(Nov. 22) TAMPA, Fla. — Such radical change as this carries the imprint of Sam Walton’s ghost.

The Tobi Co. Inc., a Tampa brokerage firm with more than a half-century of success behind it, now does virtually no brokering. It is a holding company, in fact, for the multifaceted marketing endeavors of its subsidiary Alta Enterprises Inc., Tampa.

Those endeavors include increasing the business of import and distribution deals on Dutch tomatoes and peppers, Chilean jet fresh tree fruits, Spanish clementines and gourmet Italian olives. They include a new wholesaling operation in Tampa.

And, most prominently, they include a partnership in the new Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Magellan Farms LLC, an importer that began operations this summer and is already a major player in the Brazilian mango and offshore melon deals.

“In just a couple of years, we’ve turned ourselves inside out,” said Peter Ballotta, Alta’s president. “We’re basically not brokering anything anymore. We’re importers, distributors and marketers.”

Ballotta said the repositioning of his company has come about because of what he calls the Wal-Mart business model. Retail buyers — chasing Wal-Mart’s enviable logistics efficiencies and influenced by the raw bottom-line rationale of their corporate offices — increasingly have turned to every conceivable cost-cutting strategy under the sun.

That includes program buying, where produce suppliers essentially are predetermined and week-to-week procurement is a thing of the past, Ballotta said.

Although many produce buyers continue to see the value of pure brokering, the role of brokers and the fees they charge are perceived mostly as excess baggage in today’s corporate-minded milieu, Ballotta said.

“Is that a better way to source? I can’t say. There are good and bad things about each way,” he said. “But that’s the way the marketplace is going.”

In Magellan Farms, Alta represents the principle financing, and Ballotta and partner Joe Tobi sit in on key decisions. Magellan’s managing partner, president and chief executive officer is Brad Ferguson, formerly of Central American Produce, Pompano Beach.

Ferguson has 19 years of experience on the supply side of the produce industry but worked in a variety of retail positions before 1983. His director of sales and marketing, Ken Nabal, also comes from Central American and originally from a retail background, including stints Albertson’s and Wal-Mart, among others.

The familiarity with retail needs will help Magellan with its core distribution, Ferguson said. Apparently it already has. Right out of the blocks, the company claims to be the largest importer of Brazilian mangoes this season (August to December). Its 2.4 million boxes represents about 30% of that deal, he said.

Its largest items will be melons, however. By May, Magellan expects to have imported 5.5 million boxes of melons (roughly two-thirds cantaloupe and one-third honeydew, with about 250,000 cartons of watermelon thrown in), which should make it the No. 2 shipper of offshore melons behind Del Monte, Ferguson said.

On Nov. 18, the company brought in the first of its boatload shipments through Port Canaveral — about 155,000 cartons of melons. In December, it will begin twice-weekly shipments through that facility.

For Alta Enterprises, investing in the Magellan Farms venture was one more way to leverage its resources, Ballotta said.

“You have to have your own franchise anymore,” he said. “Magellan Farms is one of the ways we’re doing that. This is our brand. We are truly and clearly the importer here. We didn’t have the expertise to build a program of this scope this quickly, but Brad has been a top operator in this deal for some time.

“He thinks big and he’s very aggressive. What he needed was financing.”

Closer to home, Alta Enterprises is leveraging its resources by pursuing local wholesale business. In August, Ballotta said, it purchased a building adjacent to the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market and is in the process of refurbishing and reracking cooler space for about 25 loads of produce.