Ron Carkoski: A man for all seasons
Ron Carkoski, who died in early January at the age of 69, made his mark professionally by guiding the Four Seasons Family of Produce Companies through an aggressive period of growth during his close to a quarter of century with the organization, including as its CEO. But perhaps his biggest contribution was as a mentor, collaborator and advisor to many colleagues as he served the industry in numerous volunteer roles during his 45-year career.
“Watching him lead a meeting was an art form — he knew how to stimulate conversation and drive passion and engagement,” said Miriam Miller Wolk, the current chief membership officer of International Fresh Produce Association, who met Carkoski while serving as staff liaison to the United Fresh Produce Association Wholesaler-Distributor Board. “Whether it was a one-on-one conversation or a room with thousands of people, you always walked away from an interaction with Ron feeling inspired and positive.”
Jonathan Steffy, Four Seasons vice president and general manager, echoed the thoughts of many with this recollection: “Ron was a mentor to me throughout my career. He believed in me and gave me opportunities. He led with integrity and care, yet showed strength and resolve. Ron’s personality, laugh, voice, heart and presence were so big, and that’s why he’s made an impact on so many.”
Ronald Francis Carkoski’s journey began on Aug. 25, 1953, in Green Bay, WI, which can mean only one thing — a life-long love affair with the Green Bay Packers. From a very early age, he also loved music. He started playing the piano at 5 years old and by the fifth grade he was the organist in his church choir. He continued his music passion through high school, which led to a degree in voice and keyboards from St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI, with a minor in biology, of all things. While in college, young Carkoski began dabbling in a music career.
“In those days, you could teach music at the high school level while still in college and Ron did that,” said Carkoski’s wife, Pat Carkoski. “In fact, he taught band and choir at my high school, which is how I met him.”
It was not love at first sight. After all, Carkoski was a teacher and Pat was a student. But a couple years later, the interest blossomed, they dated and were married in 1976. While in college, Ron continued to teach music, performed in church choirs and worked at a music store in Green Bay.
But when Pat and Ron announced that they were getting married, Ron’s father, Sylvester Carkoski, who had spent his career as a produce wholesaler, knew his son needed a higher paying job to support a family. Carkoski concurred. He joined his father at Cohodas Bros. in Green Bay. At the time, the Cohodas company was one of the larger wholesalers in the country with operations in many locations in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Carkoski stayed with Cohodas for about a half dozen years before moving to Menominee, MI, to join Carpenter Cook as a produce buyer. From there he moved back to Superior, WI, to be director of produce procurement with Gateway Foods.
In December of 1994, Carkoski took a job as head buyer with Four Seasons Produce in Denver, PA. Pat and their three kids — Karen, Susan and John — took six months to button things up in Wisconsin before moving to Pennsylvania, which would be the start of a 24-year run in the Keystone State.
“He was very surprised when David Hollinger (Four Seasons’ CEO and founder) began grooming him for the top position,” recalled Pat. “He loved his job. He loved being a buyer and working with customers, but he was happy to be on that CEO path.”
Carkoski served as the CEO of Four Seasons Family of Companies from 2002 through 2018 when he retired. Hollinger noted that it was another employee at Four Seasons who had worked with Carkoski at Gateway Foods that recommended him for the top buying position. “Now we call it director of procurement, but back then we called it head buyer,” he said. “Ron stayed in that position for seven years before he became our CEO, though he was promoted to be in charge of both buying and sales along the way.”
Hollinger recalled that he started Four Seasons when he was 24 and had taken it about as far as he could by the time he was approaching his own 50th birthday. “I told my wife that I thought Ron could do a better job running the company — and she agreed. He had a great rapport with the employees, our customers and the vendors.”
As CEO, Hollinger said, Carkoski had a “strong, positive personality. If there were any problems with loads or customers, he dealt with them in a great manner. He was always positive but firm.”
When Carkoski became CEO, Hollinger turned the reins over to him completely, working more in an advisory role and as a company ambassador. “We had an incredible relationship — mutual trust and mutual respect. He started as an associate, then we became friends and then he became a confidante.”
He added that Carkoski was an excellent manager and helped grow the company in many ways. “He was a really good writer and helped put our company culture into words. He came up with our core mission statement, which is simply four words: ‘Growing Ideas & Producing Excellence.’ I was so blessed and fortunate that Ron came to work for us. It was great for the company and great for our family. He was a true friend and will be missed.”
Carkoski came into the CEO job as he was approaching his 50th birthday and always planned to retire at 65. Eventually, Hollinger’s son, Jason, emerged as the logical successor. “Ron carried on the entrepreneur spirit of David Hollinger, and that spirit is alive and well throughout our team today,” said current Four Seasons President Jason Hollinger, noting that he was always very appreciative of Carkoski’s own entrepreneurial mindset. “One of his favorite lines in the early years was, ‘say yes’ and we will figure out how to do it later.”
David Hollinger said he founded his company on the philosophy first articulated by potato pioneer J.R. Simplot. “Hire good honest hardworking people and turn them loose.” Hollinger noted that Carkoski embraced that philosophy just as he had.
Jason Hollinger reminded that in 2006, Carkoski formed three new companies to respond to opportunities within the produce industry: Earth Source Trading, Sunrise Logistics and Sunrise Transport Those are the companies, along with Four Seasons Produce, that now make up the Four Seasons Family of Companies. He said under Carkoski’s leadership, the Four Seasons Family of Companies experienced tremendous growth.
Pat Carkoski said being CEO of Four Seasons was clearly the pinnacle of her husband’s career, but she said what brought him the most joy and fulfillment was getting involved with the United Fresh Produce Association, first with the Wholesaler Distributor Board and then as chairman of the organization. “Those three years in which he served as chair-elect, chairman and then past-chairman were probably the happiest of his career,” she said.
He loved collaborating with others and honing his management skills. By all accounts of those who interacted with Carkoski, he took to volunteer opportunities like a duck to water. He was in his element. “There were so many special times together serving on the United Board and then with Ron as chairman,” said Tom Stenzel, longtime CEO of UFPA. “When the executive committee met at Four Seasons, we didn’t head to the finest restaurant in town for dinner. Instead, he took us to meet an Amish farming family to have dinner in their home. We learned about a culture different from ours, but made human connections that transcended our different worlds.”
When Carkoski wasn’t working, he continued nurturing his love of music. His voice was loved by many and his piano playing would make those passing by the house on their daily walks pause to enjoy. He conducted and participated in several choirs over the years. He also enjoyed playing piano and singing at local church. Most recently he enjoyed spending time helping his granddaughter prepare for her first choral concert.
Pat said throughout his produce career, Carkoski served as a choir director for several different churches as he was very good at it and sought after. He was a man of faith and served his god well no matter in which community he was living. She said he also loved performing for family and friends. In fact, she recalled that there was a piano set up in the break room at Four Seasons and from time to time, Carkoski would sit down and play a tune. “He had a fantastic voice,” she said.
Others remember the same thing. “I remember a company Christmas party where he sang a beautiful rendition of ‘Silent Night’,” said colleague Jon Steffy. “He played at many different events, including his retirement dinner.”
Carkoski was an important force in the produce industry. His leadership skills and ideas were sought after by many. This led to his role as United Fresh Chairman of the Board and many accolades, including United Fresh Produce Man of the Year and UFPA Lifetime Achievement Award.
He also served on several community boards during his career, including Make-A-Wish Philadelphia Susquehanna Valley, Delaware Valley Floral Group, and Peninsula Music Festival.
Carkoski is survived by his wife of nearly 47 years, Pat Carkoski, as well as his three children, grandchildren and other relatives.
His family said of the many accolades Carkoski achieved over his lifetime, nothing meant more to him than his family and friends.