(UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:40 p.m.) Bob DeBruyn, president of onion grower-shipper DeBruyn Produce, Zeeland, Mich., suffered a fatal heart attack while riding his bicycle Sept. 12. He was 70.
Margret DeBruyn, his daughter, is taking over as the company’s new president.
Bob DeBruyn, a graduate of Harvard Business School’s masters program, got his start in the business with his grandfather’s general store in Zeeland. With his father, they built it into DeBruyn Produce Co., Margret DeBruyn said.
“It started out with them slowly transitioning into farming in certain regions, like Michigan and Texas, and slowly getting into other markets,” Margret DeBruyn said. “There was a time when it was my grandfather, my father and me all working there.”
The company, an onion grower and wholesaler, expanded with operations in Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, Peru and the Caribbean, in addition to the U.S., according to its Web site. DeBruyn Produce averages sales between $14 million and $18 million a year, said Jill Phillips, vice president, and had a $26 million dollar year in 2007 because of an abnormal market, she said.
“One of the things Dad did so well was the entrepreneurial role,” Margret DeBruyn said. “Truly, he was an innovator, taking things the way they were done years ago and transitioning into modern times.”
With Bob DeBruyn’s death during the Peruvian sweet onion deal, the company stopped its imports from Peru, but is staying involved in sales assistance and brokering activities, Margret DeBruyn said.
Margret DeBruyn said while she left the company to go to graduate school and work outside the industry in the finance business, she stayed involved and will use what she learned from her father in running DeBruyn Produce.
“One of the biggest things my father did is that he had respect for everyone he worked with—growers, sales, onion graders—he understood that your word means something, and don’t take it for granted,” Margret DeBruyn said. “That’s something we will all strive to maintain.”
Bob DeBruyn was an active member of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., according to DeBruyn Produce’s Web site, and a past board member of the United Fresh Produce Association back when it was known as United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, as well as the Michigan Onion Committee.
Although he was a recipient of many awards, Margret DeBruyn said he was probably most proud of recognition from the State of Michigan.
“I don’t think he worried about all the accolades, I think he just worried about doing things right,” Margret DeBruyn said.
Phillips said she learned a lot from Bob DeBruyn in the 12 years she’s been with DeBruyn Produce.
“I’ve never experienced anyone that had that much knowledge,” Phillips said. “People who did business with him were lucky because he had all the insight.”
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Maxine DeBruyn; his daughter, Margret DeBruyn; sister, Linda Pynnonen; brother, David DeBruyn, and many grandchildren, Margret DeBruyn said.
“His family and grandkids were really important to him,” Margret DeBruyn said. “He loved spending time with his grandkids.”
Margret DeBruyn said the most important lesson she learned from her father is to live life to the fullest.
“You live every moment you have. He certainly did,” Margret DeBruyn said.