( Photo courtesy DNO Produce )

When I first entered into a sales role in the produce business, one of the things that my father (and boss) told me is that you want to treat everyone — even a competitor — like they are your best customer. Treat them with respect, dignity, and listen to what they have to say. 

He told me that you don’t want to burn bridges because people in this business stay in this business. They might move companies or be promoted, and often the roles change, but the faces remain the same. 

I have found this advice to remain true through my 20-plus years in the business, and although there might be some who would claim otherwise, for the most part I believe that I have done this. So why is it that so many people in the produce business stay here?

My natural tendency is to look to tangible benefits like salary, benefits, etc. However, I don’t believe that tangible benefits are what drives most people to stick around. After all, there are jobs out there in other industries that pay more and have better perks. So what are the intangible benefits that hold the fruit and veggie faithful in their grasp?

One benefit that is different from most industries is the fact that the produce industry is literally improving the world by providing healthy and nutritious sustenance to the masses. There are not many other industries that can claim that they have a natural worldwide positive impact on health, and I believe that this intangible benefit allows for a feeling of satisfaction about one’s livelihood.  

Another intangible benefit is that our industry has a profound sense of community. It is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that as a result of people staying in the business, they build more of a sense of community and belonging, and that in turn keeps them around. Perhaps the preponderance of family businesses plays a role in this.

In my own business we give a great deal of control and autonomy to the individual. There is a sense of manifest destiny, so to speak, for each associate every day that they come to work. We encourage smart risk taking, and are always working at ways to incentivize this type of thinking. 

In our industry, it is necessary to allow people to think for themselves, because the variability that one encounters and the opportunities for improvement are infinite. This is a benefit that helps retention and also increases a company’s produce IQ.

I recommend that in each of our businesses, we take stock of the intangible benefits that we offer. These intangible benefits are some of the building blocks that establish a company culture. Investigate, identify, and enrich the intangible benefits that already exist. 

Companies that understand and are able to leverage their intangible benefits will be able to punch above their weight class with regards to recruitment and retention. Ignoring these factors will increase turnover ... within the produce business, of course.

Alex DiNovo is president and COO of DNO Produce group of companies, Columbus, Ohio. E-mail him at [email protected].

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