(March 5) TAMPA, Fla. — After more than a year out of the limelight, Fred Heptinstall is back.

The former executive vice president of Chiquita Fresh NA, Cincinnati, has joined Tampa-based IFCO Systems NA as senior vice president and general manager of the U.S. Reusable Plastic Container Division.

The position was created as part of IFCO’s efforts to streamline its management and focus on the growth in the RPC segment.

Dave Russell, president of IFCO Systems North America, said in a news release that RPCs are a strategic part of IFCO’s growth plans for the next several years and that Heptinstall will be a key to that growth.

“Fred is a strong and proven industry leader, and we feel he is an ideal fit for this position and our team,” he said.

Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of the perishable foods division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., said he thinks Heptinstall will bring new ideas to the RPC business.

“The thought process he’s going to bring to the entire issue, both in terms of the box itself and how it’s going to flow through the system, is going to benefit the entire industry,” he said.

Heptinstall, who started with the company March 1, said he is looking forward to taking on the same leadership role in the RPC segment that he has had in his previous experience in the produce industry.

“I’ve been somewhat of a visible leader in the (produce) industry,” he said. “And I hope to provide some leadership for IFCO and for the entire RPC category.”

Heptinstall said there is tremendous growth potential in North America for RPCs, adding that Europe is already way ahead.

“If you look at the use of returnable packaging in Europe, it’s a very high penetration,” he said. “Whereas North America has a low penetration. I think that’s going to change in the next couple of years.”

Heptinstall said it was too early to tell what specific direction his new position would take, but he said he expects that his experience in the produce industry will play an important role.

“It’s hard for me to say right now how far I think we can drive it,” he said. “I’ve had opportunity to manage just about every segment of the supply chain. When I look at RPCs, I see a huge value for that chain.”

Heptinstall left Chiquita, where he had worked since 1992, in September 2002, saying he wanted to pursue other interests. In the time since then, Heptinstall said he has been doing consulting work with a variety of food companies, though he wouldn’t say which ones.

In addition to his work at Chiquita, Heptinstall has taken an active role in the produce industry. He has served as chairman and co-chairman of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, co-chairman of the Produce Marketing Association’s joint packaging committee and chairman of the International Banana Association.

Tom Stenzel, president of United, said bringing in Heptinstall was a good move for IFCO.

“He’s an extremely knowledgable guy about the produce industry at large and packaging in particular,” he said. “It sounds like (IFCO) is making a good commitment to the RPC business, and someone like Fred is a big step for them.”