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East Coast Brokers and Packers

Surviving the Winds of Adversity

By Sandy Lindblad Lee

The Tomato Magazine
April 2006

Through the widespread evolution of the produce industry in recent years, the Florida tomato industry has been forced to make a number of staggering changes. Surviving unimaginable adversity has been nearly impossible for most.

As if the incomprehensible destruction resulting from more than their fair share of devastating hurricanes wasn’t enough, tomato growers have battled through instability created by volatile markets with record-breaking prices at both the high and low ends of the spectrum. Compounding the challenge has been amplified competition from foreign countries as well as greenhouse-grown tomato operations.

Despite these challenges, East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. has remained standing. As year-round growers, packers and shippers of round, roma and grape tomatoes, East Coast’s two primary packing and shipping facilities are located near Plant City, Fla., and Mappsville, Va.

These operations are continually upgraded to maximize fruit quality and packaging, according to Batista Madonia Sr., company founder, president and chief executive officer.
To accelerate its position among its competitors, two of East Coast Brokers and Packers’ newer enterprises are the addition of the Ruskin Vegetable Corp. packing facilities and select adjacent farmland in Ruskin, Fla., and a new greenhouse operation.

The long list of business decisions and other events that have shaped this thriving, immense operation has provided rich memories involving the entire Madonia family.

1958: A Banner Year
Reflecting back on their modest beginnings, Madonia remembers that 1958 was a banner year for two reasons: First, he married his college sweetheart, Evelyn, and second, he began his own produce business, Madonia Produce Exchange, based in Erie, Pa.

Immersing himself in the production, packing and shipping of locally grown tomatoes, Madonia soon realized he could enhance service to his growing customer base by making his product available beyond the summer months.

“That was when we started buying tomatoes from Florida, and we would have them shipped up to Pennsylvania,” he remembers. In 1958, Madonia’s first packing facility began operations.

“I remember when we unloaded the trucks by hand during a blizzard,” he smiles. He found himself struggling to handle the 60-pound, wire-bound containers of tomatoes. These were hand-packed, sorted and redistributed to regional markets including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Baltimore.

From the outset, his wife, Evelyn, was an integral part of the business. Among her earlier contributions, she created the design for the company’s original label, “King’s Choice” tomatoes, established in 1959. The highly recognized brand became the company’s trademark and remains today as the East Coast’s premium label.
In 1964, Madonia bought his first packing house, adjacent to a primary Pennsylvania growing region.

Home Schooled the Kids
As the Madonias’ passion for all aspects of the fresh tomato business grew, so did their family. Four children were born. When Madonia began traveling back and forth to Florida and remaining on-site during the winter months, he brought the family with him. Again, Evelyn played an integral role. With her teaching degree—she majored in English and minored in French—she tutored their children during the months they were in Florida.

“Because of our mother, we were able to go back to school after being gone a few months, and we were not just keeping up with the rest of the class—we were usually ahead,” recalls Stephen Madonia, a son and now vice president in charge of all company growing operations.

One of the most unfortunate events impacting the business was a fire that burned their packing house to the ground. It was caused from spontaneous combustion.
The family pushed forward, however, and for several years continued to move back and forth from their Pennsylvania home to Florida during the winter months for their tomato distribution business. This continued until 1980, when they made the Sunshine State their permanent residence.

Madonia established his company headquarters at a locale on the Plant City Farmers Market.

By the time the company was officially incorporated in 1985 as East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc, the second generation of Madonias was entering the business.

“At that point, (son) Stephen was running the packinghouse,” Madonia says. Before his attraction to the produce business lured him back to Florida, Stephen was a pre-med student at Gannon College in Erie, Pa.

Florida and West Virginia Operations
During the ensuing years, Stephen developed a passionate interest in the production side of the business and discovered that hands-on monitoring of the tomatoes during the growing process helped him to greatly improve the quality of the end product. One of the company’s initial ventures into growing in Florida was the addition of a 17-acre field near the Lakeland airport.

Also in 1985, the company snapped at an opportunity to add packing and shipping operations in West Virginia.

“We bought an old apple storage shed, which was all brick and had ammonia refrigeration,” Madonia remembers.

Daughter Rosemary began working with the family-run business following her graduation from Florida Southern in Lakeland, Fla., “and she’s been doing the payroll ever since,” says Evelyn. Today, Rosemary maintains a full administrative staff and holds the title of vice president and controller.

Batista Madonia Jr. joined the company in 1987, and began working in sales alongside Batista Sr. He is now sales manager and a vice president of the corporation.

A major expansion of East Coast’s summer operations occurred in 1998, when Madonia acquired a packing house from Gargiulo Inc. in Mappsville, Va., Inc. Gargiulo had utilized the nearly new facility for only three years prior to East Coast’s occupation.

“We’ve expanded the original building several times since then,” notes Batista Jr., and it now includes a 250-load storage capacity.

Also in the late 1990s, the purchase of 1,200 acres of land near Mulberry, Fla., was a major investment. The addition drew significant attention from East Coast’s competitors and customers alike.

The immense, state-of-the-art packing facility built on that site has one of the first computerized, precision optical tomato sorters in the Southeast. It also has a 280-load storage capacity.

This spring, East Coast Brokers and Packers added a new growing arrangement in Live Oak, Fla., south of Quincy. It provides a complement to the Florida production operations near Stuart and Parrish, along with the Ruskin Vegetable Corp. packing facility.

Added Hothouse Segment
The company’s most recent competitive, innovative step is its venture into hothouse tomato growing in Florida. In early February, construction began on 10 greenhouses, situated on land near the Mulberry packing facility. This move elevates East Coast into a leadership role and enables the company to compete, head-on, with hothouse-grown tomatoes from both domestic and international sources.

All said and done, the road to success for East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. has not been without a few bumps. Family members all have vivid recollections of times when they battled to survive.

“Every business has its ups and downs,” stresses Stephen. “You have to have a passion for what you’re doing.

“We keep a positive attitude. We have fires to put out every day, and each day provides a new challenge,” Batista Jr. smiles. “We’re not smart enough to figure out how to control the weather.

“At the same time, we try to grow a premium product and pack it in a secure, safe environment,” he adds. “Our premium quality has helped us gain long-time, stable customers. We try to treat our people well—our employees and our customers.”

Drawing from its established history and experience, East Coast Brokers and Packers appears well-positioned to move ahead, the family feels.

“We’re probably one of the firms in Florida’s tomato industry best-adapted for the future,” Batista Jr. says. “With our parents here to guide us, my brother, my sister and I are all young enough to keep doing this for another 20 years or so. Among all of us, we have over 200 years of combined experience in the tomato industry.”

© 2006 Columbia Publishing

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