One compliment Joe Traficanti is happy to receive often comes after he has introduced himself as United Natural Foods, Inc.’s (UNFI) senior vice president and general counsel: “Really, you’re a lawyer?” He always hopes, of course, that it occurs before he provides legal advice. For a self-identified “passionate Italian” who spent his youth flying jets as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, Traficanti’s laid back, gregarious demeanor doesn’t jell with the tightly wound exterior so many associate with attorneys—and he prefers it that way. Getting from the cockpit to the courtroom, however, wasn’t an easy task.
“I became interested in law while at the Air Force Academy. I figured if I was going to be a commander one day, I had to have a firm understanding of the law and the US Constitution,” Traficanti says. “When I went to my commander and asked permission to go to law school, I never considered it would be an issue, but it was. There was a pilot shortage, and I was one of his top pilots. When he said no, I was crushed.”
But where there’s a will, there’s a way—and it doesn’t hurt when the uncle of your roommate is a two-star general lauded as one of the Air Force’s top military lawyers. After having dinner with his friend’s uncle, who encouraged him to apply to law school without his commander’s signature, Traficanti did just that. When he informed his commander what he’d done, his commander didn’t seem at all concerned, telling the young pilot he didn’t have a chance. Shortly after, Traficanti found himself attending classes at Creighton University School of Law.
During the course of his law career, Traficanti has been a prosecutor and a professor; has led a team of attorneys in Sicily; and despite his best attempt to sabotage his interview at the Pentagon, was hired on as special counsel and military assistant to the Air Force General Counsel. When working in large firms, such as McGuireWoods, LLC, he missed leading a team. So, when he was asked to join UNFI, he jumped at the opportunity—it would be the second time in his career that he was starting a legal department for a major corporation from scratch. Such a feat is never an easy task, but “it felt easier the second time around,” Traficanti jokes.
Regardless of where he is working or his title, the approach Traficanti has always taken to his work is one that relies heavily on the concept of teamwork, a tactic he came to respect and embrace while serving in the military. Given that United Natural Foods is one of the top wholesale distributors in a market that’s growing exponentially each year—natural, organic, specialty foods—it goes without saying that Traficanti must be on top of his game and have a quick-thinking, intuitive, intelligent legal team alongside him. He is, and he does, and a large part of Traficanti’s success as a leader within a company that has tripled in size during the four years he has been there can be attributed to the personal guidelines the senior vice president follows. “Managing is for processes and buildings; you do not manage people,” he says. “You lead people. I always keep in mind that people watch what you do, so you have to be a leader at all times.”
This approach extends to how Traficanti believes a leader needs to build a team. “A leader has to come in with or before one’s team, and needs to leave with or after the team,” he says, going on to say, “I always let people know I have their back. I give credit where credit is due, and I publicly applaud those whose efforts warrant it. This also means that criticism is given privately and I take the blame for failure. Lastly, you must always keep your sense of humor and be honorable. There is no greater thing than being honorable.”
Traficanti says there’s a misconception about general counsel, and it’s that they go into battle alone. The team concept is deeply ingrained in everything he does at UNFI, “In an industry where we’re dealing so closely with food safety, it’s all hands on deck,” Traficanti says. “People want to know that they’re eating clean, safe food, and it’s our job to ensure that, which can be difficult when you’re working with suppliers from all over the world. We have to make sure our suppliers have been vetted, that they’re certified, clean growers who don’t utilize child labor. It’s a never-ending mission.”
Needless to say, ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply is a full-time job. Traficanti works 60 hours a week, saying “sleep is overrated.” What’s special about UNFI is that every executive works just as hard as he does. “It really is a team atmosphere, and it’s important to everyone that we maintain our position as one of the most trusted distributors in the nation,” Traficanti says. “Everyone from mom-and-pop shops to national chains depends on us for produce, and none of us ever want to open a newspaper and read that the food we provided made consumers sick. Not on my watch.”