Packer 25 2020 — John Toner

Packer 25 2020 — John Toner

In his 21 years at the United Fresh Produce Association, John Toner has long played a central role in bringing the produce industry together for the United Fresh Expo.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw roadblocks up to traditional industry meetings began in mid-March.

Meeting that challenge, Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration, helped bring to life United Fresh’s first-ever virtual expo in June.?

In 1999, after studying economics, Toner was working at a supermarket in the chain’s management program. On his days off from retail, Monday and Tuesday each week, he worked as an accounting temp.

United Fresh brought him on in that role in September on what was supposed to be eight-day project, spread over four weeks. When Toner finished the job in about half that time, he was sent home. United Fresh executives made a note of his work ethic, however.

As a 22-year old, Toner was not excited when he was told in early December 1999 that he would be opening a supermarket at 6 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000. He turned in his two-week notice and his last day at Safeway was Dec. 30.?

Immediately after that, Jeff Oberman, then director of sales and marketing for United Fresh, brought Toner into the office to interview for a job as a combination accounting assistant and exhibition coordinator. He won the job.

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh, said the United staff know Toner was “more of a people person than a numbers guy,” so he was moved full-time into the association’s convention department. ?

“The rest, as they say, is history as he’s helped lead our convention and industry partnerships through multiple innovations over the years,” he said.?

“John has an innate curiosity, reading incessantly about members’ businesses, industry trends, and looking for new opportunities to support business-to-business connections across our supply chain.”

Toner says he has learned that relationships come first in the fresh produce business. And where relationships lead, business opportunities follow.

“At the end of the day, the produce industry is first of all good people, and they work hard,” he said. “I like working with volunteers and helping people achieve something greater than themselves.”

Few industries value family as much as the fresh produce industry, and that gives it an identity like no other, Toner said.

In switching to the United Fresh LIVE! digital show in 2020, Toner deflects credit to other United Fresh leaders.

“That was a team effort,” he said. “When I look back at March, April, May and June, I can’t think of a greater time in the history of United that brought the United team together, and it was a privilege to bring the produce industry together.”?

Toner said the entire United Fresh team took great pride in being able to rally and present a first-ever digital event.

It wasn’t perfect, but with a 12-week lead time, the group pulled it off, Toner said.?

“You look at the government relations team, the food safety team, the industry relations team, the marketing team, we all came together to support the industry,” he said.?

“I’m forever grateful for the industry to stepping up and supporting us in our efforts.”

In nearly a decade spent in United Fresh volunteer leadership positions, Fred Williamson, president of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, said he witnessed Toner grow professionally.

Toner has learned from industry mentors and continues to grow, Williamson said.

“I like the way he’s matured because he is such a good guy to be around.”?

Toner said the best days for the industry and United Fresh are ahead. Not knowing what is around the corner can be stressful, but Toner said a lesson learned from his grandfather rings true.

“If you don’t try skiing down that double black diamond, you’re never going to know what you’re capable of,” he said. “We can all stick to the green circles and be OK, but you got to try to go down to black diamonds and see what you’re made of.”

More from The Packer 25 2020:

Packer 25 2020 James Harris

Packer 25 2020 Rich Gonzales