Described as a forward thinker and innovator by some who have worked with him for decades, Jim Steele ironically never had anything remotely resembling a career plan.
At age 69, the founder and chairman of Frontera Produce Ltd., Edinburg, Texas, now sees how his entire life was a step-by-step path to the successes he has enjoyed in the fresh produce business.
“I was 6 years old before I spoke fluent English,” he said. “My parents were starting to get a little worried.”
As a young child on his parents’ farm in the Rio Grande Valley, Steele’s playmates were the Spanish-speaking children of the farmworkers. Little did he know then that the Spanish fluency he developed before going to elementary school would serve as the basis for his relationships with Mexican growers and the foundation for a multimillion dollar produce operation.
“Jim realized early on that our dealings in south Texas would increasingly involve Mexico,” said John McClung, president of the Texas International Produce Association, Mission. “Jim was one of the pioneers in that area. A lot of produce people tried it, but they didn’t survive.
“Now more than 60% of the produce Texas supplies to the rest of the U.S. is from Mexico. Jim is one of the people who made it work, and his strong relationships with Mexican growers were a big part of that.”
Steele said when he went to work pruning citrus trees in the early 1960s he didn’t plan to work in produce.
“I got married at a very early age,” Steele said, adding that his wife Dorothy worked as hard as he did to build Frontera Produce. “In 1961 the freeze wiped out my father’s citrus crop, so I went to work pruning other people’s trees.
“Around 1970, Weyerhaeuser (NR Co.) hired me as a sales rep, and a year or so later I moved up to Houston.”
While selling packaging for Weyerhaeuser, Steele used his Spanish with growers and shippers in Mexico. At that point he didn’t know those relationships would prove crucial to his future.
In the early 1980s Steele launched Tejano Packaging Co. The company developed a client base in the Mexican produce industry.
With his family background in produce and his increasing knowledge of growing operations on both sides of the border, Steele was on his way to founding Frontera, but he didn’t realize it.
Tejano Packaging didn’t work out, though, and when Steele saw a produce company had gone bankrupt, leaving its facilities in the hands of a bank, he got a wild idea.
“That banker told me there was no way I should get into the fresh produce business,” Steele recalls. “He said it was too hard to make it. He said I was crazy.”
But the banker signed a 15-year note with Steele for the defunct produce company’s facility. Steele paid off the loan in two years.
“I think he was a little disappointed that he didn’t get all of his interest,” Steele said.
That was the beginning of Frontera Produce.
From its founding in 1993, Frontera grew into one of the best known produce companies in Texas with year-round programs in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Steele said business from Wal-Mart and Kroger in the early years help him grow Frontera.
“A lot of produce companies didn’t want to work with Wal-Mart,” Steele said. “They said ‘You guys are panty hose people, we don’t want to sell you produce.’ But I worked with Bruce Peterson, and we moved a lot of produce for Wal-Mart.”
With Frontera booming and technology changing business models, Steele knew the company needed to change with the times. However, he realized he wasn’t the best person to continue in daily leadership.
“I still do business with a look in the eye and a handshake. A 69-year-old man dealing with 30-year-old produce buyers who want to do everything on their cell phones and e-mail — that just don’t work.”
In 2007 Steele handed the reins to his son Will Steele, who now serves as Frontera president. Steele said Will’s greatest strength is his ability to spot intelligent, talented people and hire them. “It’s the people at Frontera that make the company,” the founder said.
Now in his semiretired state, Steele spends much of his time on a 2,000-acre ranch near San Antonio. He is a registered breeder of Brahma cattle, with about 240 “mama cows” that he feeds every morning.
“Then I come in and spend three or four hours on the phone with Mexican growers. I don’t speak English until lunchtime most days,” he said, still putting those early childhood language skills to work in the career he never imagined he would have.