The Fraboni name on the Iron Range is synonymous with flavorful meat. Of course, the Fraboni business name conjures up other things for other people. As you listen to Mark Thune, president of Fraboni’s Wholesale Distributing, you understand there is a lot more to this Hibbing-based business than tasty sausages, hams and other delicacies.
“This business was started by Leo and Irene Fraboni in the 1960s after a predecessor business went bankrupt, but there’s more to the story,” Mark explained. “Leo and Angelo Fraboni were brothers whose parents owned a grocery store in Brooklyn, one of the ‘locations’ that became part of Hibbing. They wanted to remodel so they hired a contractor to help them with the project. After some time the subcontractors approached the Frabonis to complain they hadn’t been paid. This surprised Leo and Angelo because they had paid the contractor--in full. They came to find out that the contractor had skipped town, leaving the subcontractors holding the bag.
“The Frabonis were honorable people, so they re-borrowed money to pay all the subcontractors in full,” Mark continued. “Unfortunately, the economy hit a bump in the road just about the time when they were stretched thin as a result of their generosity. The business stumbled a bit, and they went bankrupt and lost the store.”
Leo and his family began making sausage in his mother’s garage. They worked hard: they sold directly to grocery stores, and their business grew. Eventually they moved their sausage-making operations back to the store in north Hibbing they had re-acquired after bankruptcy. They visited restaurants in the area, talking up their products and slowly building a larger network of restaurants and stores to which they sold their products wholesale. The business began to grow.
Mark was hired in 1975, shortly after graduating from Hibbing High School. His brother, Wayne, had been hired a year earlier to work clean-up, and he began working full time about the time Mark was hired. Over the years, the Fraboni’s sausage-making transitioned into a food service distribution business as they began to supply other meat products and restaurant supplies.
By 1990 the food service distribution business was busy enough that they bought a freezer unit and parked it outside the sausage plant. Business was good, and it was time to grow. The food service business split off from the sausage-making business, and two companies were formed: Fraboni Wholesale and Fraboni Sausage. In 1994 the family began to make plans for a new building, and they did this carefully. Unfortunately, Leo’s health began to deteriorate as the building planning drew to a close. He was alive to sign the papers committing to a loan for the new building, and Jeff Lee, Grand Rapids State Bank’s senior vice president of lending, was Leo’s loan officer for a Hibbing bank at the time.
“We closed the loan with Leo in the hospital,” Jeff recalled. “He had been dreaming and planning for this project for years, and while he didn’t live to see it completed, he lived long enough to know that it could be built. Ground was broken the day after he died in 1996.”
After Leo’s death, Wayne and Mark Thune took on senior management positions and owned a portion of the business. In 2001, Jeff Lee, still the family banker, helped the Thune brothers acquire Irene Fraboni’s remaining share of the company. Everyone wanted this to happen, and Jeff as the trusted advisor helped make it happen.
Today, Mark is the president of the business and oversees in-house operations, while brother Wayne is the vice president and manages sales. The division of labor works well.
“This is still a family business, but we’ve grown so that we now employ 28 people,” Mark explained. “My son, Jeff, is now working in the business, and he doesn’t want a title so he can work wherever he’s needed. The business is 25 years old, yet Jeff has brought some new and welcome ideas into play.”
Jeff Lee added that Jeff Thune excels at managing the financial operations of the business, making his job easier. Jeff Thune is quick to provide financial reports that enable Grand Rapids State Bank to manage the relationship and provide sound counsel.
When asked what challenges he faces, Mark said that their business is linked to the weather and the local economy. “When we have a nice summer, people do more outdoor grilling and they buy more sausage. Good weather equals good revenue in our business.
“And because our food service distribution business caters to area restaurants, when the economy goes sour, people tend to go out to eat a little less often, so the economy can affect our sales, too.”
Seventy percent of Fraboni Wholesale’s customer base is restaurants, while the remainder is grocery store sales. They service a customer base within a 100-mile radius of Hibbing. Their major competitors are U.S. Foods, Sysco, Upper Lakes Foods and—to a lesser extent, because they don’t cater to the convenience store market substantially—Sandstrom’s and Sullivan Supply.
“We are a member of distributors buying group, Golbon, that gives us some buying power,” explained Mark. “In addition to the purchasing leverage, they offer training, marketing and peer support. They allow us to remain independent with support. “
On a personal level, Mark has been active in his community for years. He was honored as the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce volunteer of the year last year for his behind-the-scenes support of the Chamber’s annual curling bonspiel (which he organized with Jeff Lee’s help years ago) and an annual golf fundraiser.
Mark jokes that he is still “not out of school” even after his 40 years of work at Fraboni’s. “I came to work here essentially right out of high school,” Mark added, “and I haven’t graduated yet. I’m still learning.”
The twinkle in his eye confirmed that he’s still enjoying what he’s doing.