Craig Kelly, CHEP
Craig Kelly, CHEP

Ask Craig Kelly about pallets and containers, and he stresses the importance of understanding the needs of customers in the produce business.

“We’re not growers, but we are an important element in getting produce to the marketplace in a safe manner and a manner that’s efficient that they can trust,” says Kelly, 59, a sales director with Clermont, Fla.-based pallet and container distributor CHEP.

“It’s going to work for you,” he said.

Bob Spence, vice president of Irwindale, Calif.-based grower-shipper Ready Pac Produce Inc., said Kelly’s enthusiasm and drive to increase his understanding of the produce business is readily apparent.

“I’d have to say his energy and excitement for the business stand out,” Spence said of Kelly, who has been with CHEP for 10 years.

“The way he goes about relationships with customers, understanding their needs and communicating back to CHEP on what those needs are, he takes time and educating with his people.”

Some managers only train their employees, Spence said, and there’s a difference between training and educating.

“The training is how-to and educating is why,” Spence said. “He’s a great manager and certainly a very good salesperson.”

Kelly said his drive to learn about his customers’ needs has led to success in his career, which included 18 years as a territory manager for Chicago-based Kraft Foods.

“I think the ability to understand customer needs is crucial,” he said. “The culture of the business has changed and is moving to a more customer-centered viewpoint. I’ve been able to be very flexible with our programs and with our growers.

“If you’re going to do that, you need the ability to have internal equity within your company,” Kelly said. “We have programs that may be right for the Con-Agras, the Wal-Marts and the Krafts of the world, but we’ve been able to adjust to the needs of the customer.”

It’s the nature of a “very emotional” business, Kelly said.

“It’s passionate,” he said. “You’ll deal with growers who don’t necessarily like to be told that they need to do things differently. They harvested the land and their fathers probably harvested the land. We, as a major company and partner with the growers, we don’t know everything.”

Trust and expertise are necessary ingredients, as well, and they can win loyalty among produce-industry customers, Kelly said.

“Visibility and credibility are necessary,” he said. “It’s a matter of trust. We have experts in the produce industry that understand the business, understand the supply chain. When you combine all that, you’re extremely successful, because it’s a partnership business.”

Kelly’s passion transcends the business side of his life.

He’s passionate about rock music, too.

“I have a very expensive rock ‘n roll collection,” he said, mentioning that he has “50-some” signed guitars and dozens of signed drum heads bearing names from the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Roger Mcguinn of the Byrds and Bo Diddley.

“I have a rock ‘n roll room in my house,” he said.

He said Jodi, his wife of nine years, understands and appreciates his avocation.