John “Sonny” Heeren, who ran Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Heeren Brothers Produce during the peak of his career, died Nov. 23 at age 80.

In 1962, Heeren started his career in the family business his father and uncle had founded in 1933, according to the company’s Web site. He and his cousin, Bob Heeren, built the business on the model their fathers had developed, which meant doing all the buying, selling and distributing themselves.

“It started with my grandfather and great uncle, and then they incorporated with my dad and his cousin Bob,” said Jim Heeren, Sonny’s son and president of the company. “They had two employees at the market, and maybe 15 at the apple packing plant. Then it grew and grew and grew through the late 60s, 70s and 80s.”

By the time Sonny Heeren and Bob Heeren retired in the late 1990s, they had more than 80 employees, according to the Web site.

“As a business man he was very fair. His word was his word — he always taught us that,” Jim Heeren said. “He was very good-natured; a jokester sometimes, too.”

In addition to Jim Heeren, two of Sonny Heeren’s other sons and four of Bob Heeren’s sons still work for the company, along with a growing number of the fourth generation family, Jim Heeren said. Heeren Brothers operates in Grand Rapids and in Belding, Mich., as well as in Comstock Park, Mich., as Ridgeking Apple Packing and Storage.

“He always told us, if your name was on the building, you have to work twice as hard and set an example,” Jim Heeren said. “And they grew their own help because as soon as we were able to do anything, we were working for them.”

Jim Heeren said after his retirement, his father continued to come by the business during the summers, and would often help with deposits, answering the phone and entertaining clients.

Sonny Heeren is survived by his wife Charlene, sons Jim, Stephen, Thomas and Daniel, daughter Cheryl, two step children, 14 grandchildren, two sisters, many nieces and nephews, and his cousin Bob Heeren.

Funeral services were Nov. 28 at Heritage Life Story Funeral Home in Grand Rapids. Contributions may be made to Van Andel Institute for Cancer Research, according to The Grand Rapids Press.

Second generation owner of Heeren Brothers Produce dies

Sonny Heeren