Skip to main content

- Advertisement -

SEPC to honor the late Al Finch at Southern Exposure

By
Gordon M. Hochberg, editor emeritus
Al and Melissa with their sons, Alex and Gavin, enjoyed a cruise in the Caribbean in June 2016.
Al and Melissa with their sons, Alex and
Gavin, enjoyed a cruise in the Caribbean
in June 2016.

Al Finch was a leader in the Florida citrus industry, where he spent close to 25 years, culminating as president of Florida Classic Growers in 2014.

Finch was also a leader at the Southeast Produce Council, going back to its earliest days. He devoted countless hours to the council, helping to guide its steady growth, and he headed the board of directors from 2006 to 2008.

Finch died on June 21, 2022, at the age of 55, leaving behind his wife, Melissa; their two boys, Gavin and Alex; and his sister, Alexis Rocker. By any standard, he left us much too early. But in one final expression of its gratitude, its respect and its love, the Southeast Produce Council will honor him with the 2023 Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award, its highest honor.

The award will be presented during the council's upcoming Southern Exposure conference and trade show, scheduled to take place March 2-4 at the Swan & Dolphin Resort in Orlando, FL.

About the honoree
Virtually everyone called him Al, but he was born Gene Allison Finch Jr. on Aug. 2, 1966, in Lakeland, FL. He graduated from Lakeland High School in 1984, then attended Stetson University in Deland, FL, where he earned a bachelor of business administration degree in 1988. He minored in history and remained an avid history lover for the rest of his life.

Immediately after college, he worked in the construction industry for a number of years. After that he joined Publix Supermarkets, where he worked in the produce department for a short time before joining the Florida Department of Citrus, where he spent about five years.

Al and Melissa, just prior to their engagement.
Al and Melissa, just prior to their engagement.

Finch joined Florida Classic Growers, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dundee Citrus Growers Association in Dundee, FL, in 1999. He was named president of Florida Classic Growers in 2014, the position he held until his death.

His legacy at SEPC
Discussing why Finch was chosen to receive the 2023 award, David Sherrod, the council's president and CEO, stated, "When you think of the people that have devoted their time, effort and energy into making the SEPC what it has become, you cannot help but think of Al Finch. Al has been a driving force in the Florida citrus industry for years, and he saw early on how important it was to have a trade association based in the Southeast. Along with others, Al promoted the SEPC in the early years through sales calls, emails and telephone calls. He attended countless events and was always willing to help coordinate training sessions and roadshows to help with our education programs."

Sherrod added, "That dedication took him through every key position, including chairman of the board of directors, and he was later a trusted member of our board of governors. Al has really been involved in every major decision regarding the SEPC for the entirety of its existence."

During Finch's tenure as chairman, "We had our first educational roadshow in Columbia, SC, and later in Plant City, FL," Sherrod recalled. "We also added Children's Healthcare of Atlanta as a charitable partner. He really helped foster Southern Exposure in the early years and helped grow it year after year."

Sherrod also spoke about his friend's many personal attributes.

Al and his dog, Riley, at home.
Al and his dog, Riley, at home.

"Al was a living testimony. When I say that, I mean that he spent the time he had loving others, sharing his faith and never complaining. Back in 2014, Al was diagnosed with cancer. Considering the severity of the disease, the doctors really only gave him a year to live. But Al somehow spent the next eight years taking Melissa and the boys to ballgames, camps, vacations and other adventures. He attended church events and SEPC events. He kept up with his duties at Florida Classic and visited his customers. He did all these things and plenty more while going through radiation and chemotherapy. And never once did I hear Al complain, even though I knew he felt horrible. He was intentional with the time he had because he knew none of us are promised tomorrow. He would always say, 'Praise the Lord' after each treatment and scan. That is the kind of person he was, and he is still an example for me today."

The two leaders certainly had a special bond.

"We always made a reference to each other that we are a 'Band of Brothers.' We shared a camaraderie with each other that was bound by our love for the Lord," said Sherrod. "We could laugh at each other's faults, which made the day a little brighter. He had a way to make me laugh at the same joke time after time. He also was someone I could count on when I needed advice or just someone to talk to."

Of course, like all of us, Finch did have his faults. As Sherrod recalled with a laugh about Al and their mutual friend Andrew Scott, "Al was the worst driver imaginable! Andrew and I would fight to see who would get the back seat because it was terrifying to sit up front with him. He never used the blinkers, only hand gestures out the window. I remember him saying that he was scared to let his son Gavin drive because he was a bad driver, and I said to myself, 'Like father, like son.' But I'm sure Gavin is a much better driver than Al."

Al, a history buff, at a World War II museum in New Orleans.
Al, a history buff, at a World War II museum in New Orleans.

Al's wife remembers
Melissa was "deeply touched" when she got the word that her husband would be receiving the Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award at Southern Exposure. Al "would have been very humbled, grateful, thankful and honored," she said.

Finch worked hard in his professional life and gave countless hours to the Southeast Produce Council, but he was intensely devoted to his family. "Just being together as a family was very important to him -- making memories and creating special moments," said Melissa. Many of those memories were created during family vacations, often to Disney theme parks and cruises.

Al was much younger than his sister; there was about 16 years between the two. "When Alexis went off to college, Al was only about 2 years old," said Melissa. "He traveled the world with his mom since my father-in-law did not like that kind of travel; he was more of an avid golfer. So Al was very well traveled by the time he was 13 years old."

Al with his parents Betsye Kay and Gene Sr. in the early 1990s.
Al with his parents Betsye Kay and Gene Sr. in the early 1990s.

Al "did enjoy golfing, although he really didn't have a lot of time for golf," said Melissa. "He also loved his football," especially "his college 'Gators. And he was very knowledgeable about the pros as well."

She continued, "Al was really good about bringing people together. He had this unique ability to introduce you to people, and then those people would become lifelong friends. I think Al probably knew far more inherently that his time was probably shorter than we all did. I think that he literally just made the most of every day. He was the most genuine person you would ever meet in your life."

Perhaps at the top of his priorities was his faith. "Al was very devout in his faith," stated Melissa. "He was a strong believer in the Lord. He really wanted to help people who were struggling with health or other issues."

Sherrod noted that on the Sunday morning after both Southern Exposure and Southern Innovations, the Southeast Produce Council invites attendees to gather "in worship and fellowship." In recognition of Finch's strong faith and religious devotion, Sherrod announced that the council has decided to name this gathering the Al Finch Prayer Breakfast.

Al's friends and colleagues
The Produce News reached out to some of Finch's longtime friends and colleagues in the produce industry, who shared their insights and remembrances of this year's honoree: the aforementioned Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development at Nickey Gregory Co.; Bobby Creel, director of business development at L&M Cos. Inc.; and Raina Nelson, president and CEO of Westfalia Fruit Marketing USA LLC.

Three generations: Gene III, Gene Sr. and Gene Jr.
Three generations: Gene III, Gene Sr. and Gene Jr.

"The SEPC is a family organization, and Al and I became brothers as a result of meeting one another at SEPC's fall conference in 2004," now known as Southern Innovations, said Scott. "Al participated in a number of SEPC committees as they were forming. He was a cheerleader for the council and promoted the benefits of being a member of the organization."

Asked what his friend would think of receiving this award, Scott replied, "Al would be humbled by this honor and deflect the attention to others, including his family, friends and colleagues. Al was not one to have the spotlight pointed on him, and he shied away from accolades. Al would thank his wife, Melissa, and his boys, Gavin and Alex, for helping him achieve this great honor. He would also thank his good friend Terry Vorhees for being instrumental in creating the SEPC and where it is today: becoming the premier produce resource in the Southeast."

Commenting on their long friendship, Scott recalled, "Al and I hit it off right away back in the early days of the SEPC, and we have been having fun ever since. We had a lot of the same interests, including watching sports, attending sporting events, telling jokes, talking family and talking business. Al was both a vendor and a customer, and that actually strengthened our friendship through the years. Al was a true friend, and you don't want to screw up that friendship because of a working relationship. Al looked out for others and cared about people, whether you were a friend, a vendor or a customer."

Al and Melissa at their wedding reception in Atlanta.
Al and Melissa at their wedding reception in Atlanta.

On a personal note, Scott stated, "Al was a great friend that really cared about you and your family, especially if there was an issue with your family. Al was a spiritual man and would read his Bible every morning, even if we had a long night together at a dinner or sporting event. There he was, up early and reading the Bible."

He added, "Al was a great father and husband, which I saw firsthand when I would stay with them two to three times a year at his Lakeland home. I watched his family grow up over the past 19 years."

Also, "I would have to say that Al had a great sense of humor and could rattle off some great one-liners from movies from the 1970s and 80s! Al was dedicated to his job at Florida Classic Growers and was a good boss. Al touched a lot of people, which was evident at his funeral, where it was standing room only at the church."

Creel, who also serves as chairman of the SEPC's board of governors, said, "Al has served faithfully on various committees, the board of directors, including chairing that board, and the BOG. He always exhibited steady leadership for many years. Al brought wisdom and SEPC/industry knowledge to the BOG. He was always in lock step with our core ideologies and made us better as a result."

Regarding the working relationship between the two men, Creel stated, "We were aligned from the beginning so many years ago relating to the council's values, mission, vision and goals. It was always fun working with Al. I enjoyed all the Al calls and Al stories."

Tim Tebow at Southern Exposure 2022 with Al, Gavin and Melissa.
Tim Tebow at Southern Exposure 2022 with Al, Gavin and Melissa.

Creel said that Finch "would be deeply humbled and would give any credit for him receiving this award to others instead of himself." On a personal level, he said that Al "was well balanced in life. His priorities were in the right order: faith, family, ag business (Florida citrus), friends — and certainly his SEPC family. His strengths were many. He was a great listener, he thought things through and he got results, always with a smile and a thank you."

He concluded, "Al would often call me on his way home from the office or driving on a business trip. We had some great conversations. But Al would never ever say goodbye. He would say, 'Well, I know you are busy so I'll let you go -- and just hang up."

Nelson described Finch this way: "Simply said, Al was a founding father and key contributor to the SPEC who helped lay the brickwork to the strong institution that the council is today. Al's passion and commitment to the council throughout the years were nothing short of incredible. Al always offered a unique perspective in ensuring the humanity and purpose of the council was our clear mission. I wasn't around during these formative days, but I know he and Terry Vorhees had some very important conversations that I am thankful for, as I know they have truly materialized into the success the council has celebrated.”

Al Finch and his sister, Alexis Rocker.
Al Finch and his sister, Alexis Rocker.

She continued, "Al was one of the humblest people I've yet to know walk this earth. A quote comes to mind from Mother Theresa that creates a vision of Al smiling from above: 'If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.' This was Al. Al knew who he was and who he served. He was a good and faithful servant and a wonderful man of God. He didn't like the limelight, but he shined from within. That was enough."

Regarding Finch's professional life, Nelson said, "The same passion Al showed for the council shined through his work. He was authentic and pure on every level. For me, that character commands the highest level of respect. It's easy to work with someone you respect."

Nelson also shared some personal -- extremely personal -- remembrances of Finch. "Al and I shared a common bond in cancer, and it's not really a bond one is eager to share. When I was diagnosed, Al reached out without hesitation or inhibition. It was easy to talk to Al because of our relationship from the industry and the council, and I quickly held on to every word he shared. He would regularly call me, give me words of wisdom, share his own battles in hopes that he could ease mine, and provide resources that would lift me from my knees on days that just knocked me down. Our conversations sustained me, gave me strength, and I'll never forget them. His legacy will always live on, and for all my days I will strive to honor Al's legacy in supporting others who battle."

Andrew Scott (center) was a longtime friend of Melissa and Al Finch.
Andrew Scott (center) was a longtime friend of Melissa and Al Finch.

She ended with this from Romans 8:38-39: "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Melissa and other members of the Finch family will be at Southern Exposure to accept the Terry Vorhees Lifetime Achievement Award.

As Sherrod noted, "First and foremost, Melissa and the boys will always be a part of the SEPC family. My wife, Sarah, and I have had a very special relationship with Al and Melissa over the years, and it is something that I will cherish forever. I know it has been hard for her this past year, losing her best friend and soulmate. We want her to know how much Al meant to the council and hopefully shower them with our love and compassion. I personally have watched Al's boys become young men, and we want them to always know what their papa meant to us as well."

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.

- Advertisement -

February 3, 2023

U.S. Customs & Border Protection officers assigned to the Otay Mesa Cargo Facility seized a large quantity of narcotics concealed within a shipment of radishes on Jan. 29.

CBP officers… Read More

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -

- Advertisement -