“Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin' is knowin' what to throw away and knowin' what to keep. 'Cause every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser, and the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”
It’s little wonder that Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is Anthony Gallino’s favorite song. It’s practically an anthem for selling and for fresh produce, and the Vice President of Sales for California Giant Berry Farms is deeply embedded in both.
“I prefer to keep things simple—you keep selling berries; we’ll keep sending them; when it stops moving, we’ll stop shipping. It’s the philosophy I was brought up with by Bill Moncovich and Pat Riordan, two of our founding partners, and the model works,” Anthony says as we discuss building relationships with the buy-side. “You can overanalyze it, let the counters run every spreadsheet in the world, and there’s a lot of great data that comes out of that. But when it’s all said and done, it’s a feeling, and it’s what Mother Nature is letting you do—it’s farming.”
Before there was California Giant, Anthony went to one of the four founding partners of the berry company and asked if he could push a broom around while he worked on his credential as a physical education teacher.
“I was lucky enough to learn from some of the best. Bill called me the next day and told me to just watch and listen,” he remembers. “I never thought at the time that 25 years later I would still be here representing a brand and a company that has such a strong reputation in the industry.”
Through it all, Anthony has helped to build that strong market presence, having joined the team in 1994 and rising through the ranks to now having a team of his own.
“I interact daily with our sales team, especially with our Director of Retail Nick Chappell and Director of Foodservice Tom Smith on volumes, pricing, and any issues that might arise from our trading partners,” Anthony says of what his day is like. “I like to give them input and let them make decisions on certain issues. It’s great experience for them as they grow in their produce careers.”
When I ask if he has a deal he remembers as his own turning point, he barely hesitates.
“Walmart. That was one of the first times I got a call saying, ‘Be here in Bentonville, Arkansas, at this time,’ and I went. However, today that business and most of our sales and buying relationships have evolved and changed dramatically. That is one of the great things about being in produce: The ever-changing landscape and sales environment. It’s all about adaptability and understanding that each customer is unique.”
And, of course, it’s always changing. When Anthony first started selling berries it meant constantly being on the phone with buyers, sometimes 10 to 15 times a day he tells me, developing trust and building relationships. Today it’s a little different.
“There were still a lot of relationship-based customers. Now, a lot of the buyers don’t have time to call us. Everything is electronic or email,” he reflects nostalgically, but I laugh as he adds he was the first in the company to get an email address. The man I know is so tech-savvy that even his dog, Bici, has an Instagram. It’s all part of staying ahead of the curve, he reminds me, much of which is following the gut.
“You can plan all you want but, ultimately, it’s up to Mother Nature because that is something you can forecast and analyze, but she always surprises you. A classic example is this season: We had that freeze earlier in the year and volume was so far up, nobody could have forecasted the numbers. And it’s all because of a frost,” he says.
Truly, volume-wise, it’s the biggest season ever according to the longtime berry executive, with two weeks of 10 million flats in the state, just to give an idea.
"In 25 years I’ve never seen anything like it, and the acreage was down by 2,000,” he says. “So I think the industry needs another correction, it’s not going to happen next year, but it’ll happen. It always does.”
“YOU CAN PLAN ALL YOU WANT BUT, ULTIMATELY, IT'S UP TO MOTHER NATURE."
— Anthony Gallino, Vice President of Sales,
California Giant Berry Farms
He explains that new higher-yielding varieties with existing acreage have combined to make it tough to move product during the peak of the season. When I ask about how to correct it, he says, “I think the next thing you might see in our industry is consolidation. We just need to get back to where volume and pricing is manageable based on demand and what the market can bear during those peak months, and look at how we can smooth out the bell curve.”
As Kenny Rogers says, “You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
“That’s another part of what’s so cool about this industry,” Anthony agrees. “You work together on certain issues and others you try to be as secretive as you can. In the end, on any given morning, you’re going to see every major strawberry supplier in the same coffee shop in Watsonville, California,” he laughs.
To that end, I ask how California Giant carved out its space on that berry block. After all, the company was still the new kid when Anthony joined.
“Having a small grower base, and having control on a consistent basis,” he tells me without hesitation. “Probably the biggest key is having full control of what goes in the box and working with the growers with the same philosophy, not just going for volume. We have a great market share, but we view ourselves as a premium packer, and that’s what we want. The whole goal is to remain ahead of that curve.”
It’s on that note that we discuss what it is that makes California Giant such a strong fit for retailers and foodservice operators, which Anthony brings back to the berry itself as much as those that deliver it.
“We want to be the go-to supplier for quality and consistency in the berry sector,” he says. “We take great pride in what we do and want to maximize the return to the grower. Selecting the trading partner is a huge part of that equation.”
Another aspect of being that strong partner is staying ahead of the marketing curve, much like how he and his team involved fresh produce branding on sports jerseys, leading the industry to cyclists and their potential for visibility.
Anthony recalls, having cycled and raced since college, “I had all these buddies in racing saying that we should sponsor them, and I thought, ‘Why should I sponsor you when you can ride for us?’”
Thus begun California Giant’s cycling team. In running this program, Anthony began what is now a popular trend of fresh produce cycling kits. This of course led to another brilliant marketing tool—the Tour de Fresh.
Every time I talk to Anthony, I feel I have dumbfoundedly circled back to his strolling into the office of VP of Marketing Cindy Jewell to pitch the thought of riding into a trade show with produce professionals. How many times have I asked him to recall how Cindy found a good cause to attach the ride to before they together found a name that had all the makings of a national ad campaign?
“I’m always excited to come to work because this industry has a cast of characters that can always make you laugh and smile no matter what mood I’m in each and every day."
“We were so ahead of the game as far as the healthy diet, healthy lifestyle aspect of marketing, now everyone’s doing it,” he says. “Same with having our company on kits. It comes back to what I said about trying to keep it as simple as possible.”
And having a strong partner in crime doesn’t hurt either. “I still have a little marketing in me, but it’s about having somebody like Cindy who’s just phenomenal. I’m constantly just throwing ideas at her whether they’re stupid or not,” Anthony laughs.
It all seems to circle back to partnerships; with Cindy now, with buyers new and old, all the way back to learning from some of the best in berries.
“Sometimes we lead, sometimes we follow, but there’s so much knowledge at California Giant. We miss Pat every day. But with Bill and with Frank Saveria leading us we probably have more experience in berries, both fresh and frozen, than most of those that are still in it. There’s just a handful of those guys with the background to have seen it all. And we have so much experience between our partners and our VPs that we typically know how it’s going to play out. We just have to choose which avenue you’re going to let it play out in,” Anthony reflects. “We’ve made some bad decisions in the past, and we’ve made some great decisions in the past. Mexico, for example, has given us some of our biggest growth over the last 10 years but at the time was totally new to us. You’ve got to spend a little to save a lot—every deal’s different.”
Is it this background that keeps someone at a company 25-years-strong?
“I’m always excited to come to work because this industry has a cast of characters that can always make you laugh and smile no matter what mood I’m in each and every day,” he tells me.
With the breadth of knowledge he has at his disposal, I ask what it is that keeps this berry maverick up at night. He tells me that, in the produce industry, he thinks a food safety issue is what we all fear and keeps us up at night. However, “Last night it was a damn raccoon climbing up my back fence.”
Through it all, Anthony’s had a chance to help grow the business in what he says has been a hell of a ride. As for what’s to come, “You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table. There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.”