The 2017 Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award recipient is Giovanni LiDestri, CEO of Fairport-based LiDestri Food & Drink.
The company manufactures sauces and dips, spirits and wine-based beverages, juices and flavored-water beverages. It has manufacturing facilities in Fairport, Rochester, California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and employs roughly 1,300 people, including 900 locally. The firm ranked second on the most recent RBJ list of Food and Beverage Manufacturers.
The award—in its 33rd year—honors individuals who develop a business that helps to improve Rochester’s economy, or how the innovation and entrepreneurship of those individuals help to change an existing company in the area. It is named after the late philanthropist Herbert Vanden Brul, who was one of the founders of RF Communications, now a division of Harris Corp. It is presented by the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.
LiDestri, known as John, hails from Tusa, Sicily. He started working as a bottle washer in a Ragu Foods pasta sauce facility, quickly rising through the ranks. In 1976, he was recruited to be general manager of Cantisano Foods. He eventually took over the firm and renamed it in the 1990s.
“I just feel that I’m like the cheerleader of things and it’s really the people around us that deserve all the credit,” he said. “All of the hard work is really done by the people behind the leaders as far as I’m concerned. I’m humbled and honored, but I certainly wish there would be a better way to recognize the thousands of hours and the tens of thousands of hours or millions of hours over the years that go into making a successful company.”
While building his business, LiDestri has come to know Rochester well. The people of Rochester have one characteristic in spades: work ethic, he said.
“I really feel that it’s a rarity from the standpoint of the work ethic that we have here in Upstate New York, especially in Rochester,” he said. “In some ways everybody complains about the weather, but I think that it kind of helps because when you’re in the sun you’re not focused, and that’s why I think that Rochester is right up there in number of patents… what else are people going to do?”
Since taking the role of CEO in 1997, LiDestri has kept himself accountable for remaining relevant and being an innovator, he said.
“You’re not satisfied with the status quo—I’m wired that way, it’s in the genes—which is a curse and a benefit because you’re never quite satisfied with what’s going on and you always try to look forward,” LiDestri said. “You need to be always looking over your shoulder to make sure that you’re not falling behind.
“But also probably more importantly in my case is there is really a sense of pride in being innovative and changing the industry. We have done a lot of that in our field,” he added.
One way the firm innovated in the past few years is by reducing the waste of shipping products, and by using a thinner, more efficient glass for sauces. Rethinking the shipping process by using shrink wrap and trays versus cardboard inserts was one example of the firm’s desire to improve and embrace change.
“One of my tenets is, as long as you’re not betting the farm, it’s necessary that you do” innovate, LiDestri said. “Otherwise sooner or later somebody is going to bypass you. The whole enterprise will become irrelevant one way or the other.”
Another company change? Enter the beverage market. That move paid off, LiDestri said.
“To me, it’s just part and parcel of running an enterprise that you should never really stand still,” he said. “If you are in a category where there is no innovation then you better make your own innovation, going to another alike or related business just like we did when we went into beverages.”
By having an open mind, LiDestri came upon a segment of business that not only fit well with its current offering but also was easier in some ways, he said.
“It was kind of funny because I said, ‘wait a minute, we’re selling pasta sauce with all of these ingredients and everything else and I see that beverages are selling basically water and they’re getting a lot more money than I’m getting for a jar of pasta sauce. What am I crazy? What am I doing here?’” he said.
Being a leader means being an innovator. Companies need people at the top to continue to adapt the vision of their firms, LiDestri said.
“To me it’s not a stretch. It kind of comes naturally because I get bored very easily,” he said. “And I say, ‘oh, come on, there’s gotta be something more than this to life.’ And when things go too well, I get antsy anyway, so I’ve got to stir up the pot somewhere.”
Behind every leader are a lot of hardworking people. That is a major reason that LiDestri Food & Drink has thrived.
“I am so beholden to each and every employee that they show up every day, that they work every day,” LiDestri said. “They’re the ones that are really making it happen. As a capitalist society, I do not know that we appreciate the people that actually do the work as much as we, and we can never, ever forget that.”
The award ceremony is slated for June 28 at Oak Hill Country Club. Saunders College Dean Jacqueline Mozrall and LiDestri will be giving remarks at the event.
The 2016 award recipient was Thomas Bonadio, CEO and managing partner of the Bonadio Group.
Past winners of the award include John Smith, chairman and CEO at Brite Computers; Ron Ricotta, president and CEO of Century Mold Inc.; Mike Nuccitelli, president and CEO of Parlec Inc.; Robert Morgan, founder and CEO of Morgan Management LLC; Ernest Del Monte, CEO of E.J. Del Monte Corp.; and Doug and Jim Brush, chairman and CEO of Sentry Group.
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