Rob Ondrus is the first to attribute his success in the produce business to an ability to connect with others.
Yet, there are times he reserves for himself.
He does that on a bicycle.
“I love cycling and try to do it two to three times a week, anywhere from 25 to 40 miles.”
He recently cranked his way over 65 miles, on his 60th birthday.
Time on the bike is “my time,” said Ondrus, director of category management for produce at Rosemont, Ill.-based Reinhart Foodservice.
Ondrus spends much of his time building relationships across the produce industry.
Bicycling and prayer are key tools to help navigate a business filled with challenges, Ondrus said.
The people who make up the produce business actually are the reason he has stayed in the business for 40 years, he said.
“What’s really unique are the guys I’ve dealt with,” he said. “We have fun. I just love people, the culture, the change. It’s about relationships. I have some dear friends in the business.”
Ondrus, a native of Cleveland who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing at John Carroll University in his hometown in 1975 and followed that with a master’s in business administration at Cleveland State University in 1977, said he has been drawn to the produce business since his school days.
He worked a produce job at a local grocery store around the demands of playing football at John Carroll.
He worked the same job through graduate school, he said.
He looked to others in the industry as teachers, listing several mentors — including Anthony Regon, now vice president of Giant Eagle, and Tom Church of Salinas, Calif.-based grower-shipper Church Brothers Produce LLC — among the key influences along his professional path.
“You see how these guys learned from the ground up,” Ondrus said.
Church said he has known Ondrus for about 30 years, and they got to know each other as business partners.
“From the very start, we hit it off,” Church said. “If there was something that I didn’t understand, Rob was always there to explain why they needed things done a certain way. The more we could be consistent from one customer to the next, the easier our business was to manage.”
Church said he found Ondrus precise and demanding.
“I also found that once you followed his instructions, there was never a problem,” Church said.
Ondrus was open to suggestions, too, Church said.
“Rob would listen when we thought we had a new product that was better than the old product, and he usually went along with our thinking,” Church said. “On the other hand, Rob would ask us to do things that were new, and we would usually try the new things to try to get an edge on our competition.”
Integrity is central to Ondrus’ philosophy, and he said he would quit any job that ever asked him to violate his ethics.
Ondrus credits his family with keeping him properly focused. He and his wife, Beth, will be married 18 years in November. Ondrus has a 32-year-old daughter, Rachel, from a previous marriage, and he and Beth have two daughters, Alexandra, 16, and Courtney, 13.