Steve Phipps has been hip-deep in the produce business for nearly all of his 52 years, starting out by helping his grandfather grow tomatoes for an eager consumer clientele when he was 13.
“I was pretty passionate about that,” said Phipps, co-owner of Market Fresh Produce, a Nixa, Mo.-based distributor that initially focused on tomatoes but since has branched out.
That passion found other outlets, too, Phipps said, noting he worked in produce for a couple of retail chains in the region and also handled sales for Minnesota-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide, among others.
“I was blessed to work for some wonderful companies during that time,” Phipps said.
There was one area, however, that Phipps hadn’t tried: owning his own business.
That opportunity would present itself.
“Late in 2005, I invested into Market Fresh,” he said.
At the time, Phipps said, Market Fresh’s owner, Anthony Totta, had invited Phipps to be part of the company.
“To be quite candid, it was struggling and it was not reaching its potential,” he said.
Phipps spent much of 2006 reorganizing the company and building the Market Fresh brand as a “premium label” that could compete against the biggest brands, he said.
The company was not cracking the $1 million yearly sales barrier in 2005, but this year, sales may reach $50 million, and could top $100 million in the next four or five, Phipps said.
With that in mind, in August Market Fresh completed its acquisition of West Central Florida Produce.
Phipps also bought Bushmans Inc.’s ownership stake in the Florida wholesaler.
Phipps said Market Fresh plans to expand West Central Florida’s product selection beyond tomatoes and offer the same categories as Market Fresh.
It’s a good time to grow his business, Phipps said.
“That’s really propelled us to another level and growth plans to include more than just tomatoes and have a broader offering,” he said.
A Florida-based repacking and distribution center is key to the company’s growth strategy, he said.
Phipps’ formal education ended with a high school diploma from Parkview High School in Springfield, Mo., but he said he's never stopped learning. He credits numerous mentors for having steered him in his 36 years in the produce business.
Phipps gives special credit to Mark Faust, vice president of produce and floral operations at Tulsa, Okla.-based retailer Reasor’s Inc., who mentored him early on.
“His outstanding leadership and constant striving for excellence helped set me on a path that has focused on quality first and foremost,” Phipps said.
Mike Kemp, business analyst with Market Fresh and who has known Phipps for 10 years, said Phipps is a strategic entrepreneur.
“Very quick at taking an idea from concept to production,” Kemp said.
Phipps is relentless in meeting customer needs, Kemp said.
“With a background touching almost every area of the produce supply chain, Steve can relate to most any customer or grower issue and offer a solution that results in a true win for all partners,” Kemp said.
Phipps’ oldest son, 28-year-old Tyler, now works for the company, as director of field operations.
“He joined our company seven years ago, right out of college,” Phipps said.
Phipps has two other sons — Travis, 27, an agriculture teacher at Ozark High School in Ozark, Mo.; and Hunter, 12.
Phipps and his wife, Vickie, have been married for 15 years.
Outside the realm of produce, Phipps is keenly interested in horses, he said.