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Howard Marguleas: A true visionary

Visionary, Webster tells us, has to do with looking into the future with wisdom. It’s not enough to just plan for a time down the road, but you have to be right to be a true visionary. Synonyms include being creative, imaginative and innovative.

It is those kinds of words and many like them that a handful of industry colleagues used to describe Howard Marguleas, the principal founder of Sun World International in 1975 and a true pioneer in the sales and marketing of unique branded produce. His vision about what would sell in the 1970s is a blueprint for success today 40 years later.HowardArdithMarguleasHoward Marguleas with his wife, Ardith.

Howard Marguleas died June 1 at the age of 82 in Rancho Mirage, CA, not far from where his greatest innovations in the produce industry were hatched in 1970s, 80s and 90s.

“Howard was an innovator with an idea a minute,” said Frank Padilla, the top produce executive at Costco Wholesale.

“Howard was a visionary, someone who saw possibility and opportunity everywhere he looked,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission.

“He was one of those guys who could see over the hill,” said Dick Spezzano, who worked with Mr. Marguleas for many years as the top produce executive for The Vons Cos.

Bob DiPiazza, who worked with Sun World while at both Dominick’s Fine Foods in Chicago and Sam’s Club, called the Sun World executive “a creative master marketer.”

Mr. Marguleas was born in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 1934, into a produce family. He graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in the mid-1950s and immediately joined the family firm — Heggblade-Marguleas (H-M), a produce distributor and marketer, founded by his father Joseph Marguleas and partner Frank Heggblade.

According to Mr. Marguleas’ son David, early in his career his father traveled up and down the state working with growers in every fruit district in California. He and his wife, Ardith, lived in several of those cities seasonally before settling  in 1958 in Rancho Mirage, which they called home for most of their married lives. During this time period, he brought in the first Hawaiian pineapples sold on the mainland.

Only in his mid-30s, he took over the helm at H-M after the two principals died. At the time, a deal was in the making to sell the firm to Tenneco, a large oil company with extensive agricultural holdings. The deal was concluded and Heggblade-Marguleas-Tenneco was the resulting company, launched in 1970 with Mr. Marguleas as its chief executive officer.

Five years later, he resigned from the firm and founded Sun World International with Carl Sam Maggio and other partners. The company started with a citrus deal, added a lettuce operation with the purchase of Interharvest (renamed Sun Harvest) and was off and running, creating many innovative items over the years.

For the next 20 years, Sun World was at the forefront of innovation with such interesting items as seedless watermelon, yellow and red peppers, vine-ripe tomatoes and Superior Seedless table grapes, to name a few. It was during this time period that Mr. Marguleas cemented his reputation as a visionary in the industry.

“He was a pioneer in many agricultural industries, introducing consumers around the world to new fruits and vegetables and making it clear that the product — whatever it was — was exciting, something special. He loved agriculture and had a special passion for the produce business, working on projects right up until he became ill,” said Nave. “The California table grape industry of 2017 is world class in quality, quantity, consumer reach and influence. Without Howard’s vision, leadership and many contributions, the industry wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Spezzano recalled that Mr. Marguleas established excellent partnerships with retailers all over the country. He’d give a retailer an exclusive on an item such as red peppers and watch the sales mount.

DiPiazza remembered doing a “Taste of Sun World” in his Dominick stores every year. “We would run a full-page ad featuring the many different Sun World products, such as the seedless watermelons, Le Rouge Royale red peppers, Le Jeune yellow peppers, Divine Ripe tomatoes and Black Diamond plums. We’d have big displays and sell the heck out of them.”

Padilla said Mr. Marguleas’ genius was manifested in the naming and patenting of these varieties to garner excitement and create a situation where Sun World received royalties for their use by other growers and shippers around the world. “It wasn’t just a tomato, it was a ‘Divine Ripe’ tomato. It wasn’t just a red pepper, it was a ‘Le Rouge’ sweet pepper.”

Padilla added that Mr. Marguleas and the Sun World team were instrumental in helping Costco get started selling high-quality produce in the late 80s and early 90s. “Howard bought into our wholesale club concept and immediately started to strongly suggest to us and to his team what we needed to succeed.”

Several of his industry colleagues commented on his ability to identify top talent and surround himself with an excellent team. Spezzano ticked off more than a handful of industry veterans who started at Sun World and went on to create their own very successful organizations.

“Howard was unique in his passion and desire to always be the best at what he did,” Padilla said. “He had very high standards that you would see in the quality of his crops, growing practices, packaging and even the people he hired. He expected the same of those who worked for him and even those he dealt with in business.”

David Marguleas said his father was an excellent mentor and he was very fortunate to have learned the business from him. “We had a superb team at Sun World. My dad was very good at identifying good people and hiring them. Personally, working with him wasn’t without its challenges, but we had different skill sets which complemented each other.”

After selling Sun World in the mid 1990s to an investor group that allowed the company to reorganize and emerge from some difficult financial times, Mr. Marguleas continued to be active in the industry. He still was a grower and launched a mail-order business called “Howard’s Choice,” in which he supplied customers with top produce items through the mail. On one of his ranches in Southern California, he grew mangos and was always promoting them as the only California mangos on the market.

Mr. Marguleas’ reputation as a leader in U.S. agribusiness was well founded, serving under California Govs. Edmund G. Brown and Ronald Reagan as a member of the California State Board of Agriculture. He was a long-time philanthropist and was involved in many education and community organizations.

During his career, Mr. Marguleas served on various corporate boards, including The Irvine Co., Sun World and Ready Pac Foods. He also was chairman of the board of the California State Chamber of Commerce.

Spezzano recalled that he was quick to open his wallet and “always willing to support whatever cause was important to you. He was a great guy.”