(Sept. 22) David Corsi wonders how anyone could not have fun in the produce business. After all, he gets to travel to stores and growing regions and work with products that benefit the health of consumers.

“I sometimes ask myself why I was so blessed to hold a position that is exciting and gratifying and sheer fun,” says the vice president of produce for the Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets Inc., a chain of 65 stores.

“What tops my enjoyment is the strong sense of family (at Wegmans). It’s truly built into our culture,” he says.

Corsi joined the Wegmans family 17 years ago as a store night manager. After shuffling around in store management for the first eight years, he moved to headquarters in 1993 to become produce category manager.

In 1996, he took his store operations supervisory skills to a new position as division manager for store operations for the Rochester district, where he oversaw 12 stores.

He might still be on that path, except for the untimely death of Wegmans director of produce, Steve Gallucci, in 2000.

Corsi inherited a rich produce heritage when he took over as director of produce after Gallucci’s death. Corsi was promoted to vice president of produce in 2001.

He counts Gallucci as a tremendous mentor. “He was a plethora of knowledge about the industry and the product. With that vast knowledge, he was extremely passionate about produce and merchandising. He loved to talk about the product itself and the sheer joy of merchandising,” Corsi says.

“Wegmans sets the standard,” says Peter Goulet, director of produce for Hannaford Bros. Co., Scarborough, Maine. “They are the benchmark for the industry. Mr. Gallucci was the master, and Dave Corsi was his prize pupil. He’ll carry on the tradition of Wegmans’ exceptional produce operations.”

“He’s taken a great company and produce operation that existed when he took over and somehow managed to make it even better, which is a tall order for a company and operation like that,” says Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Corsi was nominated by industry members and selected by Produce Merchandising editors as Retailer of the Year for 2003. He was chosen for his leadership roles in the industry, for his merchandising excellence and for setting high standards for others to emulate.

“Dave is probably one of the most remarkable produce talents I’ve ever met,” says Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of perishables of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark. “He’s a wonderful strategic thinker. He understands his business very well and articulates and presents himself well at public presentations. He’s demonstrated a willingness to take on controversial issues and add a clear voice of reason to those issues.”

Peterson, also chairman of the PMA board, works with Corsi on industry matters.

PRODUCE PASSIONS

You don’t have to talk to Corsi long before you know the industry issues for which he is passionate.

He is chairman of PMA’s country-of-origin labeling task force.

“What’s been beneficial for me is to understand the issues centered around implementation of mandatory regulations that the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) is in the process of writing. The challenge (in Wegmans’ opinion) is we don’t want to add more cost to a product. It’s not a value to consumers,” he says.

Consumers aren’t asking for country-of-origin labeling, and Wegmans figures it would cost the company $3.5 million in ongoing expenses to implement the labeling, he says.

Corsi also feels strongly about the need for product traceability from the source to the store. “We’re gaining ground with the universal case coding PMA is initiating,” he says.

Considering traceability for a case of green beans, Corsi says, “Electronically you would know the case pack and weight and grading, where it came from and the lot it originated from. UCCNet is a starting point. It’s not the total answer, but building blocks or a foundation to get to an understanding of traceablity.”

Wegmans is part of a large community of suppliers and retailers working to support global case standards through UCCNet, a subsidiary of the Uniform Code Council Inc., Princeton, N.J., responsible for providing a universal foundation for electronic commerce. Wegmans president Danny Wegman is chairman of the board of governors of UCCNet.

Corsi just completed a two-year term on the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee. “It was a rare opportunity for us and myself to address issues in the produce industry to the USDA plus provide input,” he says.

HOME FRONT

Corsi begins each day at Wegmans looking over the produce financials and evaluating the service levels of each store. He stays informed of any adverse produce market conditions and compares the produce operations with company priorities, vision and purpose, he says. He travels to stores two or three days a week, and often takes a produce buyer with him.

What he appreciates most about Wegmans is that the company always has the customer in mind. “We’re relentless in providing value to our customers. As a company, we’re never complacent in anything we do,” he says.

That’s evident from the reputation Wegmans and Corsi have in the industry.

“Consumers come in (to Wegmans) to be surprised each week,” says Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif. Whatever product has the highest quality of the season is made into a big deal with a large display, signs and recipes. “They can make bell peppers different. It will be in a front module with a recipe on how to stuff or fry it, and at a good price. They will sell 30 or 40 cases in each store. They do it all the time with different items,” he says.

“(Corsi) is one of the new breed. He’s smarter than … those before him,” Spezzano says. “Yet he has that passion for produce. It’s an awesome combination — passion and the intellect to go with it. You keep things you need to keep to be leading edge, you move things quickly, pick up sleeper items and promote them and make them a big item. He’s good at the bottom line. When it comes to category management, there probably are five companies with a superior rating, and Wegmans is one.”

Corsi and Wegmans are all about flavor, says Karen Caplan, president and chief executive officer of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif. “They are one of the first retailers that wanted to know the brix levels of fruit before they would place an order. … They put the consumers’ need and desire for taste foremost,” she says.

“They pioneered having a restaurant in store,” Caplan says. “You would go to Wegmans for dinner six or eight years ago, way before what’s happening now with the restaurant concept.”

“They are big on offering recipes and menu ideas and telling consumers how to try new items,” says Mike Celani, senior vice president of retail sales for Ready Pac Produce Inc., Irwindale, Calif. “They are big on combining products to put together for convenient meal solutions.”

Corsi’s approach isn’t about what’s best for the produce department, but what’s best for the consumer and Wegmans, Celani says. “He’s willing to work closely with other departments to drive meal solutions. He pushes for constant improvement and as close to perfection in produce as you can get,” he adds.

Since the public is concerned with obesity, so is Corsi. “As we look at the obesity epidemic, our only mission is to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables in the nation. It’s an issue we need to continue to address and talk about the health benefits related to fruits and vegetables,” he says.

Wegmans began its own emphasis to increase produce consumption with its Strive for 5 program before the Wilmington, Del., Produce for Better Health Foundation 5 a Day program was off the ground.

The company uses a common Australian word — spruiking — for spontaneous sampling of select items. “It’s more entrepreneurial sampling. They don’t use a hired person,” says Frieda’s Caplan. “It lets consumers try product at its peak. This is more consumer-friendly.”

SUPPLIER RAPPORT

One of the foundations of category management is a close relationship with suppliers. Because Wegmans believes in partnerships, it has a loyal supplier base, says James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, Fishers. “They work together as a team. One satisfies the other constantly.”

Wegmans strives to get the best produce, whether it is from another country or from its home state, Allen says, noting Wegmans’ popular phrase “We go around the corner and around the world to supply the best produce.”

Corsi’s program for small New York growers is terrific, says Maureen Torrey Marshall, vice president of Torrey Farms Inc., Elba, N.Y. When New York produce is in season, Corsi prefers to buy local, she says. “He takes care of the little growers.”

She notes that he also fully participates in New York state programs, like Pride of New York.

Overall, Corsi is said to be kind, approachable and friendly.

“He’s very well respected, intelligent, committed and willing to get involved,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce for Schnuck Markets Inc., St. Louis. He has worked with Corsi on PMA committees.

“When I first became produce director for Schnucks, I spent some time there. (Wegmans and Schnuck) owners are friends. He was more than willing to spend a few hours chatting and giving me ideas on how to adjust to my new job,” O’Brien says.

UP CLOSE WITH DAVID CORSI:

Golden rule of merchandising: Always look for an opportunity to grow business by informing customers what’s tasting great today, dazzling displays, and always keep in mind the level of respect for the product.

The best thing I learned from my first produce job was: If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t display it.

The best part of my job is: The people throughout the supply chain. It’s a fascinating business with incredible people, and I never stop learning from them.

The worst part of my job is: Seeing produce on display that’s not fresh.

Age: 40

Biggest trends to watch in produce are: Value-added products continue to score big and organics gain much momentum.

If I weren’t in produce retailing, I’d be: A tasting consultant for my other food passions: cheese, bread and wine.

My favorite hobbies are: Playing chase with my two little girls, golf and water sports or recreation.

Words to live by: You’re only as good as the people around you. Continue to develop others.