Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

Providing the world with tasty, nutritious sweet potatoes
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Elizabeth Towne

In 1942, Harold Precythe established the first fresh produce shipping rail market in eastern North Carolina. Sourcing product from regional farms, Harold sought to provide the Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states with fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. Harold came from a long line of local farmers and leveraged his experience to find high-quality produce while helping to bolster opportunities for North Carolina growers.

Harold’s shipping business has expanded to become Southern Produce Distributors Inc. (SPD), a large, family-owned and –operated business that connects consumers worldwide with the best sweet potatoes and peppers in the world.

The family tradition continues. Harold’s son and grandson have proudly taken SPD’s reigns; second-generation Stuart, president and CEO, works alongside his son, third-generation Kelley, vice president of SPD, who handles sales and build relationships with growers.

Furthermore, Sterling Cook, CFO, grew up with the Precythe family. While he is not related by blood, he is considered another son and member of the company’s third generation of family operation. Sterling leads business development for the company, with a background serving eight years working with large financial institutions.

Sweet potatoes, sweeter value

“We have made a name as pioneers in the sweet potato industry,” Sterling explains. “Until the late 1990s, our business was more diversified, selling a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Stewart saw real potential in North Carolina sweet potatoes for the future of the business and decided to shift focus.”

Now, SPD serves as growers and contract grower, as well as a processor, packer and shipper. The company is a major supplier for chain stores, up and down the East Coast and west to Texas. Approximately 25 percent of the company’s revenue comes through exporting sweet potatoes internationally to the United Kingdom, U.S. Army supply overseas, Spain, France and Israel, among a growing footprint of countries served.

The business grows produce on more than 10,000 acres of land. Approximately, 90 percent of revenue is from sweet potatoes, with the top three varieties are Covington, Beauregard and Hernandez. The business also processes bell peppers sourced from all over the world and supplies pickle companies for relish. Food safety is a major priority for SPD.

Relationships have been an important component of the business’ success over the years. Sterling and the team work closely with growers to make sure those transactions are beneficial to both sides. In-house, employees take personal accountability for food safety and quality. These factors come together to provide a seamless experience for customers. According to management, the company thrives on repeat business.

Investing in the future

SPD has faced many of the same challenges as others in the food industry over the last decade. Instability in the economy has amplified the problems facing many business owners. “We have had to work hard to move beyond the obstacles,” Sterling explains. “It is hard to get good labor at a decent cost. There has been a lot of talk about raising minimum wage and many employers will not be able to afford it. The price of fuel has gone up and we have to find ways to make up that added cost. Foreign competition has risen, as well. Everyone is learning to grow their own produce. We have been able to challenge that competition with a year-round supply, though we find that local products can be provided at a lower cost. We strive to set ourselves apart with the quality of our products.”

To combat these threats to business, SPD is seeking to expand its target market. “We are building up our own growing operations and supporting the growth of our contract growers,” Sterling says. “We are looking at some new applications for our products. On the processing end, there are opportunities with pet food, baby food and items such as french fries. We also want to launch ourselves more into food service supply.”

As the business grows, quality and safety remain at the forefront of the operation. SPD has a full time director of food safety with his own staff. The business has passed the Primus Audit and is seeking Global Gap certification. While supporting safety improvement, SPD is also working within the industry to promote better education and technology. The company is partnered with the University of North Carolina and helps to fund the Henry Covington Foundation, both of which are making great contributions to the food system and related businesses.

Looking ahead, Sterling and his team are set on a path of continued growth. In the coming years, the team has plans to revamp the company’s packing facility and adding more storage to accommodate increasing volume. The business is taking on growth from both ends, by reaching out to new potential markets and customers while backing up its marketing efforts with improvements on the production end. With a strong focus on healthy, safe, tasty food and strong customer communication, Southern Produce Distributors Inc. is building a sweet future in the international produce market.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Duplin County Economic Development Commission
Hagan Electronics