While this past year has created an atmosphere of upheaval and uncertainty around the world, it has also generated an unprecedented awareness of the importance of personal health and wellbeing, including the need for healthy, nourishing food. With more than 40 years of experience distributing fresh produce on the East Coast, the multinational Exp Group out of New Jersey has the necessary skills, proficiency and knowledge to provide a wide, delicious range of fresh fruits and vegetables from Central and South America to satisfy the demands of even the most discerning customers.
Founded by Emil Serafino with an eye toward product quality and safety, The Exp Group has forged an impressive network of production, importation and distribution that meets the company’s high standards and exceeds market requirements. For Emil’s son, Executive Vice President Anthony Serafino, this past year has also been about company growth and the evolving business.
“2020 has been a year about steady and controlled fiscal growth,” he says. “Ownership and all top executives at this company feel that it’s our fiduciary responsibility as a business to position our company for the ever-changing landscape that is the produce and food industry.”
The past year has been an interesting and tumultuous one for a lot of people, he says, but more importantly it’s been a year of uncertainty regarding produce and food trends. One of the biggest changes he’s seen is the consumer’s ever-evolving desire to be more health-conscious.
“Unfortunately this pandemic has affected people of different ethnicities and different economic backgrounds — it doesn’t discriminate,” says Serafino. “People want to have an overall healthier lifestyle. We’ve taken good nutritionists and products and put them at the forefront of the retailer. We’re positioning our businesses to invest in produce that is rich in minerals and nutrients and overall is good for your body.”
The Exp Group’s commitment to staying contemporary means investing in its supply chain to ensure its consumers, customers, and clientele are properly supplied with the best — and healthiest — produce from around the world. And this also means all-natural.
“These are not supplements that are genetically produced, these aren’t GMOs,” says Serafino. “This is traditional produce that we’re distributing.”
The company’s dedication to continually adding SKUs and its business model of reaching different retailers has led to larger wholesalers saying they like The Exp Group’s mission and the culture they’re building around produce, and subsequently want to buy that produce to distribute and sell in their own stores.
“It facilitates our growth to believe in what you sell, and that starts from the top,” Serafino says. “It starts from not only the principals and ownership of this company, but high-level executives and anyone who works for us. We’re a team here and everyone needs to breathe the same brand mission because in this industry it’s not just people that sit behind a desk or people that drive our produce to different clients and customers, or pack our produce. It’s not just here at the facility in North Bergen, New Jersey; it’s all our suppliers around the world.”
That trickle-down mission mentality is how the company has facilitated its growth and upheld its core statement values.
“There are three things we preach at this company: common sense, character, and creativity. Those three Cs embody one big C, and that’s culture,” says Serafino. “That’s so important for us because a produce company is a brand, but more importantly it’s products that everyone can get behind.”
Serafino loves his work in part because of his belief in the knowledge that people around the country of different ethnicities and backgrounds are connected through their need for and love of food. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, where you live – there’s a very high percentage you consume fruit and you consume vegetables.”
Embracing the culture of the company has also meant protecting employees whenever possible. This past year there were no layoffs, and in fact, new employees have been hired. Despite the uncertainty the pandemic has wrought, The Exp Group has managed to pull together and move steadily forward.
“Everyone is important here,” Serafino says, “not only the ones that sit behind a desk but the ones that are out in the warehouse, the ones delivering our merchandise at 5:30 in the morning, the ones coming back from the port picking up merchandise that we import. In this business you have a slew of different people.”
Continuing to invest in people means the company can also continue to invest in business, and that business means investments, primarily in some different commodities in Mexico. Along with the Mexican Maradol papaya, there is also a focus on avocados and Roma and Plum tomatoes.
“You’re seeing a lot of people come to this country from different parts of the world and Mexico is obviously a country we’re seeing a lot of immigration from,” he says. “As people move, they bring their culture and what they eat with them. That’s very important that we as a company stay contemporary and ahead of the changing climate in the changing demographics of this country.”
Changing demographics means, for example, more Americans consuming food like a yuca instead of a starchy potato. Yuca is a healthier option, says Serafino, and public knowledge and awareness and becoming more health-conscious leads to different, previously unfamiliar food choices.
“When uncertainty really hit early in the second quarter of 2020, I saw a lot of people consuming a lot of ginger. Why is that? It’s very good for your immune system. It’s very good to fight inflammation in your body. Turmeric is another very good source of that. Americans were [becoming] more conscious of what they were putting in their bodies.”
Along with diversifying its investments across the world, The Exp Group has invested in its trucking company, EXP Logistics. The company owns and operates 40 trucks in order to facilitate growth, delivery and access to the supply chain for customers.
“We’re growing, we’re packing, we’re shipping, we’re distributing and we’re delivering your produce on time,” Serafino says. “If we handle all aspects of the supply chain we can control the quality of the produce better.”
It is also the ongoing investment in its employees that Serafino views as one of the company’s biggest accomplishments. The pandemic has been stressful for everyone, but The Exp Group has remained dedicated to ensuring that not only do its workers keep their jobs, but that they feel safe and secure in continuing to work in an essential industry.
“It’s not a nine to five business; it’s not set hours. We’re done when we’re done. When we fulfill today’s duties and orders, we’re done for the day. Holidays and weekends are important: the Fourth of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving. In hospitality, they work holidays, and the produce industry is the same.”
Serafino explains that hiring at The Exp Group means selecting employees who are a fit for the position and a fit for the culture, not simply hiring someone to fill a position for six or seven months. He also stresses that same culture means Exp Group’s produce isn’t necessarily for everyone.
“If you’re looking for price we’re not for you. If you’re looking for quality of a product that your customers and your consumers are going to enjoy, then we’re for you. I’m not the cheapest person on the produce market; I’m a quality person first.”
The company also prides itself on giving back to the community whenever possible, including contributions this past year to City Harvest and other food banks.
“Being kind is free,” says Serafino. “Doing the right thing is free. Unfortunately, we’re in a world where people don’t always share those values. You can’t control other people, you can only control what you can control and that’s yourselves and the workplace you work in. We’re running our own race. We create our own path. It’s the path that my father created when he founded this company, and we have a lot of good people here that work with him. I’m definitely privileged to work my father each and every day,” he shares.
Indeed, the future looks bright for The Exp Group, with expected, continued growth while diversifying and maintaining its exceptional relationships with both employees and clients.
“I’ve always said my plan for this company is to be a multinational produce distribution conglomerate, to have many people work for our company that believe in the same brand and the same values that we do,” says Serafino. “When you can bring more people that work for you along for the ride to share in the growth and the journey together, that is so important.”
Despite the numerous challenges of the past year, Serafino remains proud of the company and its ongoing dedication to providing excellent, healthy produce while maintaining its outstanding culture.
“This past year was about realizing that you do or you don’t know if you have a great culture,” he says. “It was really rewarding when we kept building and branding our messages. We found customers that aligned with us. We found employees that aligned with us. When you see how far this business has come, it’s very rewarding to see.”