Monday, July 26, 2010

Pal Brooks shows a keen eye for consumer hits

Excerpts from a 7/23/2010 article in The Packer by Don Schrack

In the 1980s, Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals Inc. supplied 25% of all mangoes sold in North America. Today, it sells none.There was a time in the not too distant past when 25% of the limes sold in North America came from Brooks Tropicals. Today, the figure is 1%.In 1990, Brooks Tropicals grew 12 commodities in its home county. Today, it grows two.

Then came Aug. 24, 1992.“Hurricane Andrew cost me 75% — or more — of my total lifetime net worth in one hour,” said Pal Brooks, owner of Brooks Tropicals Inc.That Brooks Tropicals survived the obstacles of the 1980s and 1990s — and continues to thrive — is testament to Pal Brooks and his ability to adapt to an ever-evolving market.

“Years ago, I described my experience in the agriculture business as learning to dance with change and enjoy it,” he said. “Change is always here.”Brooks may be the Arthur Murray of fresh produce. Those dancing skills, however, are wedded to an uncanny ability to target commodities that are about to become consumer favorites.

“Everything I’ve done in my life says I’m market oriented,” he said.Brooks’s marketing insight — through all of the company’s adjustments and changes — has focused on one key segment of the fresh produce industry.“If you solve the buyer’s problems, make his life easier, he will favor you with his business,” Brooks said. “It’s not the cheapest price, not always the best quality or on-time delivery. It’s the entire package.”

Any fantasies for Pal Brooks of a career away from fresh produce were stifled early. His father and company founder, J.R. Brooks, weaned him on agriculture. At age 11, Pal worked the fields. A year or so later, he was elevated to packinghouse duties.It was in 1961 that Brooks, having returned to south Florida with a college degree in his pocket, began to play a more significant role at Brooks Tropicals.

“At the time, my father owned 100 acres of groves, managed another 100 acres and worked with growers who farmed another 100 acres,” Brooks said.Six years later, Brooks purchased the company from his father, and growth skyrocketed.“I call it the heyday, the high times of subtropical agriculture in Florida,”

Brooks said.In his first year at the helm of Brooks Tropicals, the company sold $300,000 of fresh produce.“We can do that in one day now,” he said.The inventory pages of the heyday years look nothing like the list of commodities offered by Brooks Tropicals today.The new commodities are due to one constant: dancing to change. It was a skill the family learned before Pal Brooks was on the scene. As early Florida farmers, they started with grapefruit until the market plummeted, Brooks said. Then it was avocados followed by mangoes.It was Brooks who added limes and then tropical fruits.“Then I lost some of those commodities and added papayas,” he said. “It’s just constant change. You just have to accept it.

”Papayas are among the biggest of the changes at Brooks Tropicals. The company began sourcing papayas — grown on fewer than 30 acres — from Belize in 1993.Over several years, Brooks Tropicals doubled its papaya volume every 15 or 16 months, Brooks said. The Brooks Tropicals papaya farmland now stands at 1,600 acres.

Brooks — now in his early 60s — has no plans to retire, which is good news for those just entering the fresh produce industry.“Nothing stimulates me more than being around young people who say: ‘I want to learn what you know,’” Brooks said.