Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Vacaville's Mariani savors 100 years in business

Sweet success
Mariani savors 100 years in business

By Catherine Moy/Special to The Reporter

From humble roots at a small farm in Cupertino, a company has grown to supply 90 percent of United States supermarkets and more than 22 countries around the world with quality dried fruit.

Mariani Packing Co., which moved its headquarters from San Jose to Vacaville in 2001, is not just surviving - it's thriving. But the future isn't the only thing the Mariani family is focused on as it marks its 100th year of business.

Instead, Mark A. Mariani, chairman and CEO of the family-owned business, pays tribute to his grandfather's vision. Paul A. Mariani Sr. had a simple philosophy when he launched the firm, his grandson proudly proclaimed as he pointed to the back of his business card, which is inscribed with the motto: "Our company values: Mutual respect; we embrace change; continuous improvement; never compromise on quality; and build for the future."

It's a philosophy that has paid off. Mariani now employs 350 people and annually distributes 125 million pounds of dried fruit around the world. The firm recorded $105 million in sales during its latest fiscal year. It has four California plant sites and last year opened its first international plant in Thailand.

"Our strong family values and beliefs have been the foundation of our business since the beginning, and we will continue as we look forward to the future," said George Sousa Jr., president of Mariani Packing Co., in the company newsletter.

"A family business can only survive on trust," Mark Mariani added.

The Mariani family celebrated its centennial year on Tuesday with its extended family, which includes farmers, employees, bankers and buyers from as far away as Asia. About 350 people attended the sit-down dinner at the company's Vacaville headquarters, where displays of the family's heritage told the story of a modest man who emigrated to the United States and started what is now the largest independent dried fruit company in the world.

"It is a story that can be told a million times over," Mark Mariani told his guests on Tuesday night.

The Beginning

Paul A. Mariani Sr., left his home in Yugoslavia to live in America in the early 1900s. He had lived in a small town, Komiza, on the island of Vis.

"It was all rock," said George Sousa Sr., vice chairman of Mariani Packing.

He worked in New York as a dishwasher.

"He loved land - loved property," Sousa said.

Paul Mariani Sr., eventually moved west and, after the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he found the rich soils of Cupertino. Here, he could start a business. In 1906, the Mariani family business was born.

"They built a legacy," Mark Mariani said.

His grandfather worked the land and began selling his fruit, even importing it to Asia where cherries were a commodity. More important were his relationships with suppliers and buyers.

Both Mark Mariani and his cousin, Sousa, remember the wise words of their grandfather that stay with them today as they grow the family business: "My bond is my word."

He weathered the bumps and starts of other farmers. Torrential rains in 1918 destroyed his crop, so he relied on his strong partnerships with suppliers to get his family through the disaster.

Because Paul Mariani Sr., was dealing internationally, other events affected business. World War II forced him to stop exports to Germany and other countries not allied with the U.S. But the end of the war spurred different lifestyles that included packaged foods, such as TV dinners. This helped the Mariani family market their packaged fruit.

Technology and Growth

The family worked in all aspects of the business and in the early 1940s, Paul Mariani, Jr., came up with a process using enzyme inhibitors allowing fruit to remain moist after drying. Before this innovation, dried fruit had to be reconstituted in water before consumption.

Like his father, Paul was not afraid to try something new, "embrace change." Paul also devised the first Mariani brand retail package.

"This changed the character of the company," Mark Mariani said. "It started our brand."

Other family members carried the banner with their own innovations.

Under Mark Mariani's direction, the company in 1995 revolutionized dried fruit merchandising by designing and introducing the first stand-up, zip-lock packages.

"This innovation changed the way dried fruit is merchandised in retail grocery and produce departments," according to the Mariani Message, the business's newsletter.

Through the century of business, the Marianis say they have always gone back to the backbone of their grandfather's grand vision: trust. The company works hard to maintain good relationships with business partners, like the one that helped its founder survive through the rains of 1918.

Mark Mariani, who has headed the company since 1979, handwrites responses to every person who sends the company a note. Like his grandfather who never had a desk so he could spend his time talking with others at theirs, Mark keeps the company grounded with personal relationships, he said.

Mark and the family moved the headquarters for their company to Vacaville in 2001 so it would have plenty of elbow room to grow. Mariani Packing took over the building that used to house American Home Foods and now operates on 18 acres under roof.

The Mariani clan chose Vacaville because its leaders opened their arms to the company, as did the community. Half of the fruit used by Mariani comes from Northern California, so the location makes sense.

Looking out for its employees, whom they said they consider to be family, the Marianis also liked the idea that more workers could afford homes in Solano County than in Silicon Valley. The move has been a good fit for the company, its leaders said.

The future will likely bring more innovations and more reach into international markets. But on this 100th anniversary of their business, the Marianis reflect on their success as a family legacy that has prospered by following their patriarch's early lessons.

"There is no greater joy than a family business that works," Mark Mariani said

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