At the ripe old age of 13, Michael Napolitano got his start in the produce industry by working under the supervision of his grandfather, who owned Samuel S. Napolitano Produce in Englewood, NJ.
During his senior year of high school, Napolitano’s grandfather suffered a stroke and was no longer able to operate the business, leaving him with no other choice but to take on a much larger leadership role, often times running the company as a one-man (or one-kid) show.
“It was tough,” recalled the now 28-year-old Napolitano. “I worked every day after school, and every Saturday and Sunday. It was a foodservice company, so I would go to the Hunts Point Terminal Market and pick up produce and take orders over the phone and would make deliveries and do inventory and divide orders.”
By the time high school graduation rolled around, it was time for the business to take a back seat so Michael could pursue a degree at Manhattan College, where he double majored in business finance and global business — both of which come in handy today in his role as a salesperson for Pompano Beach, FL-based HLB Specialties, which he joined in November 2015.
“I relocated from New York to Florida and was looking for opportunities in the same field that I was familiar with,” Napolitano said. “I checked out a couple of places and felt a small family business was definitely what I was used to and where I came from. I liked the people here and decided it was a good fit for me. It’s worked out great so far.”
Napolitano’s day-to-day responsibilities include forming new client relationships and continuing to keep up with existing ones, while also trying to add new items to the company’s line and grow business. In addition, he travels for some of the many produce shows throughout the year, such as the New York Produce Show and the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit.
“I love going to trade shows, particularly the New York Produce Show, because everyone in my family is in that area,” Napolitano told The Produce News.
While he acknowledges he misses his family now that he resides in Florida, Napolitano knows he can always count on them whenever he’s in need of some advice — both personal and professional.
“My father works in the same field, and so does my older brother,” he said. “I speak to them on a daily basis and they help to guide me.”
Not only do his father and brother both work in the produce industry, but so does his uncle, Peter Napolitano, who most people in the tri-state area know as “Produce Pete.”
“My uncle on my mother’s side does a morning segment on NBC,” said Peter Napolitano. “He also had a store in Bergenfield, New Jersey, which I worked for as well.”
Considering the Napolitano family’s long history in the produce industry, it’s safe to say that he has a good support system when it comes to career mentoring. One of the very first things he learned, he said, was that working in this industry can be quite unpredictable, especially considering Mother Nature’s whims, but that it’s important to push through the difficulties and continue to find new solutions. The harder the sale, the more rewarding the outcome, Napolitano added.
As for other challenging aspects of his job, Napolitano mentioned that his relatively young age can sometimes be a hindrance, but he’s learned to use it to his advantage.
“Because I’m younger, I feel I’m more moldable and I can learn and absorb more, which makes me able to adapt quickly,” he said. “But sometimes other people don’t feel I have as much experience or knowledge as other industry members.”
In order to combat that, Napolitano said he works with his colleagues who have been in the business for longer, and tries to soak up as much info as he can from them.
But despite the difficulties, at the end of the day, Napolitano said it all comes down to making his customers happy — something that’s been important to him since he first began working in the industry.
“Providing a product that customers are happy with and seeing my product on the shelves, going to the end-consumer, or seeing and hearing about customers who are satisfied with the product and actually eating it, is the most rewarding part,” he concluded.