Where everyone saw the “supply chain,” Jim Lemke saw something else.
“He was the first person I heard coin the phrase “supply and demand” chain, which more accurately describes the process we need to embrace — reacting to demand from the marketplace as much as supply from the field,” said Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
Lemke, 43, senior vice president of sourcing for C. H. Robinson Worldwide, Eden Prairie, Minn., completed his term as chairman of United Fresh Produce Association in April. Lemke also served with the first USDA fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee, appointed in 2002.
Simply put, Lemke is an industry visionary, Stenzel said.
“If you look at what C.H. Robinson did 15 years ago in produce compared to today, it’s incredible,” he said. “He saw the opportunity for logistic support and information technology to build a new business model in profitable sourcing and distribution of produce,” he said.
Lemke has also spread the importance of logistics and information technology to all the industry, he said.
Stenzel praised Lemke’s leadership role at United Fresh, which was recognized when C.H. Robinson and Lemke received the 2010 advocate of the year award from United Fresh at Washington Public Policy Conference in September.
“He has been unequaled in his support of a strong industry voice to government, in food safety, traceability and all areas,” Stenzel said.
Lemke said that volunteering for an industry leadership role is time as well spent.
“I think people fail when they look at industry work or advocacy as something outside of your business, because it affects your business and you have to look at it like it is part of your business so it is just something you schedule,” he said. Lemke also enjoyed hearing how other industry leaders deal with important issues.
C.H. Robinson has continued its work on the “supply and demand chain” under Lemke.
In the last five to eight years, Lemke said C.H. Robinson has been strategically positioning the company to develop local and regional produce supply, he said.
“A decade or more ago, we used to always feel when we pick something up and delivered it, we washed our hands and it was done,” he said. “With the mentality and direction we have been going in for a numbers of years, especially as it relates to local sourcing integrating further into the supply chain. I think we are not only thinking about it (differently) but we’re acting differently,” he said.
Now, instead of getting pricing and helping sell somebody’s crop for them and just determining a price for it, Lemke said C.H. Robinson is working harder further upstream on the supply side.
That could involve helping a grower by getting a university extension agent involved to improve growing practices or taking lessons learned from one region and bringing those to another region.
“We’re just integrating deeper and further on to the supply side and taking our learning and technology and some of the business process improvement and layering those into the relationships and the areas we have our business, and just making the whole supply side better,” he said.
For the demand equation, Lemke said C.H. Robinson understands the receiving side of the business better.
“A decade or two ago we used to sell product and when it got to the customer’s dock and when they signed the paperwork, we would move on to the next order,” he said. “Our mentality here over the last 10 years has been we don’t sell more squash, peppers or potato or whatever until they sell more to their customers so we have invested in and gone through training and account management development for our people to learn what it takes to pull produce through to the cash register rather than just get it to the receiving dock,” Lemke said.
Lemke said the big picture for the produce industry is positive with a higher profile role for fruits and vegetables in federal nutrition programs and the public consciousness.
“It’s hard not to be optimistic,” he said. “How can you not feel good about selling a healthy food and being involved in that?