Mann Packing CEO cultivates fresh strategy

Silicon Valley Business Journal – by Becky Bergman

With a new company leader and a healthy crop of nutritious food launches, Mann Packing Co. is taking another big bite out of the fresh-cut vegetable market. Officials at the Salinas-based grower-shipper recently promoted produce veteran and 12-year company exec Mike Jarrard to replace Joe Nucci, the former president and CEO who died unexpectedly last summer.

Previously, Mr. Jarrard worked as Mann’s vice president of business development, managing company affiliates Garden Valley LLC and Fresh Leaf Farms LLC. Before that, he worked at Dole Fresh Vegetables as product manager for fresh-cut produce. One of the first tasks Mr. Jarrard will embrace in coming months is the launch of the fresh-cut sweet potato into the consumer market, a concept initially introduced under the direction of the former CEO.

While restaurants and other food service companies can already purchase Mann’s sweet potato fries, cubes and hash browns, the vegetable supplier has been conducting taste tests with retail customers. “This will help us to learn more about how we can improve our product and grow the business on the fresh-cut vegetable side,” said Mr. Jarrard.

After several years of stagnation in the fresh produce market, consumer appetite for healthy and convenient food choices is revving up, said Mr. Jarrard.

“We’re really starting to see a change in what consumers want when it comes to their food,” said Mr. Jarrard. “People are developing healthier eating patterns and they’re starting to bring vegetables back into their diet.”

Food innovation is nothing new for Mann Packing. In fact, in a move considered agricultural suicide by industry experts, H.W. Mann launched the carrot-packing business in 1939 and quickly added broccoli while other farmers concentrated solely on iceberg lettuce.

Instead of wilting away, Mann thrived and eventually transformed itself into the largest shipper of broccoli worldwide. Broccoli remained the company’s flagship product for decades until executives introduced fresh-cut and value-added produce, which now comprise more than half of Mann’s offerings.

The company, acquired by Don Nucci and Bill Ramsey from the Mann estate in 1976, introduced Broccoli Cole Slaw, Broccoli Wokly and vegetable hybrid Broccolini — a product bred from broccoli and Chinese kale. That was followed by whole-leaf lettuce, called Simply Singles, for the food service industry.

In 2002, Mann Packing acquired Garden Valley, a grower of stringless sugar snap peas. Mr. Jarrard calls Garden Valley one of “the shining stars of the company.”

Today, the vegetable supplier grows and ships more than 30 different commodities including cauliflower, asparagus, mini carrots and romaine lettuce on 10,000 acres. Like many agricultural companies in the region, Mann Packing faces a smorgasbord of challenges, including growth and expansion. It currently employs roughly 500 people and is undergoing a project to add 20,000 square feet to its shipping facilities.

Despite rising fuel costs, labor shortage and immigration reform issues that touch the company, Mr. Jarrard said there are no plans to join the recent exodus of produce firms from the Salinas Valley.

“We’re dealing with the issues the best way we can just like anyone else,” said Mr. Jarrard. “You find a way to manage the business and overcome these obstacles.”

Mr. Jarrard says Mann Packing strives to be a good corporate citizen and contribute to the local community by offering financial assistance and encouraging employees to enroll in college courses. Several executives with the company also serve on community boards for various non-profit agencies and advocate for affordable housing.

“There is tremendous opportunity here,” said Mr. Jarrard. “Salinas is the Silicon Valley of agriculture, especially with the cutting edge technology available to produce crops and expand market share.”

Mr. Jarrard, 40, is the fifth chief executive and first non-family member to lead firm.

Growing up on his family’s wheat and alfalfa farm in Bakersfield and earning dual degrees in agriculture and economics from the University of California, Davis groomed Mr. Jarrard for his current role. Company officials said they selected Mr. Jarrard as a successor because of his extensive industry experience coupled with his relationship with the company.

“I think this is indicative of how well the families like and trust Mike to carry the company forward into the future,” said Jim Bogart, president for the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

Mr. Jarrard is tight-lipped about all the company’s financials and won’t confirm whether sales jumped or flattened last year, however a new report published last week by the Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner shows the farming business is flourishing.