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Recognition: PACA claims filing champion retires after 40 years at WGA

Tom Oliveri believes he has filed more claims concerning the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act of the U.S. Department of Agriculture than anyone else in history.

“Shippers love me; receivers hate me,” he joked, as he guessed that he has filed thousands of claims during his 40 years with Western Growers Association. “Back in the day, we’d open up 30 or 40 cases a month.”Toms-color-photo-3

For a variety of reasons, the dynamic has changed over the last couple of decades. Currently, only about five or six cases per month are now opened and not all of those end up as official PACA cases, said Oliveri, who retired on the last day of January as director of the Western Grower’s Trade Practices & Commodity Services Department. “We still gets lots of calls for advice and to explain various aspects of the PACA law, but the number of formal and informal claims is quite a bit less.”

Oliveri’s journey toward the PACA claims champion title began in Sacramento, CA, where he was born in 1953. It was a relatively uneventful early life, though in hindsight his prowess on the baseball field ultimately led to his career in the fresh produce industry.

“The president of the local Little League worked for the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Standardization Program. When I was 16, he asked me to play on his company’s softball team. I played with them for a few games and when I was 17 he got me a summer job with the canning tomato inspection team in Sacramento County. I was too young to be an inspector that first year, but I did a lot of other odd jobs.”Leno-1Tom Oliveri with comedian Jay Leno at a WGA convention in Las Vegas.

Oliveri’s family moved to Orange County following his junior year in high school, but his CDFA connection hooked him up with local inspectors and it became Oliveri’s summer job for the next five years as he worked his way through college. It also gave him a college career.

He was good enough to be offered a baseball scholarship by Cal State Fullerton, but that school did not have an agricultural program. “I went to Cal Poly Pomona instead, majored in agricultural biology and concentrated on academics.”

In the summers he inspected tomatoes from Brawley to Oxnard, including at the Hunt Wesson plant in Fullerton. As he completed his college degree in 1977, he worked in Hunt-Wesson’s grower relations department during the tomato season from May to October, and anticipated a full-time position. “They were also in the business of growing tomatoes at that time but that summer they shut down their growing operations and brought all those people back into the field department.”

Consequently, there were no more full-time openings so Oliveri answered an advertisement to be a grower field representative for Western Growers Association, headquartered in nearby Irvine. As he recalls, he beat out 26 other applicants and was hired on March 6, 1978, to be a Southern California field rep. He spent a good amount of time visiting growers explaining WGA’s many areas of expertise including dealing with health insurance, transportation issues and PACA claims.

About two years later, a position opened up in the marketing services department, which was headed by Matt McInerney, who is now WGA’s senior executive vice president and another WGA veteran of four decades. McInerney tapped Oliveri for the position because of his background in the agricultural inspection arena.FoursomeMatt McInerney of WGA, Rob Roy of Ventura County Agricultural Association, Tom Oliveri and Leo Sanchez of WGA.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Oliveri joined that department on April 1, 1980, and retired from it on Jan. 31, 2018, after having spent just shy of 40 years with the association. His normal day during every one of those years has consisted of multiple conversations with shippers and receivers about the status of various loads of produce featuring questions such as: Did it arrive on time? What’s its condition? Can it be sold? For how much? What are the terms of the contract? He rattled off a list of the industry’s top terminal market operators, each of whom he knows on a first name basis. The common thread with each name is that they have been in the industry for a long time. Oliveri said disputes between shippers and receivers are inevitable, especially when the wholesale market structure dominated the industry. It is a perishable product, he said, that is shipped thousands of miles over five or six days. “Stuff happens.”

He said, she said
A dispute typically begins because a receiver does not believe he can sell that product at a profit based on the contracted price. The shipper often suspects that a falling market is the suspect; the receiver most often claims that the product arrived in less-than-stellar condition. Negotiations begin. Often, an inspection by the USDA is ordered, which is the right of the shipper.

Oliveri said there are many rules and regulations to cover these negotiations but, more often than not, a settlement is reached between the two parties. When that proves too difficult, an informal claim is filed with the PACA. If a solution is still not forthcoming, a formal complaint can be filed.

McInerney recently said Oliveri would be sorely missed. “He’s truly one of a kind. He has been an invaluable resource for our members with regard to their rights and remedies on a disputed transaction.”

McInerney, who did the same work for years for association members, said Oliveri and the department offer a tremendous service. “24/7 shippers call with a problem load and they have 15 minutes to make a decision. TommyO (as he was called in a PACA blog he wrote for WGA) informs them of their rights and gives them the information they need to make an informed decision.”

In the “old days,” Oliveri said there was no cost to the PACA filings and they were much more prolific. Today, there is a fee, which has cut down on the number of informal and formal complaints. But he said the bigger change has been the fundamental difference in the way the produce industry operates today as compared to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Contract buying and direct selling to retailers have changed the dynamic. “The buyer and the seller have developed long-term relationships,” he said, adding that this leads to quicker solutions and reluctance to file claims. If there is a problem on a load, it can be negotiated against the terms of the next one.Hawaii-Nov-2016Tom Oliveri (far right) at WGA’s 2016 Hawaii convention with Jim Bogart of Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, and Pat Rynn and Jim Parker of Rynn & Janowski.

“Back in the day,” Oliveri said, “shippers were selling everybody.”

Sales were fast and furious. Today, shippers deal with fewer customers, brokers are not as prevalent and equipment is better at every stop along the supply chain, which means better arrivals. However, Oliveri said there are still disputes and, in many instances, the opposing parties don’t know all of their rights. As such, an important part of Oliveri’s job at WGA over the years was educating shippers. WGA staff has held countless seminars for shippers on the nuances of the PACA.

“Coaching has always been a big part of the job,” he said. “Many times all we do is tell the shipper what he should say to the receiver.”

He added that receivers — many of whom have long family history as wholesalers — know the rules pretty well. It’s usually the shipper representative, where turnover on the sales desk is greater, who needs the help.

McInerney emphasized that Oliveri’s ability to educate WGA members about their rights and arm them with the knowledge to communicate effectively with buyers during a difficult transactional discussion was the key to his value for the association and its members. “For the shipper, he did a great job.”

Oliveri does not have any grand plans for retirement. With a career spent talking to night owl East Coast wholesalers on a daily basis, Oliveri rose at 5 a.m to get to the office by 6 a.m. When asked what he looks most forward to in retirement, he didn’t hesitate, “Sleeping in!”