Willie Itule Produce celebrates 40 years of growing green

Business News | 12 May |

Willie Itule Produce planted its roots in 1979, and the company has been offering fresh, affordable produce to help Arizonans — kids and adults alike  — eat healthier ever since.

Co-founders Willie and Lynn Itule also have additional roles at the company; Willie is the president and Lynn is the CFO. The husband and wife pride themselves on being a family business, as their three adult children are a part of the company.

Willie Itule Produce stemmed in part from Willie’s experience in produce. His family has been in various aspects of produce in Arizona since the 1920s, Lynn says. Because he had grown up around produce, he thought there could be a possibility to take over his father’s business. Willie graduated from Santa Clara University in California, then worked in the San Francisco produce market for three years. Eventually, he decided he wanted to start his own business and returned to Nogales, Arizona, the “Wall Street” of produce, Lynn says.

“When we started out, there were a lot of family-owned businesses, probably 20 or 25, and the first biggest change we saw was that as those old-timers began to get older and pass away, their businesses ended and in those days, people didn’t want their children to go into the produce industry,” Lynn says. Those older produce business owners helped mentor Willie and Lynn as they began their business; as Lynn says, there weren’t a lot of younger people in the produce industry. “As we’ve continued to grow, things have continued to change over the years. The Valley has grown tremendously, and we’ve worked our way up to where we’re at today,” Lynn says.

And grown they have. What started as a husband-and-wife team has expanded into a thriving business making a positive impact in the Arizona community.

“We started out with one pickup truck,” Willie says. “And like Lynn says, with the mentoring of the people who were friends with my father, having them take us under their wing, they rented us a small warehouse, and we started out where Talking Stick Resort Arena is, and that’s how we got going in the food service distribution part of the business.”

They’ve grown the company from humble beginnings. Willie and Lynn, a small warehouse, a small pickup truck 40 years ago, transformed into over 120 employees, an 80,000 sq. ft. distribution center, and 45-50 refrigerated trucks delivering produce 7 days a week to restaurants, schools and institutions in Tucson, Flagstaff, Prescott and all of metro Phoenix.

Lynn says having their children involved in the business has been a contributing factor to the company’s success. “We’re a very strong family unit, and we are very blessed because we all like each other a lot, and there are a lot of tensions in running a business,” Lynn says. “For many years, we weren’t sure if our children were going to follow our footsteps or not. We never pressured them, so as they went to college and started graduating and deciding what they wanted to do, they expressed interest in coming back.” All three of their children have worked in the family business for over 10 years.

“Having our own personal family involved enables us to grow in different directions and as the industry has changed, we’ve been able to embrace new things like technology, different contract business and different groups… It’s wonderful to know that the business will go on and that the children are really invested in it,” Lynn says.

Their focus on family doesn’t just extend to their children, it extends to their employees as well.

Lynn says Willie Itule has about 30-40 people who have been with the company for over 20 or even 30 years.

Since their children wanted to be a part of building the business, Willie says they decided to make a huge decision and investment. The business had been based in downtown Phoenix for 35 years, and as their children started becoming involved, they wanted to elevate the business. The way to do that? They moved to a state-of-the-art 80,000 sq. ft. distribution center in Phoenix.

“We moved from the old location five years ago to a space now that we feel increases our children’s potential as our careers wind down,” Willie says. “It’s a space where they can have a future with a good foundation as they take the business to the next level, hopefully for the next 40-50 years.”

In addition to growing the legacy of the business, Willie Itule Produce has also increased the amount of products they handle on a daily basis; 40 years ago they handled about 100 products, today they handle anywhere from 600-800. They distribute a full line of produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, onions etc. and a specialty line that includes exotic fruits, organics, micro greens and hybrid products. Although they have significantly increased the products they handle, Willie Itule is committed to ensuring all their products meet the utmost food safety and fresh standards.

“Food safety has become a huge proponent of the produce industry, and we’ve taken that to the highest level that you can,” Willie says. “We’ve seen major growth in the produce industry and throughout Arizona and the U.S. with the consumer eating more fresh fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.”

For six months of the year, almost 50 percent of produce distributed nationwide is grown in Arizona (Yuma and Nogales). When in season, Willie Itule Produce buys from Arizona growers, which supports the Arizona economy and farming community, a major focus of the company. When the Arizona growing season stops, they source product from California and Mexico.

Willie Itule Produce is also active in the community, hosting an annual pop-up dinner that spotlights local chefs and vendors, and a partnership with St. Mary’s Food Bank. Lynn says they try to be receptive and responsive to requests and are often asked to participate, such as donating fruit for local schools’ sports league practices and other large activities.

In addition, their son Billy manages the company’s business with school districts that focus on healthy eating initiatives and various opportunities. “When we were in school, there was no such thing as a salad bar in the cafeteria. Nowadays, children across the state have tremendous options on what they can choose on a daily basis and we’re happy to be a part of that,” Lynn says.

“We care and want to be an active, positive participant in the community. Our children have taken that to heart and each have interests that they bring to the company,” Lynn says.

Billy is responsible for overseeing all corporate accounts and relationships with management companies, Andy is the company’s facilities and fleet expert and assists with day-to-day operations, and Jessie oversees the accounting and finance department.

The Itules describe themselves as hands-on owners and are in the office almost every day. “If you call here, you can speak to one of us, and if you have a problem, we want to be there to address it and deal with it,” Lynn says. “We have a tremendous commitment to our family, community, faith and our employees — we are who we are because of our employees.

“We take great pride in every single solitary thing that leaves this facility, we offer what we consider to be the freshest product at the best price and excellent service. We’re proud of who we are and what we do, and I hope we represent that each and every day.”

The one regret Willie has over the past 40 years? The name of the business. “If I could make one change, it would be Willie and Lynn Itule Produce because she’s been the backbone of the business,” Willie says. “I get a lot of the glory with the name out there, but you know what, it’s been a great 40 years. As a team, we’ve put together something that means a lot, not only to our family, but hopefully for the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona.”

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