After 23 years with the company, President Craig Wheeling is retiring from Brooks Tropicals LLC. During those years, Craig took the firm from a Florida focus with a mostly East Coast distribution to an agribusiness that crisscrosses the Americas in both operations and sales.
The building of offshore papaya operations, which started with fewer than 30 acres more than 17 years ago, provided the major catalyst for the company’s recent phenomenal growth. Through this venture, the firm has become the number one importer of papayas to the North American market.
Wheeling developed the company’s SlimCado brand, highlighting the healthy differences between Florida avocados and the major California variety. The claim that the SlimCado has “less fat and fewer calories” required two years of research and considerable legal groundwork. The research pinpointing the SlimCado’s fat content and calories was key — not only in bringing the brand to market but also in bringing the first nutritional fruit label to the U.S. market. The brand itself has ignited consumer interest, as shown when the concept was featured on an ABC-TV episode of “Brothers and Sisters.”
Wheeling also rebuilt the firm after category 5 Hurricane Andrew destroyed the company’s headquarters and fields in Homestead, Fla., in 1992. All of Brooks’ buildings and coolers were severely damaged. “We brought the steel in from Tennessee and the construction workers from Orlando; the work was completed in four months’ time,” said Wheeling. Brooks was the first large organization in the area to fully return to business.
“We took the opportunity while volumes were down to complete projects like installing a new companywide computer system. But more significantly, we changed from being a fruit broker and importer to a multinational grower,” said Wheeling.
Currently, Brooks Tropicals is harvesting the Wheeling avocado, which is a new, patented, off-season variety developed by Neal “Pal” Brooks personally. The demand for this off-season variety is such that the entire crop of Wheeling fruit has been sold prior to harvesting.
“We like to be the leader in whatever major product we offer,” said Wheeling. “I’m proud of areas like our internal research department, which has allowed us to maintain our leadership over the years.”
He added, “I’m going to miss the company and the people who work for it. The employees of Brooks are great people and dedicated to their work. It shows.”
About Pal Brooks, Wheeling noted, “I’ve learned a lot from Pal. He is a brilliant agriculturist who has shown that you can still be fair in your dealings and build a great business. He has fostered a culture of honesty, innovation and doing what it takes to ensure consistent quality.”
“In my career at Brooks, I also had the pleasure of working with outstanding individuals in the industry,” said Wheeling. “I particularly remember Ralph Pinkerton, whom I had known on and off for many years. He was a marketing genius who took California avocados from a small industry to a leading product.”
Ralph had been chairman of the Produce Marketing Association, had produced the famous Angie Dickinson advertising campaign for Hass avocados and had even parachuted sheep as a sales tool.
“We were in awe of him,” said Wheeling. “One day late in his career, Ralph just showed up at Brooks and said, “You guys do interesting things; I am going to work for you.” Wheeling remembers that it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. “We used to listen for hours as Ralph Pinkerton educated our staff on his philosophies of sales and marketing. He was a great man in so many ways.”
Wheeling believes in giving back to the community. One of his fondest memories was the establish-ment of a charity in Belize in which school principals were asked what they needed for their schools and Brooks Tropicals would provide the items.
“We would hunt for used textbooks from Florida or shoes from Mexico and then ask for help with shipping from freight companies. It was super efficient and fun,” Wheeling said.
Wheeling served as chairman of the USDA’s Florida Avocado Marketing Board for more than 10 years. He chaired Miami-Dade County’s Agriculture Retention Study, which looked at the future of 80,000 acres of largely undeveloped land south of the urban Miami area. Wheeling also served on the board of Miami-Dade County’s Crime Stoppers organization; testified before Congress on the dangers of invasive pests; and was a member of a Florida Citrus Canker Advisory Board, a member of the State of Florida’s working group on the devastating invasive pest the Red Bay beetle and chairman of the Miami-Dade County Agricultural Liaison Committee.
“Looking toward agriculture’s future,” said Wheeling, “I’m most concerned about non-native pests entering the U.S. We’ve seen the dramatic economic impact of citrus canker. I hope we can work as an industry to find the means to prevent such fungi, bacteria and other pests from entering the U.S.”
“No person has contributed more to the success of this company than Craig,” said Pal Brooks, chairman of the board. “I have the utmost respect for this man. He has espoused the creed that underlies the company’s success: ‘do what’s fair and right.’”
Brooks Tropicals has approximately 1,250 workers at its Homestead, Fla., and Belize, Central America, locations.