In 1896, William McKinley, Ohio’s favorite son, was campaigning to become the nation’s 25th president.

In Cincinnati, an Italian immigrant, Joseph “J.J.” Castellini, was building a different legacy. He founded the Castellini Co. — today one of North America’s largest distributors of fresh produce.

As McKinley pulled the country out of a recession, J.J. Castellini introduced innovation to his fruit and vegetable distributing company. The Castellini Co. was among the produce industry’s first to use such modern devices as adding machines and typewriters. A celery washer developed by Castellini himself was a prelude to automated packing lines.

As the company grew over the past 114 years and evolved into the Castellini Group of Cos., one aspect of the business has not changed.

“In those days, you had to trust who you were doing business with,” said Bob Castellini, chairman.

It is a characteristic of the fresh produce industry that continues to this day, he said.

“Things move so fast from such long distances — our produce comes from all over the world now — that you have to make sure there’s an element of trust in the people you’re doing business with,” Bob Castellini said.

That trust extends to the business partner’s integrity, which is the most important, he said, but also trust in their judgment.

“I think that’s the key to a successful existence and career in the produce industry, developing that trust,” Bob Castellini said.

There was never a question whether Bob Castellini would take a position in the family business. It was his plan and his family’s plan, he said.

His father, Robert H. Castellini, however, had reservations about joining the firm. Two older brothers, having concluded J.J Castellini was too demanding, opted out. It was his mother, Bob Castellini’s grandmother, who intervened.

“Bobby, if you go into the produce business you’ll always eat,” she told him.

That was a concern for Robert Castellini, who would father eight children.

He became president of the Castellini Co. in 1927, and yet another company earmark — serving customers and growers alike — would surface.

It was Robert Castellini who encouraged the founding of the Cincinnati Produce Growers Association, and it was the Castellini Co. that for years would be the association’s sole distributor.

The Castellini Co. of 1967, when he first became president, bears little resemblance to today’s Castellini group of companies.

“We were strictly consignment in those days,” Bob Castellini said. “We didn’t really buy much, so the reliability of a steady stream of inventory was not always there.”

I concluded that if we were to go out of business tomorrow, he said, the only people who would really care were some of our loyal shippers.

“I decided from then on we’d do everything we could to provide the functions our customers needed,” Bob Castellini said.

Among those functions was the development of retail programs, which led to Grant County Foods, a new branch of the Castellini Co. serving retailers. The purchase of Club Chef targeted another segment of the industry.

“Since acquiring the company, Club Chef has become one of the primary fresh-cut processing plants dedicated primarily to foodservice in the country,” Castellini said.

Other divisions added under Castellini’s watch to the expanding group include Crosset Co. and two logistics firms with regional hubs from Florida to California, R&O Transportation and RWI Transportation.

Adding further chaos to an already hectic life, Bob Castellini became in 2006 the principal owner and chief executive officer of Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.