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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Tim York Points Out Buyer Commitment
To Food Safety

The signatories to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative represent a compilation of buying power never before assembled in the produce industry to achieve a common good: Enhanced food safety.

The names and companies that comprise this initiative are legion:

Ron Anderson, Safeway, Inc.
Gary Bergstrom,
Craig Carlson, Pathmark Stores
Jim Corby, Food Lion
Greg Corrigan, Raley’s
David Corsi, Wegmans Food Markets
Brian Gannon, Big Y Supermarkets
Gary Gionnette, Supervalu Inc.
Reggie Griffin, Kroger Company
Mike Hansen, Sysco Corporation
Don Harris, Wild Oats Markets
Gene Harris, Denny’s Corporation
Mark Hilton, Harris-Teeter
Craig Ignatz, Giant Eagle
Jim Lemke, C.H. Robinson Worldwide
Mike O’Brien, Schnuck Markets
Frank Padilla, Costco Wholesale
Greg Reinauer, Amerifresh, Inc.
Roger Schroeder, Stater Bros.
James Spilka, Meijer, Inc.
Mark Vanderlinden, Price Chopper
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

And, there is simply no doubt that this group has been key in pushing along the trade’s most important initiatives.

We’ve devoted many words to this initiative. We’ve tried to be supportive but also cajoling. And recently, we’ve been urging the buyers, who at one point specifically urged the formation of the California Marketing Agreement for lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens, to stand up and announce that they were prepared to restrict their supply chains to companies that either sign the CMA or, at very least, are independently audited to meet or exceed CMA standards.

Today, Tim York, who is, along with Wegmans’ Dave Corsi, the founder of the initiative, sent us a letter:

Thank you for the support you have expressed for our buyers’ initiative over the past several months. Your support, information, and input have been important as we discussed our next steps.

At PMA’s Produce Solutions Conference in Charlotte, I publicly acknowledged and affirmed the work that the associations have accomplished. Many of the goals we sought from the associations, primarily through the California Marketing Agreement, have been accomplished. Among them are:

  1. Associations working collaboratively

  2. Establishing specific, measurable, verifiable standards

  3. Identifying research needs

  4. Developing standards with broad input

  5. Standardizing audits

  6. Conducting consumer and industry outreach

  7. Working on additional commodities beyond lettuces

The associations should be congratulated for the work they have accomplished.

Further, the announcement by Bryan Silbermann of plans to develop a produce safety research initiative at University of California, Davis, with financial support from PMA and additional funds from public and private sources in the state, will further advance the associations’ efforts. This is a critical part of the industry’s produce safety activities and I am pleased to have been asked to be involved.

Our buyers group has been at work behind the scenes, and the successful adoption of the Marketing Agreement is the result of our buyers, and others, expressing the need for a common standard to their suppliers. Of the 22 company signatories to our letters, 17 have either “strongly encouraged” or required their suppliers to sign the agreement. More companies would have required their suppliers to sign the MA were it not for existing contracts.

We continue to call upon all California handlers of lettuce and leafy greens to adopt the CMA. It is critically important as an industry that we set forth a common foundation for food safety and send a clear message to legislators, regulators, and consumers that everyone in the fresh produce industry is committed to working together toward safer food.

— Tim York
Markon Cooperative

Many thanks to Tim for his letter. We appreciate the kind words about the Pundit and if we have been able to encourage the very good minds behind this initiative to think even harder about how to move the industry forward, then we consider that a great compliment.

We also agree with Tim that much has been accomplished. Tom Stenzel of United Fresh and the Pundit got a chance to chat recently, and Tom opened the conversation by asking “So Jim, is this it? Is working on food safety destined to dominate the rest of our lives?”

To those busy selling produce, it is almost inconceivable how much work has gone into food safety. Bryan Silbermann of PMA said it early on: The veterans in the industry went through the Alar crisis and the Chilean grape/cyanide crisis, and we thought we knew what a food safety crisis was like. But nothing, simply nothing, in the history of the industry prepared us for what has happened.

And the buyers have been an important part of moving the industry forward during this crisis.

Here at the Pundit, part of the “dealing” with food safety is handling phone calls. And, literally, every day for months, someone has called — a big producer, a commodity promotion group, a state department of agriculture, a non-US producing group.

Although, of course, they are interested in what the government is doing and what the associations are doing. The key question asked with urgency time and again is this: What are the buyers going to do? They ask it of each commodity, each region, each country.

As much as anything, it is because of this notion that the buyers will soon be demanding better standards that in commodity after commodity — from tomatoes to melons to berries and on and on — initiatives all over the industry have sprung up, initiatives with urgency, to improve food safety. Over and over again at these regional or commodity-specific meetings, you hear the leadership talk to the growers and they repeat, over and over, “let us write the standards ourselves before the buyers start writing them for us.”

So we have no hesitancy in saying that Tim and Dave and each subsequent signatory to this initiative have done a good thing for the industry.

Yet the approach of the deadline for the California Marketing Agreement also points to the limitations of this approach.

Tim proudly points out that 17 of the 22 company signatories are telling suppliers that they are either “strongly encouraged” or required to sign up for the CMA.

It also is very true that many buyers who are loath to send out public announcements have quietly and behind-the-scenes been urging suppliers to sign the agreement.

Without a doubt, if these buyers hadn’t been applying “encouragement,” the CMA would have had less participation than it has.

Still and all, long term, the important thing for the industry is not how many suppliers get muscled into signing up right now. The long term future of food safety efforts depends crucially on how buyers are actually going to buy.

Although 17 of the signatory companies may be requiring or strongly encouraging their suppliers to be members of the CMA, only six of the signatories have committed to restrict their supply chain and only procure from those who are signatories to the CMA.

To their everlasting credit, both Markon Cooperative and Wegmans are among these six, as is Kroger. The other three are keeping their identity quiet.

What these six are doing is essential because it is the assurance of a market for produce grown to a higher food safety standard that will, in the end, encourage production to that standard.

Vendors are very concerned that even the six buyers who have committed to constraining their supply chains might opt out if the price differential between produce grown to CMA standards and other produce becomes too great.

Those who have refused to commit to a constrained supply chain are, however, publicly maintaining their options to buy less expensive product even if it is grown to a lower standard. This is problematic.

Suppliers of produce, like all suppliers, can only provide the quality that the market is willing to pay for. Individual buyers can’t haggle over food safety; it has to be in the specs for the product.

And, as of today, only six of the signatories to the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative have been willing to add the CMA standard to their specifications.

Of course, the buyer-led signatories are only part of it. We are not aware of any buyers who were NOT signatories that have publicly declared they were going to restrain their own supply chain.

As Tim does explain, some buyers claim they are held back because of pre-existing contracts. We have heard this as well, but it doesn’t seem credible. The whole world understands about pre-existing contracts. It would be pretty easy to announce that from this date forward, all contracts will be with signatories.

Other buyers are working with vendors that, although not signatories to the CMA, claim to exceed the CMA standard — yet we know of not one single buyer who cares enough about the credibility of this statement to demand a third-party audit attesting to these claims. Safeway has said that it won’t require CMA membership of its suppliers in part because it is incompatible with its overall relationship with Chiquita, parent company of Fresh Express, which has not signed the agreement. Fair enough, but Safeway should certainly require an audit that Fresh Express is living up to its professed high standards.

The industry has focused a great deal on standards. That is what the new GAPs are all about. But standards are only important if buyers value them. Otherwise, as night follows day, producers will see value in growing to lesser standards.

The Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative has played a positive role in nudging the industry toward higher food safety standards. Its leaders and signatories have exhibited a kind of personal heroism in trying to safeguard their customers and to move the industry to a higher level.

Now, however, we need to start focusing on the cultural pre-conditions of food safety.

In our piece, Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Cheesecake Factory’s Kix McGinnis Nystron and Everclean Services’ Jack McShane, we discussed an interesting fact: Cheesecake Factory not only has regular audits of its restaurants but the bonuses of its managers are based, in part, on these scores.

This tying of compensation and food safety is, to large extent, the prerequisite to developing a culture of food safety.

Another possibility might be to simply segregate functions so as to avoid conflicts of interest.

Over and over again, we hear vendors laughing at the self-proclaimed concerns by buyers regarding food safety. The story is always the same. The vendor visits the buyer’s headquarters, the VP is in the meeting and gives a speech about food safety being the top priority. The vendor lays out a plan for exceeding all food safety standards, all shake hands as the VP leaves to let the buyer work it all out. And the first words out of the buyer’s mouth are, “This is great but how are we going to be able to take advantage of dips in the market?”

We don’t really blame the buyers. They are paid to get the best deal and are not restricted on food safety quality.

In our piece Insightful PMA Food Safety Session Reveals Buyer Hesitancy, we suggested that what is needed is a separate department, such as Quality Assurance, to act independently of produce buying staffs to establish food safety specs and pre-authorize vendors.

We thank Tim for his letter, salute the signatories for their efforts and note the limits of how far most buyers, with many competing interests, seem able to go. We need a structural solution to make sure that food safety comes out on top when interests are in conflict.

Sara Lee And Kraft Tie In To Produce

The Wall Street Journal today ran a piece, New Leaf for Sara Lee, Kraft: Salads

In an effort to tap into the nation’s growing appetite for meals on the go, the two suburban Chicago food giants are using their existing brands to enter an entirely new product category for each: prepared salads. Sara Lee, operating on the premise that meat makes a meal, is launching a national “Go Meat!” ad campaign today featuring its new Hillshire Farm Salad Entrees, kits that contain meat and other ingredients for making a salad, except lettuce.

Kraft’s Fresh Creations salads, which include lettuce along with Oscar Mayer meat, Planters nuts and Kraft cheese and salad dressing, are being tested in Boston and Denver, where ads tout them as alternatives to restaurant salads. Kraft also has been rolling out new chicken-salad kits, without lettuce, under its South Beach Diet brand in stores nationwide this month.

Partly this is an effort to get into higher traffic areas of the store:

With their new salads, Sara Lee and Kraft also are avoiding the less-traveled center aisles of supermarkets, where most packaged food is sold, and getting into higher traffic areas of the store. Sara Lee’s salad kits are being displayed in the refrigerated-lunch-meat section, where its Hillshire Farm lunch meat and sausage are carried. That is the same section where Kraft’s South Beach Diet salad kits will be. But Kraft decided to place its Fresh Creations salads in the produce section, because they contain lettuce.

But it is an ambitious effort:

Kraft’s South Beach Diet chicken-salad kits come in two varieties — cranberry walnut and Santa Fe — that will be included in a broader advertising campaign for South Beach Diet products. Kraft’s Fresh Creations salads come in four kinds, each packaged in a single-serve bowl. Because Kraft is selling those salads in only 100 stores in each of its two test markets, it is doing print and billboard ads only in Denver and Boston, through New York ad agency mcgarrybowen.

“The idea behind our Fresh Creations salads is that they replicate restaurant-quality salads,” Kraft spokeswoman Lisa Gibbons says, adding that Kraft hasn’t decided yet whether it will roll those out nationwide.

Sara Lee’s new salad kits come in similar varieties, including chicken Caesar and turkey and cranberries with ham julienne. The first Hillshire Farm salad commercial that will air is a 15-second spot in which two women are sitting at a kitchen table when a voice announces, “It’s lunchtime!” As a chorus of what sounds like cheerleaders extols the meaty virtues of the Hillshire Farm salads, one woman starts pouring a package of meat on the other woman’s salad. A man’s voice cheers, “Hillshire Farm. Go meat!”

You can see the Hillshire Farm TV commercials here.

One threat to the produce department is the idea of locating salad kits in the refrigerated lunch meat area. This, in effect, transforms the produce department into the purveyor of a commodity — shredded lettuce — and gives another department the value-added product to sell at higher margins.

One suspects, however that produce departments won’t let it happen. The photo accompanying this piece was from a real produce section at a Lowes store in Charlotte, North Carolina. Note that even though the article claims the Hillshire Farm products are being sold in the lunch meat area, at least in this Lowes store, they are actually being sold in the produce department.

The Flaws Of Portion Control

Here at the Pundit, we work hard to keep you ahead of the game. Several weeks ago, we ran T.G.I. Friday’s Weighs In On Obesity to discuss whether a Friday’s initiative to offer smaller portions could work and, if so, what the implications for health and fresh produce might be.

Now the New York Times Sunday business section ran a front page story on the same issue entitled Will Diners Still Swallow This? Make sure you watch the video.

The comeuppance: First, even with the reduced-portion size, the meals are not exactly low-calorie, and second, to the extent people are less stuffed, they may be more likely to order a dessert!

Pundit Pulse Of The Industry:
Enza’s Dawn Gray

A Canadian woman, who spent a lot of time living in the United States, moves to New Zealand to run Enza, which is still wrestling with the environment created by the end of New Zealand’s single-desk sales system. Who is this woman and what is she going to do in New Zealand? We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out. She spoke with Dawn Gray, just as she was beginning her new job in New Zealand.

Dawn Gray
General Manager
Auckland, New Zealand

Q: On a personal note, what is your background and what brings you to your new position at Enza?

A: I’ve been involved in the fresh fruit and vegetable business a little over 30 years. I’m Canadian, but I’ve lived in the States almost 20 years. My first foray in produce was at Sunkist Growers in Canada and the U.S., where I stayed for 14 years, primarily concentrating on the domestic side of the business.

Throughout my career, I’ve had tremendous opportunities and been coached by some phenomenal people. That’s why I’m so passionate about the industry today. At Sunkist I was surrounded by many influential people, so it’s difficult to single out a few. Sticking with management, definitely Russ Hanlin, David Bernstein and Mark Tompkins.

I then worked at Frieda’s back in 1990, and while I wasn’t there for a long time, it provided an opportunity to view strategic marketing done by the best in the business. Frieda, Jackie and Karen Caplan at Frieda’s were truly inspirational to me. The quality of experience speaks more than the quantity of experience, and we remain business contacts and personal friends.

Interestingly, Frieda’s did a bunch of work in New Zealand, and was the first to import kiwifruit to the United States. It’s serendipity that all these years later, I find myself in New Zealand as General Manager of Enza. And my last job before joining Enza was at BC Hothouse, where Frieda’s had a working relationship that carried over the years.

That’s what is great about this business. If there are six degrees of separation between people in general, then in the produce industry it is about 2 degrees.

Up to this point in my career at Sunkist and Frieda’s, I had a lot of exposure in the North American marketplace. Then I had the chance to really get to know the international business through Robert Autenrieth when I joined his family fresh fruit export company, The Autenrieth Co., started by his father in Los Angeles, California. The primary focus was the Pacific Rim and some business in Europe and New Zealand. Particularly because it was a smaller company, it was very hands on. I went out to the field and the pack house, was involved in the sales and transportation side, and really got to appreciate the complexity of the business as well. Robert and I are in touch probably on a weekly basis.

I then had the opportunity to go back to the Pacific Northwest, where I worked for Vanguard International. My areas of focus were on fruit and vegetable import and export trading with Korea, Japan and within the North American marketplace.

After that, in 2001, I romanced back to my citrus roots, becoming president of the Central California Orange Growers Cooperative. We represented roughly 28 percent of citrus production in California.

And then I was recruited back up to Vancouver to BC Hothouse Dave Smith, a gentlemen I’d known 20 years when he was president and CEO of BC Hothouse. Vancouver was where my family lives, and I was excited to get into the greenhouse side of the business. It was at a time when the industry was going through turmoil, starting to deregulate, and facing all the challenges that go along with that. I worked at BC Hothouse four years before joining Enza.

While it may not be easy, there is always great opportunity to succeed when the industry goes though tumultuous change. We won’t stop this cycle in an industry dealing in perishable products, where everything doesn’t come in nice neat bundles. Mother Nature has a way of wreaking havoc. I joke occasionally that there’s another woman that causes more excitement than me!

Q: How are you capitalizing on this spirited energy in your new position at Enza?

A: There are two key components to this business. It all starts on the production side, what the grower puts in the ground and nurtures, to what the consumer eats and values.

The grower is a unique human being, part scientist, artist and gambler.

Now it is so challenging. We are all consumers with so many choices available to us. This battle goes on every day, first for shelf space at retail, and then for share of stomach. As we as an industry have evolved, we are all looking to manage costs going up, and margins going down. How can we take costs out of the business? The retailer is doing the same thing.

What we’ve lost as an industry is natural merchandising, by virtually wiping out the seasonality of produce. I’m not suggesting we go back because that doesn’t make sense, but there was a time when it was New Zealand apple season. That doesn’t happen anymore, which presents a much greater battle for us to win share of product.

Q: What is your plan of attack?

A: If we put Enza’s proprietary variety Jazz apples on shelves the retailer needs to know we‘ll have them available 12 months a year. We’ll produce some in New Zealand, some in France, some in Chile, and some Washington in the States, so we can cover the customer base 12 months a year and keep the customer coming back.

Q: Will anyone but Enza be allowed to market the Jazz variety?

A: Enza owns the global rights to the root stocks and varietal name of Jazz. Enza has select grower partners and distributors that produce and market Jazz only for Enza.

These are the questions everyone in this business is asking every day… What can we do to get sustainability and returns for our growers so we can offer something to our consumer that has value? Look at pharmaceutical companies. They spend a lot of money on research and development, and every once and a while they get a Viagra, and sometimes we get a Viagra equivalent. The problem is that margins don’t support the research we’re doing, but this has to be our focus, and our future. We have to get invested in new varieties, always trialing new varieties with apples and kiwifruit.

This is the way we can help Enza, whether through vertical integration or with our partner growers, that we can make sure these returns are something they can live with and be economically viable.

Jazz is a variety exclusive to Enza. I have enormous respect for the production side, because it’s not like consumer goods, where the market is short in the product development cycle. They’ve been working on Jazz, trial after trial for 10 years, and it is just becoming commercially produced now. Production is coming on stream as we look to grow through our own groves or joint ventures and financially mutual beneficial programs with producers. Production is now coming out, ramping up to the point where we can do more promotional activity and expand our reach in the marketplace. Jazz has been in the marketplace a couple of years, but you will see Jazz in a bigger way going forward.

Q: Could you discuss Enza branding strategies in the context of deregulation in New Zealand?

A: Branding is important. Enza is a very well known brand that goes back to pre-deregulation days in New Zealand, but we have to maximize grower concerns and consumer satisfaction. Consumers walk away with their feet if there is no value. If the grower doesn’t get value they don’t produce.

Marketing of apples and pears in New Zealand was done by a single desk agency until 2001. The concept was every single producer of apples and pears would have to sell products through the Enza marketing board, which in turn would provide better pricing, cost control, and contribution to overhead. I wasn’t here when the country opted to deregulate. In May 2001, the Minister of Agriculture announced the de-regulation of the New Zealand pipfruit industry and legislation to effect these changes was enacted in September of that year. Enza lost its single desk export powers and had to compete from that time forward with other exporters for pipfruit supply. Pipfruit is essentially a synonym for apples and pears, pip being the little seeds in the fruit.

Q: What impact has de-regulation had? What steps has Enza taken to cope with the change?

A: I’ve seen de-regulation in other commodities and it was fairly chaotic. There is always a hangover from deregulation. I saw it in South Africa, I saw it in Canada, and I’m seeing it here. While it’s an unintentional outcome, in single desk environments there seems to be a perception of complacency and arrogance. I think the word perception is important to include, because in my experience I know how hard people worked in that system. We have lots of pressure regardless because we’re dealing with perishable product. When you move from a single desk to 100 exporters in the following year, it rarely means more money for the producer.

Q: Did this lead to the 2003 merger with Turners and Growers?

A: Prior to deregulation, Enza was the apple and pear marketing board. Turners and Growers bought the Enza brand and the physical aspects like cold storage facilities and the packing house, and is now continuing down the track of vertical integration. Those kinds of assets don’t make a business.What Turners and Growers said was, here is an opportunity; a like-mindedness in having to reach economies of scale. Turners and Growers is also active in the domestic market in New Zealand producing a wide range of produce items, but in regards to the international aspects, apple and pear production is mostly exported.

We are in the midst of moving into vertical integration, bringing with it value from producers. We believe there needs to be more structure than a free for all. Here is the statistic that says it all: prior to deregulation, there were about 1600 growers in New Zealand. There are now about 400.

Consolidation was inevitable. Growers are working on pretty thin margins and can’t as individual companies do what is necessary to stay competitive. How will I do R&D and find the next great thing? That is hard to do. Again, I wasn’t here at the time, but if you are marginalized in any way, if you have any chinks in your armor when thrown into deregulation, you can’t survive. Either you leverage economies of volume or ultimately become a niche player, but there is no room for confusion of identity.

Q: Isn’t this a familiar theme in many markets?

A: This phenomenon is not unique to the apple and pear business; it is indicative of the pressure everyone in the supply chain is facing, from the producer to the retailer. As much as we get fearful on the production side, retailers are trying to manage their costs too. The retailer is the conduit to the consumer. There has to be a mutual value through the supply chain.

I think you’re going to see more change. We talk and talk and talk in this business about consolidation on the buy side. Consolidation is happening in different ways. The Enza way is pushing vertical integration through joint ventures and outright purchases.

Q: Is Enza actually acquiring farms and growing apples?

A: Our supply base now and looking into the future, is a blend of the more traditional relationships between grower and marketer, relationships with joint venture partners, in terms of producing, and third, as sole owner and producer. We are taking the best of what exists in the supply base.

Q: And how will you maximize this dynamic new structure?

A: My biggest challenge? We know and the community of producers know that ultimately having 90 exporters in a country the size of New Zealand is not going to be good long term. We are losing quality positioning statements. New Zealand has such a great position in the world for clean, sustainable, quality product. If we are not consistent, it can mess it up for everyone. At the end of the day that’s what counts, because if the consumer has a bad experience they’ll walk away and it will be hard to bring them back.

It isn’t that people are deliberately not paying attention; it’s just that the consumer expects that high level of quality all the time. This is not just a problem we confront.

We all like to think we’re unique. I’ve been fortunate to work with different products and countries, and I could close my eyes in these meetings and hear the same conversation again and again.

Q: How has competition changed in the context of a global world?

A: Enza currently has about a 40 percent production share, and our goal is to get it up to 50 to 60 percent by providing the best net grower return. There isn’t a magic bullet. You do it through better management, cost containment, leveraging groups of companies, addressing all the spokes in the wheel. We continue to look at new varieties. If we don’t stay innovative, we’re not doing our job. People talk about consolidation on the buy side, we can wince about it but it is reality. My attitude is big retailers need big suppliers.

In this environment it is critical to stay flexible, be able to source globally and adapt to change. I started working with Sunkist in Canada; the attraction to the people attracted me to this business. The thing is, there really are only a half a dozen true brands in the produce industry.

I remember writing a speech around 1994 called sourcing the globe when asked to be a speaker at a big Sunkist packing house. We had this whole internal discussion of who are we and what do we want to be. It’s hard to be a niche player in this business. It doesn’t mean that much anymore. None of us have the ability to do major pull through promotions any more.

Q: So we circle back to the challenges of differentiation?

A: If you go back 10 to 15 years ago, in the produce department you had maybe 80 SKUs, the standards, apples, oranges, a few items we’d call specialty. Now it’s not uncommon to see 300 or 400 SKUs in the produce department and in some chains 600 or 700 choices. Everyone in the supply chain is looking to differentiate, through quality, varieties, and service systems, and retailers are trying to do the same thing.

Ask consumers why they shop Store A or Store B, invariably perishables and the produce department are right up there as the number 1, 2 and 3 reasons why someone picks one retailer over another. Center aisles don’t look that different. This is where the retailer can stand out as unique.

The biggest buzz word is category management, and it is still a relatively new concept for fresh fruits and vegetables. We discussed it at BC Hothouse on colored bell peppers, and the importance of understanding the meaning behind all the data. Does the consumer have a significant preference for red peppers compared to yellow or orange, or is that because we produce more red or the retailer had more red available on the shelves or on promotion?

We are doing a lot more to understand the consumer, but we know, first we have to win the real-estate battle to get on the shelves. Share of consumer stomach is next.

Food is a very emotional experience for people. Beyond sustaining nutritional level, fruits give joy, romance, health, the planet’s health, so much is tied into how we look at food now. It’s the difference between health and wellness.

Q: Is Enza delving into the value-added product arena?

A: We have a sister company Enza Foods, under the Turners and Growers umbrella, and that’s where trialing of value added products occurs beyond standard apple juice processing. Look at what happened to the lettuce category with value added. The key is that the product has to have a value proposition because processing is expensive, and comes with huge overhead. Like everyone else, we’re looking for adding value to products. I don’t know that much about this side of the business yet since I haven’t been here long enough. I’ll be spending the next three weeks in production areas. I need to meet the growers and see what happens on the ground as I explore all the opportunities ahead.

Q: It’s notable in this industry to see a woman in such a strong leadership role. Have you found gender to be an issue in your varied tenure?

A: I gave a speech once on leadership and women succeeding in predominantly male businesses. I started out by saying, ‘you may not like what I have to say. There is no forum in the produce industry to push personal agenda; if that’s a problem you shouldn’t work in this industry.’ There is the sensitivity of purchase decisions where a woman’s perspective is helpful as roughly 60 percent of produce purchases are made by women. Being a woman in a leadership role does bring a curiosity factor; i.e. who is this broad?! The fact is, it’s an asset if you make it an asset and a barrier if you make it a barrier.

I feel strongly about my leadership role and gender is not the issue. I don’t like stereotypes or broad-based gender definitions, but if I had to give generalizations, our style tends to be more relationship oriented and less hierarchal, which is a benefit to this industry. At the same time, being a single woman in many ways becomes necessary to meet the challenges and demands of an international career. That said my role as a woman is not a forum for me in my job. There are lots of places you can go for that. The office and the business environment is not that place.

Q: With all the insight you bring to your new position at Enza, where will you begin in realizing your overall vision?

A: It is important to look at where your organization’s strengths are. At the macro level, we are in an area of the world that hand produces exceptionally high quality apples and pears, and we get good yield. This is a huge strength.

Then you dwindle down to the micro level. What does Enza have? We have economies of scale, and the ability to support our grower and marketing efforts. We can do R&D, as exemplified by Jazz apples and other varieties coming down the line that don’t have names yet. Kiwi grapes are growing in popularity, but we’re not producing any now. We’re trialing an early variety of green kiwi and red kiwi fruit, but this is in the development process and could take years before it comes to market.

The key for us is that we have great distributor relationships around the world. We need to continue to promote the brand whether Enza or Jazz as a variety and create an emotional connection between the consumer and the grower. We know the apple holds that crunch and tastes goods, but we can’t just ship it off to different people and say good luck. We need to manage the process and shepherd that apple through the supply chain until it reaches the consumer.

product quality means it can’t just look good, it has to taste good and offer the consumer value. The ease of global movement has more impact then controlled atmosphere technology. There is always demand for good tasting apples. The reality is there’s an expectation of good tasting product available on the shelf all the time.

The industry lost site of this for a time. The apple industry was one classic example. The tomato industry another, of breeding in shelf life and breeding out flavor. The impetus to change has been the recognition that the whole experience has to end in the consumer’s mouth, whether it’s at a restaurant or the consumer’s own kitchen. If you turn the consumer off by giving them a bad apple, there are 200 other things they could buy instead.

Q: Temptations go beyond the produce department to the junk food aisles. Does Enza have any marketing programs designed specifically to increase children’s produce consumption?

A: There are so many things we’d love to do but we have to keep our eye on net returns and margins. We know it is critical to market to children, but we don’t have specific programs for children right now. We are aware of so many opportunities. We do marketing and merchandising through distributors, through Oppenheimer for the North American market, and we work with World Wide Fruit in the UK. And Enza has an office in Belgium.

Every global market presents some unique challenges and opportunities. Does one stand out as more difficult than other? In the end, the game is the same. Getting the right product delivered in the right package at the right time to maximize quality, taste and value.

Our biggest growth opportunity is coming on stream with these new varieties. We’re looking at the grower community for like-minded growers to partner with or to acquire for ultimate vertical integration. That’s how to grow crop share. We’re moving toward more vertical integration, absolutely, but it’s a matter of balance; of having control while nurturing the creative genius of our grower community.

Q: You’ve certainly gained a wealth of knowledge and experience through your varied career. What would you say have been your most valuable lessons?

A: Relationships I’ve developed through the years are key. At BC Hothouse for almost four years, I had a professional relationship with Turners and Growers; in fact that relationship existed on and off in my career as I sold product to the company as an exporter.

In this industry, one tends to make lifelong friends. I remember one time we had a coaching seminar at BC Hothouse, where the facilitator told everyone to bring the one item to this session that means the most to you. I wondered around my house trying to come up with an item that had such significance to me, and I came upon my address book with business connections and friends from all around the world. I would bring this because it was the contents of this item I knew I could not let fade away.

I realized the value of my address book, which symbolized what an exciting and challenging adventure and learning opportunity the people and the industry have afforded me and that will continue at Enza. I hope in turn Enza can benefit from my skill set. Enza went through the deregulation process, and there have been a couple of people in this role I embark on with a myriad of stories. Looking in the rear view mirror is not productive, you must always move forward.

It’s that balance of finding the passion that exists in those that spent their life in this industry with the hard economics of this business. If passion was enough the whole industry would be millionaires.

Amid all the turmoil, and all the challenges, Dawn Gray paints a three tier picture for how production interests can survive and thrive in an era of buyer consolidation.

First, she reminds us that “… big retailers need big suppliers…” — which is another way of saying that suppliers can’t be intimidated in dealing with large buyers. They have something important and valuable to bring to the table and need to speak up for their needs.

Second, she points to grower consolidation and vertical integration as tools for capturing margin and reducing costs — thus keeping profits available for producers.

Third, she identifies proprietary produce, such as Enza’s Jazz variety, and brand as a tool to make a producer important to a buyer.

Dawn is a long way from home, but she is fighting the same battles that have defined the industry for decades — yet now she has a focus on a strategy that just might pan out.

Too often Americans don’t pay enough attention to what is going on outside the U.S. borders.

New Zealand is a relatively small country, but perhaps that very fact is allowing for a focus on a strategy to make an important industry survive and prosper.

Best of luck to Dawn Gray in her new position and many thanks to both Dawn and Enza for sharing some strategies for success with the industry at large.

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