Described as a forward thinker and innovator by some who have worked with him for decades, Jim Steele ironically never had anything remotely resembling a career plan.
At age 69, the founder and chairman of Frontera Produce Ltd., Edinburg, Texas, now sees how his entire life was a step-by-step path to the successes he has enjoyed in the fresh produce business.
“I was 6 years old before I spoke fluent English,” he said. “My parents were starting to get a little worried.”
Steele As a young child on his parents’ farm in the Rio Grande Valley, Steele’s playmates were the Spanish-speaking children of the farmworkers. Little did he know then that the Spanish fluency he developed before going to elementary school would serve as the basis for his relationships with Mexican growers and the foundation for a multimillion dollar produce operation.
“Jim realized early on that our dealings in south Texas would increasingly involve Mexico,” said John McClung, president of the Texas International Produce Association, Mission. “Jim was one of the pioneers in that area. A lot of produce people tried it, but they didn’t survive.
“Now more than 60% of the produce Texas supplies to the rest of the U.S. is from Mexico. Jim is one of the people who made it work, and his strong relationships with Mexican growers were a big part of that.”
Steele said when he went to work pruning citrus trees in the early 1960s he didn’t plan to work in produce.
“I got married at a very early age,” Steele said, adding that his wife Dorothy worked as hard as he did to build Frontera Produce. “In 1961 the freeze wiped out my father’s citrus crop, so I went to work pruning other people’s trees.
“Around 1970, Weyerhaeuser (NR Co.) hired me as a sales rep, and a year or so later I moved up to Houston.”
While selling packaging for Weyerhaeuser, Steele used his Spanish with growers and shippers in Mexico. At that point he didn’t know those relationships would prove crucial to his future.
In the early 1980s Steele launched Tejano Packaging Co. The company developed a client base in the Mexican produce industry.
With his family background in produce and his increasing knowledge of growing operations on both sides of the border, Steele was on his way to founding Frontera, but he didn’t realize it.
Tejano Packaging didn’t work out, though, and when Steele saw a produce company had gone bankrupt, leaving its facilities in the hands of a bank, he got a wild idea.