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Always growing: Fresh Direct Produce celebrates 20 years

Global produce powerhouse celebrates two decades of success in 2023
Fresh Direct Produce vancouver team
Fresh Direct Produce's dedicated Vancouver team

For two decades and counting, Fresh Direct Produce has brought a world of produce to Canadians’ plates. It all started in 2003, when Davis Yung and his partners, Albert Lum and the late Kam Chiu Lee, co-founded their ambitious produce business in Vancouver. 

The trio had a collective passion for the produce industry and a vision to source the best that nature has to offer from around the globe. Fresh Direct Produce (FDP) started with just 11 employees and two trucks serving the local market and has been growing strong ever since. 

Today, FDP is a leading fresh produce importer, marketer and distributor, with more than 430 employees, an ever-expanding fleet of trucks that covers B.C. to Ontario, and thousands of products sourced from a global network of growers. 

The company is truly a one-stop shop with an offering that includes ethnic, tropical, specialty, organic and conventional produce; fresh-cut and repackaged fruits and veggies; and snacks and grocery items. In addition to its headquarters and distribution centre in Vancouver, FDP has repacking and ripening centres in Vancouver and Calgary, a fresh-cut processing centre in Victoria, and distribution in Toronto. 

After 19 years at the helm, Yung retired from the President and CEO role in 2022, transitioning to the Board of Directors. David Lawrence – a 17-year produce industry veteran – has stepped into the CEO role as FDP celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and begins its next growth chapter. 

“The produce industry is evolving, and the opportunities that change brings are exciting and invigorating and ultimately what brought me to Fresh Direct Produce,” says Lawrence. “There’s a lot of room for growth and a growing appetite for fresh produce. We have the right resources to take advantage of this space and satisfy the demand that’s coming.” 

Below, Lawrence shares what brought him to FDP, his leadership style, and some of the company’s biggest strengths.

fresh direct produce management team
The Vancouver Fresh Direct Produce management team

How did you get into the produce industry? 

After various senior roles in manufacturing, I was asked to rehabilitate a 100-year-old apple and cherry packager in Yakima, Washington. I spent eight years there, reinventing the company and generating successful returns. Then and now, the apple industry continues to go through radical change, which makes for challenging but rewarding leadership needs. From there, I was recruited into the pecan business as CEO of National Pecan in Dallas. For the last five years, I was President of Taylor Farms Northwest, the Seattle wholly-owned subsidiary in the ready-to-eat (RTE) fresh food deli business, which made everything from fresh-cut fruit and salads, to sandwiches and lobster mac'n cheese for major grocer stores and other retail partners. 

What attracted you to Fresh Direct Produce? 

The people and the ownership [private equity firm PNC Riverarch Capital]. I’ve worked for private equity firms in the past and know you need a supportive and resourceful group that understands the nuances of the industry. Produce is an old industry with many established ways of doing things. It’s important to have a relationship with ownership, where they give you room to work with the people in the organization to get the job done. That’s what attracted me to Fresh Direct. And that has always been my stock: to get people involved and give them the responsibility and authority to make it happen. 

What are you most proud of in your career? 

Coaching and mentoring people I’ve worked with who responded to the need for change. My approach is to coach people on how to embrace, analyze and drive positive change in industries where a “this is always how it is done” mentality can impede progress. This ties into my leadership style, which is inclusive, not dictatorial. There are two kinds of leaders: bosses who tell people what to do and true leaders who say, “Let’s go do that.” I’m not a boss who barks orders, but a coach and mentor. That’s not to say I come in with all the answers, but I do challenge with tough questions.

What do you see as the biggest strengths of the company? 

When it comes to serving our retail and foodservice partners, flexibility is one of our biggest strengths. We know not all customers are the same. We try to understand specifically what each customer needs and present them with new ideas, not just quiz them about what they need to restock. Thirty years ago, nobody thought they needed a personal computer, but tech companies taught us and showed us that we do. It’s the same idea here: We have an opportunity and a responsibility to show our customers products that could help them expand their offerings and drive sales. We must constantly understand the customer’s and consumer’s needs and not just try to sell them another five-pound bag of oranges. Another strength is our team’s attitude toward embracing improvements. It can be challenging for people to embrace change because we’re creatures of habits. Even when we go to the grocery store, we probably buy the same apple we’ve bought our whole lives. At Fresh Direct, the acceptance of continuous change is off the charts. It may be part of the culture [co-founder] Davis Yung fostered, but everyone here is interested in getting ahead, doing better and standing out. They like winning.

Read Fresh Direct Produce's full story in the March/April 2023 issue of Canadian Grocer (page 73).

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