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Recognition: Even in retirement, Tom Page stays active with the Southeast Produce Council

He started his working life as a bottle boy at a retailer in the Midwest all those years ago. When he decided that the time was right to retire from the industry and company he loved, he was East Coast-import procurement manager at Supervalu, one of the larger grocery wholesalers and retailers in the United States.

Tom-1Tom Page (right) at an Indiana retail grocers food show, circa 1980, with Dean King, who worked with Page at the time, and an unidentified model.“I started with a retailer in Evansville, IN, called Economy Food Centers from 1961 until 1973,” Tom Page told The Produce News as he looked back on his long career. “I worked from a bottle boy on up to store manager.”

Wetterau purchased Economy Food Centers in 1973, and Page joined the management team as a produce field merchandiser at its Bloomington, IN, division. He held several other positions at that division, from produce director to vice president of merchandising.

In 1991, Wetterau was acquired by Supervalu, which is headquartered in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, MN, and which has around 3,000 stores under a variety of banners throughout the United States; the Bloomington division closed in 1993 due to overlaps with other Supervalu divisions, according to Page.

Supervalu then relocated him to Atlanta where he served as a produce category manager for the Southeast region, responsible for the four Southeast divisions. In 1991 he accepted the position of East Coast-import procurement manager, located in Lakeland, FL.

That was the last title he held when he retired from Supervalu on June 24, 2013, after a long and distinguished career. As he said proudly, “The only job I’ve ever had was with this company.”

Tom-5At a 50th anniversary party last year for Tom and Shirley Page: Tom, daughter Tina, Shirley and son Jeff.There was no “grand design” to how and why Page chose the produce industry to make his mark in the world. In fact, the reason he started his working life where he did probably mirrors the reason many boys back in the 1950s chose their first job.

“At that time, it was just to earn enough money to buy a car,” he quipped. “It just happened to be produce.”

But once he got his first taste of produce retailing, he stayed with it.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “When I graduated high school, I was already a produce manager. The guy that was the produce manager had a heart attack, and so I went on to take his spot while he was in the hospital. And he just never came back. So when I graduated from high school, I was already a produce manager.”

Page pointed out that he worked in a number of different areas during his career. He enjoyed produce, of course, but his company utilized his talents in other areas, such as assistant store manager and store manager. “But produce was always my first love,” he declared.

What attracted the young Tom Page to fresh produce during the early years?

“It was almost like having your own business because you made the day-to-day decisions,” he offered. Unlike some other areas of a supermarket, “with produce you’re able to re-merchandise your department daily if you wanted to. And back then, we did a lot of that. You don’t so much anymore, but back then, you were able to really ... see what you could do,” he continued. “You just had a lot of freedom within the produce department to be able to merchandise your store, merchandise your department. I think that was what probably kept me loving the produce [aspect] of it because it was changing all the time.”

Thomas Cebern Page II was born Aug. 28, 1944, in Evansville, IN, to Thomas and Carmen Page. His father was in the U.S. Army, his mother was a homemaker. He is the oldest of seven children — he has six sisters.

Page graduated from Ritz Memorial High School in Evansville in 1962, then attended what at the time was called Indiana State College (now Southeast Indiana University). He was already working at Economy Food Centers at that time, he noted, so much of his college work was done at night. “After many years, I did get a bachelor of arts degree in business,” in 1969, he said.

It was during his high school years that he met his future wife.

“We’re both Catholic, and Evansville had at that time four Catholic high schools, and they had a meeting place where all four schools could come for Friday night dances and things like that,” he recalled. “So before she was a junior and before I was a senior, we met there at a dance on a Friday night. We’ve been together ever since.”

Tom and Shirley were married Aug. 26, 1963. Shirley worked “throughout my career,” he noted, “but she always had to move with me” wherever his produce career took him. Shirley worked “primarily in the banking field,” he continued. “She’s done everything from a teller all the way up through a loan officer.”

Tom and Shirley have a daughter, Tina, who lives in Bloomington, IN, and a son, Jeff, who lives in Thomasville, GA, which is just over the line from Tallahassee, FL. Tina and her husband have three children; Jeff and his wife have two children. So Tom and Shirley have enjoyed being grandparents for some time now.

When asked if he and Shirley ever thought that they might be great-grandparents sometime in the distant future, he replied proudly, “Great-grandkids are in the works.”

Their oldest grandchild (Tina’s oldest son, Tyler) and his wife are expecting their first child this February. “We hear heartbeats and we hear all kinds of good stuff now.”

With the council’s annual convention and trade show scheduled for Feb. 27 to March 1, 2014, in Orlando, FL, he quipped, “I hope to have photos of the new great-grandchild at Southern Exposure.”

A full retail produce career spanning 50 years, a rewarding and loving family life. Surely enough for most people.

But Page was instrumental in another project, one which has left an indelible mark on the fresh produce industry and which some believe will continue to influence future generations of men and women who choose the fresh produce industry for their life’s work.

Back in 1999, he and five other forward-thinking industry executives — William Watson, Ken Lanhardt, Cathy Carney, Heidi McIntyre and Terry Vorhees — got together over lunch in Atlanta to discuss forming a new organization, one that would represent the interests and unique characteristics of the produce industry in the southeastern United States. That new organization would eventually be called the Southeast Produce Council.

“Of course, Terry instigated it,” Page recalled with modesty. “He called on me when he was with the California Tree Fruit Agreement. I kind of spearheaded [the effort] to get Ken Lanhardt involved in it.”

Page continued, “We agreed what to call ourselves. The first couple of years were a slow go. We really didn’t kick off until we had our first expo in Lakeland,” which was held in 2004. “We got [that first expo] off to a fairly decent start, and it just kind of exploded from there.”

Indeed it did. The council’s annual conference and trade show, now held in early March and known as Southern Exposure, regularly draws more than 1,500 people from all over the country, and boasts a trade show with nearly 250 booths.

Eight states — North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee — comprised the original base of the council; it added Virginia and Kentucky in the fall of 2004.

Page himself has been closely involved with the council since that first lunch meeting back in 1999. He has been show chairman of many of the council’s expos, he served as SPC vice president, and in 2008-10 he served as the council’s fifth president.

Even after retiring from Supervalu, he continues to stay involved in many of the council’s programs, including the Southeast Training Education Program for Upcoming Produce Professionals, known commonly as STEP-UPP.

Page met with the latest STEP-UPP class in south Florida in mid-August. “This is our third class” in the program, he noted. “It’s just rewarding to be able to take these young people who are trying to move up within the industry and introduce them to the CEOs and the management people of different growers and shippers.”

And now that he’s retired, he observed, “It’s my way of staying in touch with folks.”

He has outside interests, of course. “You have to have hobbies when you retire,” he said. “I like to golf, but you can only do that so much.”

He and his wife also hope to travel more, now that he has the time. They enjoyed a cruise to Alaska the last 10 days of August, and they may visit northern Europe next summer. “I want to take a trip to the West and Southwest,” he added. “That’s part of the country I never really spent any time in.”

Looking back on his long involvement with the Southeast Produce Council, he stated, “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. It started slowly, but we did a lot of things right.”

The enormous growth and success of the council “has enabled us more than anything,” he continued. “Our goal was to promote the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in the Southeast. Everything that we did, that was our goal to start with. Now, when you stop and think about what we do — we have given so much back to the industry. This year [the council] distributed 20 scholarships to our members’ children and grandchildren.”

Regarding the council in general, “We’re probably kind of unique in that we ask the board members to sign an agreement that they’re going to not just sit on the board but that they’re going to participate [by serving] on a committee,” for example, or “chairing a committee,” he said. “We want you to be active. That’s what makes the whole thing click.”

Asked about the friendships he has made during the course of his career, and who had mentored him early on, he thought for a minute, and perhaps like an Academy Award winner who was afraid to leave someone out accidentally, Page was reluctant to start naming names.

But with that caveat in mind, he did mention Rich Arnold of Wetterau early in his career, as well as John Abrel, a division president at Bloomington when Page was produce director.

He mentioned longtime friends such as Larry Narwold, who served as the council’s second president, and Brad Bailey, who recently retired from Southern Specialties Inc. And, of course, he mentioned SPC Executive Director Terry Vorhees.

“If he can be of help to you, that’s just the kind of guy he is,” Vorhees told The Produce News at the end of August as he was preparing for the council’s fall conference, scheduled for Sept. 26-28 in Myrtle Beach, SC.

“The thing about being around Tom — you can’t feel down. Tom has a way of making you feel good. It’s because he has such a positive attitude. I don’t think I’ve ever been around Tom [and had] a negative situation,” he continued. “You could be a little down, and he’ll say, ‘How are you doin’ pal’ or ‘How are you doin’ bud.’ And in a matter of no time, you forget about all these other problems — because he’s just such a positive guy.”

Vorhees acknowledged that Page’s career at Supervalu was always extremely important to his good friend, but he added this: “The other thing I know about Tom is — the number one thing in Tom’s life is Shirley and his family. And that’s the way it should be.”

On that point, Page probably said it best. When he was encouraged to name those people who meant the most in his life, he began by saying, “I don’t want to miss anybody,” then added without missing a beat: “My best friend, of course, is Shirley Page.”