( Produce Marketing Association )

Keeping the focus on taking care of workers, customers and suppliers is a key to surviving the COVID-19 crisis, according to Steve Barnard.

Barnard, president and CEO of Mission Produce, Oxnard, Calif., spoke July 8 as part of the Produce Marketing Association’s Virtual Town Hall panel on “Crisis-Proofing Your Business.”

With travel curtailed and many employees working from home, Barnard said getting the work done looks different than before the pandemic.

Every day since (foodservice sales collapsed) the goal is just to get the ball back over the net, making sure that customers are taken care and making sure our suppliers are taken care of,” he said. “Keep it simple, don’t try to overthink it; this too will pass, but it’s going to be a while.”

The contributions of employees who work on farms, drive forklifts, inspect produce and do countless other jobs in the supply chain every day are prized and recognized, said panelist Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, CEO of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet LLC.
“Without them, we couldn’t do what we need to do,” she said. “Our people are really the most important part of delivering this product to our customers.”

The challenges to the foodservice sector have been severe, said panelist Steve Grinstead, CEO of Indianapolis-based FreshEdge.

“The one thing I like to say (about the business) is it never stops. Every day you are planning, you are harvesting, you are transporting, you are warehousing, you are distributing, and you are selling,” he said.

“It is just an amazing system that never stops, until it did,” Grinstead said. “So when it stopped, it was an unprecedented time; you couldn’t even really comprehend what was happening.”

In the wake of many variables about how and when the economy re-opens, he said FreshEdge is focused on what is certain. 

“What we look at is what we can control, and we control it to the greatest extent possible and really dial in,” he said. “We’re just trying to have as close communication with our customer partners as possible; we are doing the best we can with something we have very little control over.”

Since the pandemic began, the company has delivered produce boxes to country clubs and other sites for distribution to consumers.

“We believe (that) will still have a place in the new normal,” he said
In Maharashtra, India, panelist Nina Patil, director of Fresh Express Logistics, said the company worked to help its small farmers, workers and customers get paid for their harvests.

Several panelists mentioned greater use of videoconferencing and stepped-up wellness checks for employees.

For his business, Grinstead said cuts were necessary to survive.

“We lost 70% to 80% of our volume overnight, and if we had not laid people off, we’d be out of business today,” he said.

“Through that process, we think we became even stronger, and we realized how strong our management team is,” he said. 

Asked by PMA CEO Cathy Burns what they were “absolutely sure of,” panelists said the produce business is a good place to work.

“If I was to pick any industry in the world, I would stick with this one,” Barnard said.

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