Joe Procacci’s Lasting Impact

It is widely known in the produce trade that Joe Procacci, an industry icon, passed away on Nov. 17, 2017, at age 90. Less recognized is that it was just six days later, and just before Joe’s funeral, that his brother, Michael, just shy of 95, passed away. Some might see coincidence, as they were, after all, advanced in age. But in their passing, we see a lesson regarding how to conduct business and how to live one’s life. For Joe and Mike were not just brothers; they were best friends and business partners their entire lives.

This columnist was introduced to Joe Procacci as a teenager, and my father told me that Joe was both smart and bold. For he and my grandfather had both sold Cuban tomatoes, but when Castro took over and our growers fled, it was the Procacci Brothers that decided to buy thousands of acres in Florida and go into the tomato business. This decision would ultimately lead to the family controlling around 20 percent of the tomato industry in the United States and in due time would turn the family into a highly successful real estate developer, building the enormous Vineyards Country Club in Naples, FL, with 39 gated communities encompassing almost 3,000 homes.

Joe’s accomplishments are legend. In a day when innovation cannot be emphasized more, this is a man who, almost singlehandedly, developed the grape tomato industry in the United States. Like all visionaries fighting against those who could not see, Joe had to battle, again almost singlehandedly, the entire Florida tomato industry to win approval to market the UglyRipe tomato.

One thing Joe understood that entrepreneurs often don’t is that the success of an enterprise often depends on the political and regulatory environment. So, he was integrally involved in industry and regulatory issues. He was a founder of NAPAR, known as the savior of the PACA Trust, and he was instrumental in getting the political support that made the new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market possible. He and his brother both lacked high school education, but both were savvy in a way much more educated men often fail to recognize.

There is a trendy management theory that the key to success is saying No. The Harvard Business Reviewhad a piece titled: “Help your team stop overcommitting by empowering them to say No,”and the business shelves at book stores sag under the weight of books like “The Life-changing Power of NO!”We don’t think Joe was much for any trendy theories, but he lived his life, and was an example for all, of viewing business and life with a broader perspective and finding the ability to say Yes.

The issue is not so much should one do wasteful things; of course not. It is whether things should be viewed in that discrete way, with each proposal evaluated based on its own utility. That’s not the way Joe lived his life. Joe never said No to me, not once in more than 30 years of engagement. This was not because every idea I had was brilliant or every proposal worthy of support. It is because Joe believed in family, and so he viewed his interactions with me in the context of a seamless web of connections beginning with our shared roots in the East Coast produce trade, which made us like family.

So, he responded to our requests to support our new magazine, to help launch our trade show, to make a call, do an introduction, put in a good word…not as individual requests to be evaluated with rigorous scrutiny, but, rather, as part of a deeper relationship.

To me, that is the gift, the insight, that Joe’s life leaves us. That our success and happiness in life are consequences of a tapestry of interactions that create relationships, and it is in those bonds that one creates value…and finds joy. And on a broader plane, the prerequisite for that “Yes”to mean something —being true to one’s word —he emblazoned that upon the landscape.

You want to know an unusual fact? Both Joe and his brother Mike had homes in the Vineyards. It seems like a small thing, but most developers want to be anywhere but in the midst of thousands of people they sold homes to, because they know they won’t be well-liked…because they know they may not do right by everyone. Joe and Mike had no such concerns.

Joe was a gentleman, humble and quiet. That he loved the industry and enjoyed being in it, there was no doubt. But his greatest pride and most intense joy came from his family. Joe did not die until he got to hold his first great-grandchild, Viviana, and we doubt that is an accident either. Likewise with his brother Mike, perhaps allowing himself to pass after first his wife and then, finally, Joe was gone. One sees in all this both the steely determination and the interconnection of love that characterized their lives and created their success.

Though I felt horrible about missing it, I didn’t make it to Joe’s funeral. I can hardly forgive myself but I take this solace: it was my mother’s 80th birthday, and we had gathered from near and far to celebrate her life. Knowing the emphasis Joe placed on relationships and on family, I’m pretty sure Joe would have urged me to stay with Mom and celebrate her life.