Growing up on a family farm in South Jersey, Fred Sorbello learned early about the value of hard work, respect and reaching for the proverbial stars.

Fred Sorbello, left, president and chief executive officer of The Mullica Hill Group Companies, is joined by Jeremy Conner, chief executive officer of Mount Laurel, N.J.-based National Energy Partners LLC, at the groundbreaking for the world’s largest dual-axis robotic solar field.
Fred Sorbello, left, president and chief executive officer of The Mullica Hill Group Companies, is joined by Jeremy Conner, chief executive officer of Mount Laurel, N.J.-based National Energy Partners LLC, at the groundbreaking for the world’s largest dual-axis robotic solar field.

Today, as president and chief executive officer of The Mullica Hill Group Companies, Sorbello has realized the fruits of his labor, leading an enterprise that is the largest U.S. receiver of meat imports, with nearly 14 million cubic feet of temperature-controlled facilities, extensive value-added operations, its own fleet of trucks and refrigerated trailers, and a soon-to-open innovative solar energy installation. Not only is Sorbello active with Mullica Hill’s interests in the South Jersey towns of Mullica Hill and Pedricktown, each about 25 miles south of Philadelphia, but he is engaged in the Ship Philly First initiative to promote and support business through the Ports of Philadelphia.

In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, Sorbello shares how his roots have shaped his life.

People from other states might not realize that it’s possible to grow up on a peach farm in New Jersey, as you did. What was that like and how do you believe it helped shape your life?

Growing up on the farm and raising fresh fruit and produce was very instrumental in the development of our cold storage company. When you’re handling your own perishable commodity, you obviously want to perform at the highest level for your own product’s shelf life.

Being a grower allowed us to understand the 12 months of work that went into creating the box of fruit. A lot of people look at a box of fruit just strictly as a commodity, and that value that we’ve learned – including pruning the trees, thinning the trees, spraying the trees, packing the fruit – you realize there’s 12 months worth of work that went into that box of fruit.

So, when we build cold storages for our partners overseas, we apply those lessons that you learn. When you look at a box of fruit from Chile or South Africa or wherever, or a box of meat from New Zealand, Australia or Uruguay, you realize and appreciate these aren’t just boxes of commodities. They are more or less the fruits of a lot of hard labor and time that went into making those cartons.

What we learned on the farm was urgency, care and custody of those commodities and a deeper appreciation for all the commodities stored and entrusted to us.

In the case of beef, my son, Dan, who’s now director of North America meats for us, really didn’t have that experience growing up on a farm, so we sent Dan overseas and he lived in Australia for three months. The intention there was to realize that a carton of meat is not a box of meat. It was an animal, and all the process it had to go through to become a box of beef. He now has a different appreciation for a carton of meat, as well as everything else we store.

We kind of value what we learned from the farm and we apply it to all the different commodities that we handle today.

In August 2013, we became the first company to join AGRO Merchants Group LLC, an international refrigerated network that now includes 17 companies throughout Europe, North America and South America. Our focus for this organization is North America meats.

Growing up in a family business, and particularly as the founder’s eldest son, has no doubt been both gratifying and challenging for you. What have you enjoyed the most about being in a family business and in what ways has it been difficult?

Probably what you enjoy the most is building the legacy or continuing the legacy of the family business and know where your roots were, where you originated, and how the business has evolved.

All our children started here at the age of 8 years old. We put them to work early, even if that meant they were just running around the warehouse and goofing off more time than they were actually working. It was just making them feel they were part of something special here.

In addition to Dan, my daughter, Alexandra, was director of our quality department and just recently stepped down and had her first child a couple months ago – my second grandson. My youngest son, Nathan, who’s only 19, has been working here since the age of 8 as well, is pursuing his college degree [at Rowan College at Gloucester County] and at some point will be a fulltime member of the business as well. We try to let them determine where they best fit and what values they can bring to the company.

As far as difficult, it’s the long hours. We’re all 80-hours-a-week people, so, even though we see each other quite often at work, sometimes we don’t get to spend as much quality time as we’d like as a family unit, because we’re all so dedicated to the success of the company. So that’s the downside.

We don’t take vacations together, because we feel like not all of us can be in one spot together at the same time, so, when we do it, we really cherish it, because it’s not as often as maybe a typical family would get together. It’s a very large-scale international business that we have today, so it’s fulltime. It never stops.

When you assumed management of the company, you undertook multiple expansions and implemented rigorous quality control standards. What precipitated these moves and how have they proven successful?

Back in 1993, we got into food safety and food security, long before those became buzzwords. What we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from our competitors. So we drew up our first quality manual – it might have been all of eight pages, right? But those eight pages laid the groundwork for what would become a very robust quality system here that has grown into a fulltime department.

In 1999, we became the first refrigerated warehouse company in the country to become ISO-certified [International Organization for Standardization-certified], and then later, in 2012, we became SQF-certified [Safe Quality Food-certified].

It was a business originally founded by my mother and father [Rose and Sam Sorbello], who planted peaches in 1960 and built their first cold storage building in 1964. We took it over in 1990 and expanded it in ’90, had another expansion in ’93, did it again in ’95, ’98, ’99, 2001, 2004, 2008 [a 126,000-square-foot cold storage facility in Pedricktown, N.J.] and, most recently, in 2014, with another 130,000 square feet in Pedricktown. So we’ve been on a rapid growth since 1990.

And we’re just completing the world’s largest dual-axis robotic solar field, where 20 robots go around to each of the panels and actually twist and turn the panels 40 times a day to make sure it’s getting the peak performance from the solar rays, much the way a sunflower follows the course of the sun during a day. It will provide about 70 percent of the energy needs for the Mullica Hill complex.

The reason for the growth – and again I’m going to go back to the farm – has been hard work, where, on the farm, you’ve got to go 100 hours a week, and we bring that same ethic to the warehouse business and being very innovative with food safety and security. We market ourselves as being in the business of protecting our clients’ brands. Hence, we do business with some of the largest brands in the United States today.

My dad passed three years ago. When he and Mom turned it over to us, we had approximately 12,000 square feet [of warehouse], and today we’re well over a half million square feet. We give Mom and Dad all the credit for changing the direction of the family efforts from farming into a commercial warehouse.

From grassroots to commercial powerhouse is kind of our reference. If you look at our logo, you’ll see the penguins with the little peach leaf in the center; that kind of reminds us where we came from, that we were farmers first and today we’re an international powerhouse in terms of imports and exports.

Through Ship Philly First, which you co-founded in 2010, you are engaged in efforts to promote the Ports of Philadelphia. What exactly is Ship Philly First and what is it that makes Philadelphia a favored place for conducting shipping business?

I’m now on the advisory board to Ship Philly First, having been president from 2010 through early 2014.

Ship Philly First is a group of unified businesses working together to support everybody aligned with international trade through the Ports of Philadelphia. The original purpose was to just market Philadelphia and the port to the rest of the world.

About six months into the organization, Ship Philly First went well beyond a marketing group and became a group of people who support those who’d like to come to Philadelphia. Se we created six subcommittees.

Eventually, it became such a powerful organization that we started hosting ambassadors from Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico. We learned quickly that foreign countries really appreciate doing business with Philadelphia because it wasn’t just a port authority marketing Philadelphia; it was the business community marketing along with the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. So there was a heightened level of confidence and trust doing business with Philadelphia.

We don’t care who gets the business, we just want the business here in Philadelphia.

The fact that the Ports of Philadelphia maintain the largest refrigerated facilities for handling and repacking perishables in the United States has to be important to you, right?

Correct. We’re very proud of that and very protective of that. As other ports try to come and get a piece of our business, the business community, under Ship Philly First and under the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority and some of the other agencies, we stand up pretty tall.

In the Northeast is where the greatest population in the United State resides, period. So it makes sense from a logistics standpoint to call Philadelphia. There are other ports in this market, of course, but Philadelphia has, over the last 35 to 40 years, really grown with the industry.

When others want a piece of our action, what they fail to realize is expertise that has developed in this marketplace today. None of us here are really just warehouse operators any more; we’re almost extensions of the exporters. We’re able to do value-add services here. In the old days, warehouses were warehouses. Today, we have warehouses that do tremendous value-adds.

The other beauty of Philadelphia – probably the single largest benefit of Philadelphia – is that there are a lot of family-owned companies here, operated by people who’ve grown with the business. So there’s a certain level of passion and commitment. You’re not dealing with corporate entities here; you’re really dealing with family.

Congratulations on being honored in the fall with the Gloucester County Distinguished Citizen Award from the Garden State Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Could you please tell us a bit about that honor and your involvement with the Boy Scouts?

You know, I get calls from Australia, Ireland and Mexico giving me congratulations on that award. It’s amazing, when I was a Boy Scout, I never realized Boy Scouts was such a big international organization.

It was an honor and, at the same time it was a fundraiser and we raised the most this region has ever raised for Boy Scouts, in excess of $50,000.

My wife [Cheryl-Ann] tells me all the time, ‘You don’t realize how many times you talk about when you were a Scout.’

I get calls from CEOs or presidents with their own companies who say, ‘Y’know, I was a Boy Scout, too.’ There’s definitely something about Boy Scouts and that entrepreneurial spirit.

I enjoyed my years as a Scout and as a troop leader. Just didn’t quite make Eagle, didn’t quite have the time, because, back then, we had to work on the farm.

Who have been the greatest influencers of your life, personally?

The two major influencers of my life were, of course, Mom and Dad.

Dad taught us how to work hard. And God he taught us how to work hard. I remember when we were getting paid $1 an hour and our goal was to make $100 a week.

We learned real quick we had to work 100 hours a week to make 100 bucks. But that was almost an expectation, too. Dad established a benchmark for hard work.

My mother, on the other hand, always taught us to make sure we pursued our education [which I did in earning my degree in accounting with a minor in business from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa.] and reached for the stars and to be our best at all times.

We teach that today to our children – to work hard, respect others and be your best – and everything else takes care of itself from that point.

Actually, I’m farming again today as Hillcreek Farms – Mom and Dad’s original farm name – and we have a ‘you-pick’ apple farm and a cider company, and we just recently put in a bakery with my wife, Cheryl-Ann, and daughter-in-law Heather.

The whole thing with the farm: a. I love it, and b. is to not forget where you came from. So that’s our roots.

So now my grandkids [Alexander, 3, and Theodore, 2 months], they’re going to grow up on the farm, and, before we switch them over to warehousing, they’re going to learn and be reminded: This where we came from, this is how we got started. And now you can go over to that warehouse over there and become part of that international company.