The scene is set in the backcountry mountains of Southern California. The dew is still on the leaves, the air is crisp, and the light is just beginning to peek through the trees. This is where you can find the leader of California Avocado Commission (CAC), President and CEO Tom Bellamore, not sifting through stacks of paper on his desk, but atop his noble steed and partner in crime, D.C.
So, are he and D.C. riding off into the sunset to ignore Tom’s presidential duties? Not a chance. Tom, the man at the helm of ensuring that California avocados are the premium avocados in the market, tells me his long rides with his horse each weekend are actually one of the most important factors in what makes him so effective as a commission President.
“During my meetings at the Commission, I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation for finding ways to sneak a picture of my horse into board presentations. Now you may think that’s just me trying to get a few laughs and find excuses to show off my horse, which it was,” Tom laughs. “But mostly, it’s a reminder. We’re all very focused on the serious business of growing demand for California avocados, but if we want to be effective at doing that, we need to have balance in our lives. I’m not the kind of CEO who thinks your only passion should be avocados—there needs to be much more than that.”
That passion, for both his backcountry explorations and for maximizing market opportunities for California avocados, is what sets Tom apart from someone who just serves the bare minimum of their title. That is palpable when hearing him speak about his mission for the Commission. Under his leadership, CAC developed “Vision 2020,” and update, “Vision 2025,” outlining the desired direction for California avocados. CAC, under Tom, is constantly evaluating market opportunities, trade, and consumer targets—all in an effort to be lead horse for the avocado industry.
So where does that hunger to lead the pack for avocado sales come from? Tom’s background is actually not from the warm and welcoming riding trails of California where he so eagerly makes his home, but as a biologist in the northernmost parts of Alaska.
A graduate from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks with a B.S. in biology, Tom spent many of his post-college years studying the icy north, before joining the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau. That position introduced him to the world of commodity marketing, where he has spent the rest of his career.
In 1985, he left Alaska, and over the next seven or eight years, worked for several different commodity groups from seafood, brandy producers, and the cotton industry, to peas and lentils, where he met who would become one of his biggest mentors, “one-man lobbying team” and Council Manager, Harold Blain. Tom says he still meets with Blain annually, not only to catch up with a good friend, but to get the advice of an industry board authority with wisdom to match.
“I’m not the kind of CEO who thinks your only passion should be avocados—there needs to be much more than that.” -Tom Bellamore
“Harold Blain was the pea and lentil industry—he basically formed the boards himself in a very innovative way,” Tom explained to me as he reminisces on one of his favorite stories of Harold’s unique personality. “I had only been there about a week when Harold summoned me to his office one rainy morning, and his tone suggested he had an important purpose in mind. To my surprise, he had me follow him down to the basement, where he asked me to help him with a 30-foot ladder. Next thing I know, we are propping the ladder up against the outside of the building, with the wind blowing, as Harold ascends to change a burned out light bulb. I will always remember that, because it really struck me how he cared so much for the industry—that he was willing to take risks and do whatever was necessary to keep things running properly. That was the case whether he was in Washington, D.C., at the office of the Speaker of the House, or at the industry headquarters back in Idaho. It was really extraordinary to see his level of commitment and it was wonderful to have that guidance early on and still to this day.”
Here, Tom became an expert in export marketing, running programs in 23 countries worldwide using USDA’s Targeted Export Assistance program. In 1992, he met and married his wife, who was a Louisianan by birth, but was living in San Francisco and loved the Golden State. That latter fact was an important element in bringing him to CAC and its California location, in the early 1990s.
“When I started at the Commission, keeping California growers safe from invasive pests was a top concern. Because I’m trained as a biologist, I could understand grower concerns at a deeper level,” Tom explains. “There was a legal aspect to the pest issue, as well. Within a few years, I set about getting my master’s degree in business administration, and then my law degree while going to school at night. I became a member of the California Bar in 2003 and joined the D.C. Bar soon after. It takes so much to know every aspect of the avocado industry—there are so many facets.”
That extensive array of education set him up perfectly to become Senior Vice President and Corporate Counsel of CAC, and eventually being named President of the commission in 2009. For the past seven years as the Commission’s head, Tom has led the organization through a period of transformation, including CAC’s now ground-breaking California avocado grower campaign.
As fate often has a way of unfolding, Tom is once again coming up against the challenge that he started with at the Commission, as well as his specialty—pests.
“The avocado industry is very dynamic. After nearly four decades since the Commission began, the industry is still confronted with new and challenging problems, but our growers have always been very resilient. The latest one is a nasty pest-disease complex that just surfaced three or four years ago,” Tom relays to me when I ask him what issues have been keeping him and the California avocado industry up at night. “While it’s not widespread yet, its lifecycle makes it extremely difficult to eradicate. It’s been daunting, but we’re up to the task.”
When Tom isn’t tasking himself with combatting avocado pests or searching for the perfect work-life balance on the horse trails of Southern California, he’s heading ground-breaking advertising campaigns like the new, “California by Nature,” which showcases the fact that California avocados are not just made in California, but made of California. This campaign is not only visually stunning, using a retro, pop art vibe, but speaks to a millennial demographic that is craving authentic and meaningful imagery.
If you ask Tom, however, you’d be hard-pressed to get him to take any of the credit for these accomplishments. In fact, he’s known by the entire California avocado board as being someone quick to attribute his accomplishments to his team at the California Avocado Commission.
“If I’m going to ask something of my staff members, I have to be ready to do it myself, just like the lesson I learned from Harold Blain,” Tom says. “There’s nothing that’s above my job—you need to be willing to do any task to better the organization. The culture we’ve established at the California Avocado Commission is one of supporting each other. We are all passionate about what we do, we encourage each other to grow and learn, and we strive to find the perfect work-life balance. ”
So where does Tom see himself and D.C. riding off to next? Expect many more trails for this dynamic duo in the future, both personally and professionally.