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Mike Cavallero to receive Lifetime Achievement Award from United Fresh

by John Groh | January 08, 2015

In an age when people change companies and careers at the drop of a hat, Mike Cavallero stands out for having spent his entire professional career with a single company while emphasizing teamwork over personal accomplishments. And that was a big reason he was selected as the fifth recipient of the United Fresh Produce Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“During the entirety of Mike’s career, he was always such a low-key guy, always working behind the scenes for the better of Dole and the industry,” said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh.


Mike Cavallero, who spent the entirety of his 40-year career at Dole before retiring in June, in a 2008 photo showing Dole bananas carrying the ‘More Matters’ sticker. Cavallero was to be named the fifth recipient of the United Fresh Lifetime Achievement Award Jan. 13 at the United Fresh Winter Leadership Meeting in La Quinta, CA. (Photo courtesy of Dole)

 “Everyone loves him — his customers, vendors, colleagues and even competitors. And when our Executive Committee took into consideration the nominees for this year’s award, what was notable is that Mike was the choice despite not having the outsized personality of some of our other past recipients.”

Cavallero, who is to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award Jan. 13 during the United Fresh Winter Leadership Meetings in La Quinta, CA, got his start in the business working at Safeway while a college student. Upon graduation, he joined Castle & Cook (the predecessor to Dole Food Co.) in 1974, and for the next 40 years he remained with the company, working in various roles of increasing leadership until his retirement in June 2014.

“I am incredibly honored and humbled to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award,” said Cavallero.

 “My philosophy during my career was to always be a team-builder — no one ever does anything on their own.”

Cavallero said that Dole offered the perfect environment to foster his career.

“When I joined Dole, I was very comfortable with the culture there and it was a growing company, so it offered a great opportunity for personal and professional growth as well.”

The sentiment was mutual for Dole, which praised Cavallero for his longevity and dedication to the company.

“The main ingredient needed in the recipe of the ‘distinguished produce industry veteran’ is longevity,” said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole.

 “Accomplishing that requires a blend of other qualities that allow you to remain relevant and vital to those around you experience, integrity, honesty, courage, vision, leadership. Mike’s career was rich with those values, which was translated into his relationships with customers, suppliers, growers, peers and staff."

“For 40 years Mike worked diligently through all areas of Dole and learned all aspects of the produce operations,”
Goldfield continued.

 “As a problem-solver Mike always had a special gift not only in his ability to turn a problem into an opportunity but also that wholesaler or retail buyer into a long-lasting friend and loyal customer. Mike was a well balanced executive. He had a deep knowledge of the agricultural business from the farm to the retail store, and built strong partnerships with the many Dole accounts and industry leaders.”

One of those strong partnerships Cavallero developed was with club store leader Costco Wholesale.


Frank Padilla of Costco Wholesale with Mike Cavallero at a recent United Fresh convention.

Frank Padilla, vice president and general merchandising manager for produce and meat at Costco Wholesale, said he has known Cavallero for a “lifetime,” dating back to the 1970s when Padilla was a college student and Cavallero was working to develop new and innovative techniques in banana ripening.

“He was a great teacher for both the ripening technicians and customers, and I was impressed about how knowledgeable he was,”
said Padilla.

 “And we also hit it off because we were both from the Bay Area and are avid San Francisco Giants fans, with equal distain for the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

Padilla said Cavallero was instrumental in helping to get Costco up and running with its produce program.

“Mike would always take my call or get back to me within a matter of minutes, and he was very candid and straight to the point, which I appreciated very much,” said Padilla.

 “No one knew Costco at the time, but Mike helped facilitate our getting involved in carrying produce. He was very forward-thinking and could see the potential of the club store format. I really respected that he went to bat for us, especially when we were looking for custom packs, like five-pound bags. Not everyone would do that back then, but he did, and he offered great insights into what needed to be done to achieve success.”

Among Cavallero’s accomplishments at Dole was his ability to build highly trained and motivated sales force, which became a benchmark of the industry, and his leadership in making Dole Vegetables a leader in the category.

Additionally, he was an early advocate of Dole’s push toward making the nation a healthier one.

“Mike’s accomplishments can be measured in the number of people whose careers he affected,” said Goldfield. 

“He has long been respected by customers, colleagues and competitors alike for his commitment to giving back to the industry and the people. Throughout his career both in Dole Fresh Fruit and Dole Fresh Vegetables, he managed by example and built a strong organization that was motivated to succeed."

“Additionally, Mike had advocated and championed the move toward Dole not only looking at fruits and vegetables as just part of the food business, but as being more and more involved in the well-being business,” he continued. 


Former Dole President David DeLorenzo presenting Mike Cavallero with a plaque to honor Cavallero on his 35th anniversary at Dole. 

“Mike guided the marketing to expand the brand in addressing this need, not only with the trend toward healthier eating, but also with the expansion of the science of health and well-being — a direction we continue to move toward today.”

Another long-time friend and business associate, Marc Rubin of Rubin Bros. on the Hunts Point Terminal Market in the Bronx, NY, recalled when Cavallero came into his office and told him that Dole was looking to get into the salad business and was in need of an East Coast partner.

“We went through the process together of introducing Dole salads to the customers, and I was always taken by his calm demeanor and nice disposition,” said Rubin.

 “In my younger years, I had a reputation for getting excited very quickly, and he proved to be a calming influence on me. Mike is a soft-spoken guy, but I have seen him be forceful and direct when he needs to be and people respect him a great deal when he switches gears like that. He has done so much for the industry and is a great ambassador for produce.”

Fred Okun of Sam Okun Produce in Toledo, OH, recalled fondly his early dealings with Cavallero.

“There are many experiences I had with Mike when he was moved to New Jersey to manage Dole vegetable sales,” said Okun. 

“Mike, as we all know, is a people person, and I was buying Iceberg and celery from Dole. My mix business from another shipper I was satisfied with. To get my business Mike made me an offer, as he said, that ‘you can’t refuse.’ The offer was that he would load my truck and I would price all the mix for a month. I passed on the offer but soon after began buying all my mix from Mike. Notice, I said ‘Mike’ and not ‘Dole.’ To me Mike was Dole, and he is the kind of person I would want as a son.”

Reggie Griffin, the retired veteran of Kroger Co. and a past recipient himself of a United Fresh Lifetime Achievement Award, stated simply, “Mike is the consummate professional and represented Dole better than anyone else.”

Griffin said that when he retired from Kroger, Dole was Kroger’s largest single supplier and Kroger was Dole’s largest customer.

“We partnered in multiple commodities,” said Griffin. 

“We figuratively fought the banana contract wars and the salad mix contracts. Mike’s job was to secure our business and make the most amount of money for Dole, while my job was to make sure we had the best quality product and surety of supply at the lowest cost. We both felt we won!"

“That is the way Mike worked,” Griffin added.

“He actually talked to his customers about what they needed and he positioned Dole to meet those needs. Mike is the consummate professional.”

Griffin recalled one time when Cavallero called in a personal favor to facilitate a meeting between Dole Chief Executive Officer David Murdock and Kroger executives.

“It was during a time when Mr. Murdock wanted to get out and visit with the presidents and CEOs of some key customers,” said Griffin.

 “I wasn’t a big fan of having top-to-top meetings with a large contingency of Kroger executives and business owners who may or may not understand what our core business needs were. These meetings were good for conversations but rarely did we get much accomplished. After several requests from Mike, we made the meeting happen with a large group of Kroger executives and the requisite group from Dole."

“While we never divulge the outcomes of private meetings, I can say to my friend Mike that — you still owe me one!”

Goldfield of Dole believes Cavallero stands as a shining example for those considering a career in produce.

“Produce is an industry where reputation means everything, and Mike possesses many of the traits that build an honorable reputation that serves you throughout your career,”
he said.

 “Having worked with him directly over the past seven or eight years, the trait that stood out the most to me was integrity. The news was not always good and you didn’t always get the answer you wanted, but you knew Mike was genuine and truthful. Mike had no fear about delivering the honest news, telling the emperor he had no clothes or about calling ‘BS’ when he saw it. He believed in always doing the right thing for customers and employees, even if sometimes in conflict with bottom-line goals. And at anytime he interacted with staff, customers or anyone else, he treated all with total respect and dignity. That trait is rare in today’s leaders and one we can all emulate in our own careers.”

Cavallero, who counts Bob Post, Charlie Palmer and David DeLorenzo as people who have had great influence on his life and career, said people entering the produce industry should have a passion for the business, not be clock-watchers and be prepared to adapt to new situations, as “things can change on a dime.”

He also recommends getting involved with organizations like United Fresh, “which open new doors, give you a lot of great exposure and provide important contacts.”

Cavallero, who retired from Dole in June, has not ruled out returning to the produce industry in some capacity, but promised himself he would take a year off before considering offers.

“I have a 7-month-old puppy, and that has been my focus,” he said.

Cavallero is the fifth Lifetime Achievement Award winner for United Fresh:

**  Bob Grimm of Grimmway Farms, who received the award posthumously in 2007; 

** Reggie Griffin, retired from Kroger, who was honored in 2012; 

** Frieda Caplan of Frieda’s Inc., the recipient in 2013; 


Joe Procacci of Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation, last year’s (2014) award-winner.

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