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RBJ 75: CEO's vision puts flame under growth at LiDestri

Rochester Business Journal
July 26, 2013

In less than four years, LiDestri Foods Inc. has nearly doubled its staff, thanks in part to a vision President and CEO John LiDestri had for revitalizing the ailing Eastman Business Park.
 
"One of the things John is most proud of is helping Kodak," said David Stoklosa, LiDestri's director of business development. "He recognizes what a great company that company has been to Rochester and what it's meant. For him to be part of a solution for them, and 25 other companies coming in and making good use of solid assets that otherwise would just get shuttered and be an eyesore-it makes him feel good and it's good for Rochester."
 
In 2009, when LiDestri purchased from Eastman Kodak Co. 625,000 square feet of industrial space on Lee Road, the food processor had 385 employees at its Fairport headquarters. Since the company's expansion, the staff has grown to 700 in Monroe County, with another 300 employees at locations in Fresno, Calif., and Lansdale, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.
 
LiDestri also has a location in Pensauken, N.J., that it has converted from a sauce plant to a beverage facility.
 
Founded during the Great Depression as Ragu Packing Co., the company in its early years was led by Assunta and Giovanni Cantisano, who sold the family spaghetti sauce from their Avery Street home.
 
In 1949, the family began manufacturing the sauce in earnest at a plant on Lyell Avenue. Shortly thereafter, Ralph Cantisano took over the family business, succeeding his father as president. Under his leadership Ragu became the most popular spaghetti sauce in the country and sales reached $22 million in 1969, when the Cantisano family sold Ragu to Cheese-brough-Pond's Inc. for $43.8 million.
 
The family gave $1.1 million from the sale to Ragu employees.
 
In 1975, Cantisano-who had stayed on as president of Ragu Foods Inc.-formed Cantisano Management Corp. Three years later, the company was renamed Cantisano Foods Inc.
 
LiDestri, who moved to America from Italy with his family in his teens, worked for Ragu until 1976. Eventually, he was hired as general manager at Cantisano Foods and in 1991 was named president. Six years later, he was named CEO, and in 2002 LiDestri purchased the Cantisano family's shares in the company.
 
Since that time the firm has been on a growth trajectory. While Stoklosa declined to discuss exact revenues of the privately owned company, he said the firm has annual sales of $500 million or more.
 
"LiDestri Foods is a world-class company and has been for many years," said Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. "The fact that they have moved into the Eastman Business Park for further growth and expansion is terrific for our region."
 
Stoklosa, who was working as director of Eastman Business Park when LiDestri made his first purchase of property there in 2009, said LiDestri's goal for the property was to grow the company's spirits business. The firm had a small facility in Dundee, Yates County, that churned out spirits, cooking wines, vinegars and olive oil.
 
"He said we're going to really go after this spirits business on Lee Road. By late 2010, after many millions of dollars of investments out there, we had multiple lines now producing our own brands as well as other companies' on the spirits side," Stoklosa said.
 
LiDestri produces its own brand of crème liqueurs called Mu, in addition to sangria in pouches, a line of rum, gin, vodka, scotch and tequila from Backstage Pass and Recipe 21, as well as a host of liquors from companies.
 
In 2011, LiDestri closed its Pensauken location to convert the facility from sauces to beverage production. While more than 100 people lost their jobs during the closure, jobs were created in Rochester to accommodate the growing business here. Stoklosa said the company has begun re-hiring the individuals in Pensauken for the converted facility.
 
More recently, LiDestri has purchased additional property at Eastman Business Park. The company has some 1 million square feet on 200 acres of land on Lee Road, Stoklosa said.
 
"Part of that property purchase was a blocking strategy so that we didn't have the wrong kind of neighbor come in," Stoklosa noted. "It's zoned industrial, and in New York State that's a rare commodity. We wanted to snap it up to protect our investment."
 
But now that LiDestri owns the property, it enables the company to expand its production to other food products.
 
"We have the option to do this greenfield for anything else we might want to get into, any other food category," Stoklosa said. "We're not in frozen food, we're not into pet food. There are plenty of things we're not into. That's always a possibility."
 
Peterson said LiDestri is committed to the local economy and it shows in his company's recent growth.
 
"He wants us to be successful, and he wants his business to be successful," Peterson said. "There's a combination here between some loyalty to the home team and the good workforce it has and relations he has."
 
Peterson said though the manufacturing sector across New York has taken a tumble in the last couple of decades, it remains an important component of Rochester's economy.
 
"When we look at the numbers regarding advanced manufacturing, what we see is very encouraging," he said. "While it's true that the overall numbers of manufacturing have gone down for a number of years because of the downsizing of our very large companies like Kodak and Xerox, the reality is there's a whole sector of our advanced manufacturing space that's been growing."
 
Among those are optics, material sciences and food processing firms, Peterson said, and he predicts growth in each of those sectors over the next few years. That is good news for companies like LiDestri.
 
With some $70 million invested in the Lee Road expansion, current plans call for LiDestri's development of the Eastman Business Park property to be completed by the end of 2013. Stoklosa said in jest that the expansion may never be done.
 
"The future is very bright on the growth side for our company," he said. "Our spirits division is growing. Our beverage business is growing. Our foods business is stable because that's what we've been in for 35 years. The growth already occurred, but there will always be potential for acquisitions."
 
Stoklosa said it is a very exciting time to work for LiDestri in Rochester.
 
"Things are happening and they happen quickly," he added. "We've invested a lot of money and we're not done yet. We're not looking to shrink; we're looking to grow."


7/26/13: RBJ 75 Special Supplement (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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