“That banker told me there was no way I should get into the fresh produce business,” Steele recalls. “He said it was too hard to make it. He said I was crazy.”
But the banker signed a 15-year note with Steele for the defunct produce company’s facility. Steele paid off the loan in two years.
“I think he was a little disappointed that he didn’t get all of his interest,” Steele said.
That was the beginning of Frontera Produce.
From its founding in 1993, Frontera grew into one of the best known produce companies in Texas with year-round programs in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Steele said business from Wal-Mart and Kroger in the early years help him grow Frontera.
“A lot of produce companies didn’t want to work with Wal-Mart,” Steele said. “They said ‘You guys are panty hose people, we don’t want to sell you produce.’ But I worked with Bruce Peterson, and we moved a lot of produce for Wal-Mart.”
With Frontera booming and technology changing business models, Steele knew the company needed to change with the times. However, he realized he wasn’t the best person to continue in daily leadership.
“I still do business with a look in the eye and a handshake. A 69-year-old man dealing with 30-year-old produce buyers who want to do everything on their cell phones and e-mail — that just don’t work.”
In 2007 Steele handed the reins to his son Will Steele, who now serves as Frontera president. Steele said Will’s greatest strength is his ability to spot intelligent, talented people and hire them. “It’s the people at Frontera that make the company,” the founder said.
Now in his semiretired state, Steele spends much of his time on a 2,000-acre ranch near San Antonio. He is a registered breeder of Brahma cattle, with about 240 “mama cows” that he feeds every morning.
“Then I come in and spend three or four hours on the phone with Mexican growers. I don’t speak English until lunchtime most days,” he said, still putting those early childhood language skills to work in the career he never imagined he would have.