KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Promising innovation and customer-centered focus, CEO John McClelland is leading Liberty Fruit Co. into a new era.
McClelland started in mid-May, succeeding former CEO Arnold Caviar. Caviar celebrated his last day as CEO on May 18 and now serves as chairman of the board with no day-to-day responsibilities with the business.
McClelland came to Liberty Fruit from Paragon Foods in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he had been chief operating officer for the past eight years.
Arnold Caviar has owned Liberty Fruit with his wife Carol since 1982, growing Liberty Fruit from a company with just three trucks and limited distribution to one that has 70 trucks and distributes produce to 1,600 foodservice customers, 400 retailers and 150 wholesalers through the mid-section of America. Arnold was awarded The Packer’s Jan Fleming Legacy Award in 2016 at the Midwest Produce Expo.
Speaking to The Packer Aug. 10, McClelland and Liberty Fruit president Allen Caviar talked about the new era at the company.
Caviar said the company is already evolving.
“We are changing as a company for the betterment of our business, our customers, our employees,” Caviar said.
The new CEO said he has high goals.
“I am very, very focused right now on building the best produce and fresh foods company in Kansas City and in the Midwest,” McClelland said. Wages are up and so is performance at the company, he said.
After three months as CEO, McClelland has gotten to know the people at the company and share some of his vision, he said.
“I feel that the team has been very receptive to wanting to grow and improve and focus,” he said.
McClelland believes that providing customizable value-added solution is important to help customers find value.
“Everyone’s concerned about labor, so the more you can provide a value-added product or service to your customers, I think it’s going to be attractive,” he sad.
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McClelland said Liberty Fruit doesn’t want to do the same things that multiple other value-added companies are doing.
“We might want to focus on certain subsets of value-added that we believe we can do better than anybody,” he said. Liberty’s repack division is a business sector that is growing.
“And in fresh-cut, we feel that we can provide custom and customized products that the big processors don’t do very well,” he said. “We’re kind of taking a very customer-centric view of what value-added means and delivering those solutions to customers, and I think it’s being very well-received.”
For example, he said Liberty could create a custom-cut onion pack that meets a particular need for a chef.
“We want to work very closely with that chef to say exactly what is it you’re trying to accomplish with this particular product,” he said. “We would produce in that case, let’s say, a blend of three or four different vegetables cut exactly the way that chef wants them to be cut,” he said.
That may not be applicable to 50 other customers, but would give the restaurant a product that allows them to do what they need to do. “We’re going to be that partner to them that can deliver that very highly customized solution, saving labor in the stores,” he said.
At the retail side, consumers want to eat healthier and fresher but they don’t necessarily have the time to cook from scratch, he said. “So value-added products are obviously very marketable in that space,” he said. “We certainly play well there and we want to continue to grow there.”
Allen Caviar said the firm has invested in equipment to be able to become more efficient with its own labor force.
McClelland said that investment is important in today’s tight labor market.
“By investing in equipment, we may reduce the number of people we need to produce three or four items in Carol’s Cuts,” he said.
“We’re able to redeploy those people in other areas of Carol’s Cuts or into our repack area where we might be struggling to get labor,” he said. “We’re just being more efficient and intelligent about how we deploy our resources.”
The company has invested in a melon-peeling that gains both speed and yield, and also in new equipment that is able to slice tomatoes in precise ways that the company could never do by hand.
“Instead of having six people each trying to produce the same item, you have one machine being manned by two people that can produce a consistent cut,” McClelland said.
Allen Caviar said the company has invested in ways to increase produce shelf life with new trays, seals and films.
Organic and local food sales continue to be an area of growth for Liberty Fruit and McClelland promised new approaches to partnerships with growers to supply local produce next season.
Change is a theme at the company, both Caviar and McClelland said.
“The market will see it, they’ll see it pretty soon, we’re not going to be a just a typical produce company,” McClelland said. “We’re going to be something that our customers can rely on — a true partnership to make their businesses better, whether they be restaurants or retailers wholesalers — and it’s going to be exciting.”