(Nov. 29) CHICAGO — After 91 years in business, Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., for the first time, is going outside its family circle for leadership.

The wholesaler and distributor, which is one of the core companies on and played a central role in developing the two-year-old Chicago International Produce Market, has hired David Watson, vice president of commercial trading for Chiquita Brands International Inc., to be its president and chief operating officer.

With the change, Tim Fleming, Strube’s vice president, will focus more on special projects, and chief executive officer Jan Fleming will step back from day-to-day operations, Jan Fleming said.

Watson, 49, was to take up his new job — a position the company created for him — Nov. 29.

“We started going through a strategic plan, and as we began to look at ourselves, we knew that it was time to make some changes,” said Tim Fleming. “The industry was changing around us. Sometimes, when you’re focused as inwardly as we are, you need somebody who has a bigger view of the horizon, has a different way of managing and has different experiences.”

Watson, who will be responsible for managing Strube’s daily operations and building the firm’s value-added services, brings a wealth of experience.

A 27-year industry veteran, Watson spent the past seven years with Cincinnati-based Chiquita, where he was in charge of procurement and sales of vegetables, grapes, stone fruit, pip fruit, pineapples, avocados, papayas, melons and bananas.

Before that, Watson was vice president of sales and marketing for Gargiulo Inc., category manager for Sun World International and vice president of sales and procurement for the Cincinnati-based Castellini Group.

Watson began his career with Los Angeles-based Dole Food Co. Inc. in numerous sales and management roles.

“He’s well-rounded, and he has terminal-market experience,” said Jan Fleming. “He’s had direct experience managing both the purchasing side and marketing side of the business while working for larger, high-profile type of companies.”

Watson said that his wider perspective would help Strube’s long-term growth.

“I think from my perspective, several of the opportunities would be a national viewpoint, even though it’s a Midwestern company,” Watson said. “It’s certainly a very aggressive grower-based mentality, and it presents worldwide grower opportunity for distribution in and out of the Chicago area.”

Enhancing the roster of services that the company provides would be a priority in growing the business, Watson said.

“We’re looking at value-added products,” he said. “We’re going to be interested in more dedicated transportation services, broadening distribution, and we’re open to all ideas that would be important to broadening the business.”

Tim Fleming said the company had been considering reaching outside the confines of the family for some time.

“We want to give everybody in Strube an opportunity to grow and be successful in every way possible, and we feel this is one of the best ways to accomplish it,” he said.

Are there any misgivings about handing the company reins to an outsider?

“Of course, there always are,” Tim Fleming said. “I think that the future leaders within Strube, whether they are family or not, can be energized.”

The Strube family isn’t ceding control of the company, Fleming added.

“The six owners are the ones who determine the board of directors, the size, the people, whatever,” he said. “But we need somebody who can come to us and say, ‘This is the direction we need to go or these are some areas we need to explore.’”

Chiquita did not return a telephone call for comment on successors to Watson.

Fred Strube, Jan Fleming’s grandfather, founded Strube Celery in 1913. He was succeeded as president by Robert Strube, Jan Fleming’s father, who passed the gavel as president to Fleming in 1994.

Strube goes outside family for its president
David Watson comes to the 91-year-old Chicago wholesaler and distributor from Chiquita.