,” he said. “I really excelled. There were different colors and merchandising and the seasons and everything that came along with it. I loved the sense of urgency.”
Kneeland made the move to Kings Food Markets five years ago and is now its vice president of produce and floral for the Parsippany, N.J.-based retailer.
Kneeland is well known as a creative and innovative merchandiser, says Dan Carroll, produce manager for Roche Bros.
“He jumps right in and doesn’t sit on the sidelines,” Carroll said. “He’s got his fingers on the pulse and is aware of what’s going on.”
In the five years since Kneeland joined Kings, the retailer has gone through a significant transformation. The company’s new brand identity, which started rolling out in store remodels early this year, is “Where Inspiration Strikes.”
So far, two stores have been rebranded with a new merchandising set, with three in progress. The new Connecticut store is the company’s first in the area.
“We’ve taken it very food-centric,” Kneeland said. “The departments have more of a market style. Within the department, for example, we did all spotlights and no grocery-style lighting in the produce department.”
The company also launched a local produce program this summer, one which Kneeland called a “heroic undertaking.” Produce items were featured within 24 hours of harvest. The hard work paid off, he said.
“It was fantastic to have produce managers calling up and saying, unsolicited, ‘I can’t believe the quality of this product … this is unbelievable,’” Kneeland said. “That told me we made the right decision to do this.
The company partnered with Plainville, Mass.-based Red Tomato for logistics, and Kneeland said he expects to expand the program next year.
Kneeland jokes that his hobby is work, and his long history of volunteer leadership supports that.
He’s been first vice president of the Eastern Produce Council, first vice president of the New England Produce Council and this year will start a term on the Produce Marketing Association board of directors.
“I think it’s critical to be a part of the industry,” Kneeland said. “You need to help others understand the business, learn more about it, and learn more about themselves. It’s something we all should do as leaders in the business.”
John McAleavey, executive director of the Short Hills, N.J.-based Eastern Produce Council, said Kneeland is creative and in some aspects is a pathfinder. McAleavey has worked with Kneeland closely over the past few years as the council developed its New York Produce Show.
“He’s a hard worker, a bright guy and is a very positive influence in whatever he gets involved with,” he said.