Young, engaged, and positioned for continued growth. That’s what comes to mind while I sit with Robert Kershaw in Domex Superfresh Growers’ newly expanded Yakima office to talk about what exactly makes the company tick. While the current President and fifth generation grower may typically shy away from the limelight, today he is sharing one of his biggest passions with me - the people.
“We like to break the watch apart every single day and find a better way of putting it back together, with an emphasis on we ,” Robert tells me. “That’s our culture. It’s about striving to be the best and never sitting still, and that starts with those people who make our program possible.”
Superfresh Growers isn’t just one of Washington’s largest apple growers, it is also home to one of the most progressive and unique work cultures in our industry. Domex prides itself on being true to the soul of the company, which communicates an immeasurable source of passion for the community and for the well-being of each employee.
“I don’t want to look back when I am at the end of my career and say I didn’t help improve the lives of the people around me. Our teammates can spend up to 12 or even 14 hours a day here in the office, and I try and make the environment one where we can work hard, thrive, and have fun and stretch our legs when we want to,” Robert smiles.
The Domex team is an eclectic mix of personalities, ages, and demographics, which keeps the atmosphere dynamic and ever-focusing on the road ahead.
“We look for very competitive people who can appreciate the team over the individual. That is a very big part of our selection process." - Robert Kershaw
“It isn’t about titles here. We welcome the younger team members’ input as much as the older generation, something we like to call building a demographic curve,” Howard Nager, Vice President of Marketing, tells me. “It is about developing talent and retaining it. Having a range of voices allows a unique dialogue between different generations to share varying levels of expertise in technology, growing practices, marketing concepts, and business models.”
Within that all-inclusive mentality, there is also a delicate balance to maintain. When working in this extremely competitive industry, recognizing the importance of the ‘team’ is essential to the culture at Domex.
“We look for very competitive people who can appreciate the team over the individual. That is a very big part of our selection process. Take basketball for example. The point guard doesn’t score a lot of points, but the team can’t win without them,” Robert tells me as he walks me through some of his most-frequented sports analogies.
“If you don’t have a good team member, it affects the health of the whole and can bring down an entire organization,” Robert notes. “One of my favorites is the locker room analogy. It’s close quarters in here, and you have to enjoy being in a place where you spend more than half of your waking hours. It’s where you have the possibilities to earn or lose trust, build on your strengths, or succumb to your weaknesses.”
“We are a family and a community with a sense of responsibility,” Loren Queen, Marketing & Communications Manager, tells me. “Whether it is the company’s latest project in social and corporate responsibility, or nurturing the next generation of great leaders in Washington State, the focus for Domex Superfresh Growers has always been the health of the team, to ensure the health of the company.”
While the efforts to support the growing Yakima community are currently at their peak, this family mentality began long before Robert took the reins, and speaks to five generations of Kershaw growers.
The history of the Kershaw Companies in the Yakima Valley begins with family, a vein that runs deep throughout the company’s business model. The roots of Domex actually took hold in different form more than 125 years ago when the Kershaw pioneers headed west to ultimately settle in the Naches Valley. Originally, one of those pioneers, Robert Kershaw, focused on raising cattle, but the expanded availability of irrigation water following the passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902 encouraged him to move into fruit ranching, starting with pear orchards and then adding apples to the portfolio as the company looked to differentiate.
What began as the Kershaw Companies quickly evolved into a vertically integrated organization to include farming, warehousing, sales, marketing, and logistic services. In 1981, fourth generation Ed Kershaw and his brother, Bob, launched Domex Superfresh Growers to help bring the company’s fruit and other grower partners’ fruit to market. The company is now led by President Robert Kershaw.
“Employees have to have passion and believe in their product." - Howard Nager
In 2009, as growth continued and the need to work even more closely with customers continued to escalate, Kevin Kershaw, also a fifth generation family member, created a transportation division called DSG Logistics. As the Director of Transportation, Kevin and his team work closely with not only Domex customers, but many additional grower/shippers that may need transportation and logistics assistance.
So, how does this family-run group of entrepreneurs ensure that they remain competitive in an era of labor shortages, growing consumer demand and a younger, more discerning group of millennials?
“Employees have to have passion and believe in their product. We uphold our end of the bargain by producing the highest quality and safest fruit shipped to all corners of the world, but we also focus on maintaining an enthusiastic, involved and healthy workforce,” Howard notes. From boot camp workout sessions during lunch and field staff fiestas to continuing education and scholarships, Domex Superfresh Growers has established programs that help create a better working environment for all of its employees.
Domex has a campus-style facility that promotes the opportunities to run, walk, or just breathe the crisp, clean air during breaks. The company also enlists trained fitness professionals and offers access to on-site showers. In addition, the company has constructed custom-built soccer and football fields to exercise or compete on, during breaks or after work. At the end of each harvest and packing season the company also hosts celebratory lunches and fiestas with staff as a way to say “thank you.”
“We are farmers at our core,” Robert says. “Farmers for centuries have understood that we are stewards of the land, and of everything around you… including the people. It is the ultimate irony in life, that if you focus and truly care about others you are rewarded. On the flip side, companies and people who only focus on themselves never figure out why they are not successful.”
The company is also doing much to enhance the opportunities in communities throughout the region. Take the Domex sponsorship and involvement in a local youth community center, the Madison House.
This program is run by the Union Gospel Mission and offers summer and after-school programs that provide a safe haven for youth to help guide them through their educational, emotional and spiritual life.
“It really is a beacon of safety for kids who come from some of the roughest parts of Yakima. They can come here and get away from the challenges in their daily lives, from the violence and poverty, and can get tutoring, meals, even someone to talk to,” Loren tells me. “Ed Kershaw sits on the board for Madison House and has really been engaged with the staff to create a ‘Journey of Hope’ to allow these kids access to more opportunities.”
Bob and Ed Kershaw have always been committed to developing employees’ potential. When the opportunity came up to participate in the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, they jumped on board. This program offers a Business Certificate Program, which gives participants an opportunity to make a major impact in the Yakima Valley.
Robert tells me, “In some cases, there are first generation immigrants working with us now who have children that are first in their family to become college graduates. These employees work at Domex as sales managers or are traveling the world with incredible careers. When you give back to the community, you are giving back to those families that have sacrificed so much to help their families succeed.”
For a company that has grown in leaps and bounds over the past 100-plus years, you’d think the team would be a little more comfortable with its bragging rights.
“We don’t like to come out of the gates beating our chests. It has always been a ‘fly under the radar’ mentality,” Howard notes. “We have a diverse range of growing practices and multiple packing locations. It gives us and our customers the flexibility to adapt and grow.”
The future does not come without its challenges for Domex. Elevating and retaining their talent will only become more of a challenge as the industry becomes more competitive and the company continues to vie for a larger part of the market share.
“We want to make sure we’re still around and providing for the next generation and beyond. We asked ourselves how do we go about doing this? How do we find that talent, develop it, and retain it?” Robert asks. “Hopefully people will continue to recognize the genuine appreciation we have for our teammates, and that appreciation will help us continue to recruit talented people to become part of the team. I believe if we do that, our customers will reward us, and our farms, growers and the rest of the business will be rewarded as well.”
In essence, if it is the people that are driving the success of Domex, then it is the people who will remain the primary investment.
“Because we all share the same thinking and the culture is so prevalent, the opportunities are always presenting themselves when you keep the dialogue open,” Howard notes. And they do love to have fun.
Take a certain Will Ferrell sketch from SNL for instance. Howard laughs, “More cowbell.”
“When someone gets a new customer, we ring a cowbell to celebrate the sale,” Howard says. You can’t help but thrive in an environment that gives you the freedom to contribute openly, inspires you daily, and comes equipped with a Will Ferrell reference for every new opportunity you grab.
“We dream pretty big around here and have a culture of continual improvement. I always say that there are no bad ideas. The only bad ideas are no ideas. Everyone in the company has the obligation to speak up and bring new thoughts and perspectives to the table,” Robert says. “Even if we borrow from SNL.”
So with that said, more cowbell please.