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Harold Sbrocco looks back on 50 years in produce

Gordon M. Hochberg, editor emeritus

The year 1972 was noteworthy for many reasons.

The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins to win Super Bowl VI. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Cincinnati Reds in seven games to win the World Series. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 1,000 for the first time. Eugene Cernan was the last person to walk on the Moon. Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson was born, and former President Harry S. Truman died.

Harold Roger Sbrocco
Harold Roger Sbrocco

Also in 1972, a young man by the name of Harold Roger Sbrocco joined the fresh produce industry, beginning what would become a long, successful and satisfying career. The Produce News spoke to him recently about what originally drew him to the industry that would become his life's work.

Sbrocco was born Dec. 9, 1948, in Brooklyn, NY, and raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He graduated from high school in 1966 and went directly into the Air Force, serving his country for four years, including a year in Vietnam.

He began his college education while in Vietnam, and after returning to the United States, he spent two years at a few different colleges, but he had to join the workforce to support his family.

"My father was working as a longshoreman on Pier 13 and Pier 42 in New York City for the Standard Fruit Co.," the forerunner of Castle & Cooke and eventually Dole, he recalled. "My family has a long history of being longshoremen working at the piers. My Uncle Roger, who was working for Castle & Cooke, informed me that there was an opening. I went for the interview, and they hired me."

Harold in Vietnam, in 1970.
Harold in Vietnam, in 1970.

Sbrocco's first day on the job was April 3, 1972, at Castle & Cooke's Baltimore location, where he worked for about two-and-a-half years. He was transferred to the Hartford, CT, location for one year, then was transferred to Boston, also for one year, before being transferred again to New York City, where he was district manager.

He stayed there until November 1982, when he joined Jac. Vandenberg Inc. in the Bronx, NY, a major produce distributor probably best known for its imported fruit programs.

His next stop was Cal Fruit Suma, from 1985 to 1987.

It was at this point that Sbrocco made the key decision to start his own company. So in 1987, he and his friend Bob Johnson formed Johnson & Sbrocco International, importers and domestic brokers. Sbrocco was president, and Johnson was vice president.

Finally, in 1992, Harold formed Sbrocco International, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

The company, which has offices in Mt. Laurel, NJ, Charlotte, NC, and Ft. Lauderdale, FL, specializes in imported winter fruit. "We're in Chile, we're in Peru; these are our primary sources of grapes," he said. "We also do some Mexican grapes. We are importing citrus from Peru, Chile and Morocco, and we receive apples from Chile, as well as peaches, plums, nectarines and so on."

In 2021, the company had sales of about 2 million boxes, "and we're growing significantly in the blueberry business," he stated. "And we are marketing almost everything under Sbrocco's Good 4 U label."

Harold, circa 1983.
Harold, circa 1983.

As he approached his half-century milestone in produce, the veteran reflected on what he has achieved, what the industry has meant to him, how the industry has changed and what he envisions for the future.

"Something I'm very, very proud of is that we have a relationship business. We've had longstanding customers who have supported us and we have worked with for many, many years. I have grower-exporters in Chile that have been with us for 30 years — 30 years with the same growers, the same families"

He continued, "We primarily do business with growers who are almost like boutique growers. These are family farmers, well invested in their farms, living on their farms, shipping fruit direct to us to accommodate our customers. By having and shipping good fruit, we provide good value to our customers. Good fruit sells all the way through, with less shrink. It's very important to buy fruit that's not only high quality but which arrives in good condition with good shelf life, which is the driving force for the way we've developed our business. So we have found the right growers for our customers."

As to his feelings for the industry, Sbrocco offered this: "It's been a business of respect to your clients, to honor and fulfill your commitments — always. It's never been considered work. Not only for myself but for many people of my era, I enjoy working in the produce business. This is not an easy business to be in, but it is a pleasurable business when you have good outcomes, so long as you're diligent and you stay true to your mission."

As a longtime veteran of produce, he has certainly seen a number of changes over the years.

In Chile: Christian Corssen of Compania Frutera Santa Maria, Harold Sbrocco of Sbrocco International, Felix Susaeta (deceased) of Agricola Manflas, Ricardo Corssen of Compania Frutera Santa Maria and Rodrigo Susaeta of Agricola Manflas.
In Chile: Christian Corssen of Compania Frutera Santa Maria, Harold
Sbrocco of Sbrocco International, Felix Susaeta (deceased) of Agricola
Manflas, Ricardo Corssen of Compania Frutera Santa Maria and Rodrigo
Susaeta of Agricola Manflas.

"We're doing things we've never done before," he said. "The packaging and so many of the different aspects of the business are completely different — the way we communicate, the technology that we have. You have to adapt to changes, and you must learn to listen to the young people who are coming in with new ideas."

He added, "You really need to progress, you cannot live in the past. You always need to perform. You can never take things for granted, and you have to follow things up all the time. As a shipper, we owe that to our customers."

Would he recommend the produce industry to young people looking for a career?

"I think it's a wonderful industry to come into," he said. "There are plenty of entry levels into the produce business regardless of your educational background. There are spots for people at different levels of education, such as inspecting fruit, running the warehouses, selling the fruit, taking care of transportation, handling accounts payable. So there are plenty of opportunities and a real need for those people."

Sbrocco has two daughters, two stepdaughters, one stepson and nine grandchildren. While Sbrocco International is a major company doing business worldwide, in many respects it remains a family firm. Sbrocco's brother, John, his younger daughter, Christine, and her husband, Jeff Sillars, are all vice presidents.

"But we have a young staff of salespeople who are taking us into the next generation," he said with pride. "We have some very wonderful, highly talented people who focus on statistics and logistics."

Ricardo Williamson of Exportadora Quintay S.A. in Chile with Harold.
Ricardo Williamson of Exportadora Quintay S.A. in
Chile with Harold.

He also praised the many contributions of Maclaren Oglesby, the company's sales manager, who has taken on more and more responsibility since joining Sbrocco International in the fall of 2018.

Sbrocco has slowed down a bit in the last few years, but still looks forward to what comes next.

"My job description has been changing," he said. "At some point, you want to take your foot off the accelerator. You begin to slow down a bit, and that's what I'm doing. I'm cutting back what I do in hours and in activity. John and the kids have been doing this for a long time. They have really grown the business. And they're doing quite a wonderful job."

The Produce News spoke to two of Sbrocco's longtime associates, who offered their personal thoughts and reflections on his 50-year milestone.

"I've known Harold for over 40 years," said Bob Johnson, who was Harold's partner at Johnson & Sbrocco International. The partnership was a great fit, since "my strength was domestic, and his was imports," said Johnson. "We thought that we could really build something here. And we did. We just worked very well together. Never was there an argument between me and Harold."

Johnson, who is now president of Johnson Associated Fruit Co. Inc., a broker, dealer and importer headquartered in Randolph, NJ, said that Sbrocco is "very knowledgeable, that's for sure. He's well liked, he has a lot of connections, he has a great reputation. And he knows what he's doing. He's honest and he's caring. He's just a real nice guy."

Harold at a New Jersey Devils game with the hockey team mascot.
Harold at a New Jersey Devils game with the hockey
team mascot.

He concluded, "I always thought that he was on the cutting edge of new products. We're good friends. I have only good things to say about Harold Sbrocco."

Andreas Economou is general manager of Tastyfrutti International LLC, a marketing organization for imported and domestic fresh fruit headquartered in Philadelphia.

"Harold is a good friend; I've known him since 1979," said Economou. "He was always a very hardworking person. He had very good common sense about the business. And I believe that he was always trying to do the best for everybody around him, not only for the company but for the growers, etc."

Economou added, "I know him in that way. He is very ethical, and has very good character. And that has helped him a lot. He's very well respected. I respect his ability and capabilities in the produce business. As a friend, he's always tried to help. He's always respected me, and I respect him in turn. If I needed help, I would turn to him. And I know he would do the same coming to me. So, it's a relationship that's as close as you can have in the produce business."

Asked what young people just coming into the produce business would learn from Sbrocco, Economou replied, "They would learn the business the right way — the way you can be successful for yourself and the company you work for. And Harold has one big thing on his side also: he has a family that continues the business. That's very important, and I'm sure he appreciates that."

He concluded, "I'm sure they cannot clone him, yet. There is only one Harold. I wish him all the best in his life."

Gordon Hochberg

Gordon Hochberg

About Gordon M. Hochberg  |  email

Gordon M. Hochberg was born in New York City, and grew up in Westchester County, NY. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Lafayette College in 1973.

He started his career at The Produce News in the late 1970s, and has been with the publication ever since.

He served on the Board of Trustees of the New Jersey Agricultural Society from 2012 to 2018. He currently serves on the Southeast Produce Council’s Board of Governors.

He enjoys music, theater and reading (American and ancient history are his favorites). And he’s been a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees since attending his first game in the late 1950s. He and his wife, Kathi, have been married since 1974.

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