Good Leaders Can Change an Industry, and ‘Mr. Tomato’ Did Just That

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What do quality produce, migrant workers and leadership have in common? If you ask industry giant Mr. Tomato, he’d tell you, “Everything.” 

Once I started procuring produce for my own organization, it was Mr. Tomato who showed me how good leaders can change whole industries.

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Mr. Tomato, the man

I worked with Paul DiMare, the largest tomato grower in the United States, from when I started my company through my retirement. Originally from Boston, where his father and two brothers sold produce from a pushcart, DiMare’s success at the helm of his family business earned him the industry title, Mr. Tomato.

Mr. Tomato is a great man who is excellent to his people, but DiMare also has an uncanny ability to help other people work through problems. He has spent a lot of time on it: putting people’s problems in a box and working with them to come up with solutions that could be successfully integrated into their business models before opening that box back up. Everyone calls him for advice, including me. 

His problem-solving skills taught me to make decisions with the bigger picture in mind. Once, on a call with a bunch of government officials discussing a problem, he laid it out for them with ease: “I see how your solution works well over there, but transferred here, all these extra people will have to deal with it. Can you explain to me how that might work?” After a dead silence on the line, someone mumbled something about getting back to him soon once they worked out a few more details. This big-picture focus gave him the ability to explain problems in ways that both executives and farmers could understand, making him a reliable resource for finding solutions in the middle.

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Mr. Tomato, the businessman

Paul DiMare moved to Florida in 1965 to take over his family business, but he became the top farmer in a state of 50,000 farmers producing over $3.4 billion in produce. By 1998, Dade County Farm Bureau had named him “Agriculturist of the Year,” and in 2013, the Southeast Produce Council awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award. Between weather, storage, trucking and potential delays, so many things can go wrong with perishable items, but DiMare found success with a broad understanding that if everything about the industry worked better, his business would work better too.

He brought sophistication to the world of transporting raw material imports and exports across different growing regions and got everyone to focus on new areas, like food quality and the rights of migrant workers, that would improve the industry as a whole. This pragmatic approach to leadership taught me to be pragmatic in mine. I’ve always been on the buying end of the business, but to get people to want to choose us as their customer, I had to take the seller’s seat. These partnerships thrived when I was able to sell them on ways our company would meet their needs better than the average Joe customer. I let them know I wanted them to be profitable because, when you do business with another company, their success translates to your success.

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Mr. Tomato, the humanitarian

A great leader and a good man, DiMare has always been influential in doing the right thing for the people who worked for him. He has encouraged Florida farmers to get involved in the political process and fight against unfair trading practices. As chairman and co-founder of the advocacy group Florida Farmers, Inc., he successfully lobbied Congress to include mandatory country-of-origin labeling on produce in the 2002 Farm Bill, protecting domestic production. He played an active role in the anti-dumping suit that led to the 1996 Tomato Suspension Agreement between the U.S. Department of Commerce and Mexican tomato growers and has testified before Congress on NAFTA, the Trade Promotion Authority and trade in the Americas.

Through his actions, DiMare taught me to have courage because leaders aren’t always going to be popular. Knowing his business, as well as the American food supply, depends on migrant workers, he has stood up to government regulations limiting their rights. He has endeavored, personally and professionally, in the well-being of his migrant workers, keeping their families together and investing in schools and scholarships for them to complete college. A discussion we once had about food waste turned into a plan to accept food bank donations around the country, and now, he serves on the advisory board of Farm Share, a non-profit organization that recovers and distributes fresh food to Americans most in need. His willingness to take on philanthropic social innovations in business also earned him the honor of American Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year (2007) and the 2014 Ellis Island Award. 

Paul DiMare pioneered initiatives that made the whole industry better, bridging the gap between corporate America and leadership with soul and purpose. To be a leader of change can be risky, costly and unpopular, but DiMare’s bold actions have set a high bar that others in the industry still endeavor to meet to stay competitive. From planting a seed in the field to working for a technology company, people matter, and a business’s leadership matters to its people. You’ve got to listen to them, walk in their shoes and understand their needs so that they can want to make your business successful. Sometimes, that means making them matter to the world, and according to Mr. Tomato, Paul DiMare, good leaders can rise to that challenge.

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