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Merger gives new organization diversity

Brokerage division of Vine Line has goal of reaching $100M in revenue in next 10 years.

June 21, 2019
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Vine Line
Vine Line Produce Distribution’s 180,000-square-foot facility combines wholesale distribution with cold storage and packaging. Courtesy Vine Line Produce

Three produce companies have joined forces in West Michigan to become leaders in the produce distribution sector.

Vine Line Produce Distribution is a new produce distribution company in Comstock Park, formed by the merger of produce wholesalers Heeren Bros. Inc. and Walsma & Lyons, as well as Byron Center-based transportation brokerage Vine Line Logistics LLC.

Re-branded as Vine Line Produce Distribution, the merged companies’ business lines include Vine Line Logistics, Vine Line Trucking, Walsma & Lyons and Heeren Bros.

The senior leadership team for the new company includes President Gary Lyons and CEO Joseph D'Ottavio, who combined have over 60 years of produce distribution and logistics experience.

Lyons said the merger positions the new organization to become a full-service produce distribution, brokerage, refrigerated transportation and logistics company.

“The produce and transportation landscape is ripe for a company that is willing and able to invest in multiple distribution facilities,” he said. “Vine Line Produce Distribution has never been more agile and focused on meeting customers’ produce and transportation needs in an ever-changing market.”

The three merged companies have moved into the former Heeren Bros. facility at 1055 Seven Mile Road NW, Comstock Park. The 180,000-square-foot facility combines wholesale distribution with cold storage and packaging. A second 46,000-square-foot facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also provides direct distribution into Midwest and Western markets.

Heeren Bros. currently is owned by 42 North Partners, a Grand Rapids private equity firm. 42 North Partners also guided the company’s recent merger with Vine Line Logistics.

While Vine Line Logistics, prior to the merger, mainly hired third-party drivers, it does have an asset division, Vine Line Trucking, to fulfill final mile delivery. Vine Line Trucking reported about 20 trucks and 35 trailers as of April 2019.

“Heeren had their trucks, but they didn’t have their own logistics,” said Steve Lyons, senior director of logistics at Vine Line Logistics. “We thought we might as well bring the trucking companies together, and you also have this brokering business. They (Heeren) got really interested in that and did not want to do this without Vine Line being a part of that.”

On the brokerage side, Vine Line is scaling itself — including building out its sales force, load tracking and accounting services — to be in all major produce territories in the U.S., taking it from the $13 million company it is currently, to $100 million in the next 10 years.

“We’re looking to become a premier refrigerated transportation provider in the Midwest,” Steve Lyons said.

On the customer end, the merger promises to offer a higher level of operational resources and facility square footage to accommodate larger distribution projects, a larger carrier network thanks to combined transportation contacts and additional load volume through the consolidation or orders driving down freight costs.

Vine Line primarily will distribute throughout the Midwest but has the ability to distribute all throughout the continental U.S. The company is nearing 50 of its own company-owned and leased tractors and trailers.

Investment in technological improvements such as GPS and temperature tracking throughout the company’s network also is in the works to provide customer transparency.

While Vine Line exclusively serves the produce shipping industry — the Comstock Park facility has a complete produce packaging operation — it is expanding to do business with other companies and has the capacity to go after other refrigerated items like dairy and poultry.

Vine Line Logistics’ customers have included its current partners, Heeren and Walsma & Lyons, as well as SpartanNash, Sysco, Riveridge Produce Marketing and more.

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