In an industry of high-pressure leadership and an iron-fisted approach to getting the job done, Joe Pezzini holds steady.
“What does it take to be a good CEO? Well, many in this business say having a fiery temper—and a lot of them do—but I don’t think that’s a great recipe for success,” he tells me.
Ever calm and cool, Ocean Mist’s incoming President and CEO’s path to becoming an executive leader is a unique one, and with it he has become well-known for bringing a different game to the table.
“I didn’t know that this is where I’d end up. I worked side-by-side with workers in the field, and I can still pack a mean box of lettuce,” Joe laughs. “You have to have a mutual respect and appreciation of everyone. But, I would say I’ve always been quietly ambitious.”
Quietly ambitious. This seems to me a perfect way to describe Ocean Mist’s newest leader, transitioning into his position this year as 25-year CEO Ed Boutonnet prepares to move into Chairman of the Board full time while remaining involved with special projects within the organization.
Driving through the fields with Joe, he proudly gets mud on his tires while he talks about the company’s agricultural history, growth, and all he’s seen in the industry since starting up in 1983.
He is the first leader that isn’t a descendant of one of the founding families to captain the company in its 92 years. In 1924, Daniel Pieri, Amerigo and Angelo Del Chiaro, Alfred Tottino, and James Bellone launched what would become Ocean Mist, and through its growth it has remained led by family, until Joe took the reins.
But that’s not to say artichoke-growing isn’t in his blood. “I grew up in this business working on our family farm,” Joe points out, explaining that he’s a third-generation artichoke grower. “I’ve worked a little bit of everything, and to be a part of all the change has been really neat.”
Which means that Joe is no stranger to getting his hands dirty and a little mud on his boots, and though it seems a grower’s life was always one he wanted, he hadn’t necessarily intended to stick with artichokes.
“Salinas Valley agriculture was the cutting-edge. I’d grown up working on our artichoke farm, and when I came back from college I thought, ‘Man, that’s enough of artichokes for me,’ and got an opportunity working with Boutonnet Farms,” Joe recalls as he ticks off a list of the new categories he learned to grow. “They grew lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, fennel… all sorts of stuff. It allowed me to try something new and get involved in a different part of the business.”
The 80s turned out to be when Ocean Mist branched out from artichokes as well, becoming a year-round shipper of a number of products. Today, despite being one of the largest artichoke producers in the nation, the company grows more lettuce than anything else, Joe explains.
“Our flagship product is still artichokes, at any given time we still account for nearly 90 percent of domestic artichokes, but at that time you couldn’t do that and be a year-round grower,” Joe tells me.
So, Boutonnet became part of the Ocean Mist network, bringing Joe with him. And, as he earned his way up the ranks, Joe found himself back in artichokes.
But when it comes to finding where he truly started to become the leader in agriculture he is today, it all seems to trace back to when the spinach outbreak hit in 2006.
“His calm, determined and far-sighted leadership was a critical element in the industry’s success in dealing with the crisis.” - Scott Horsfall
As Chairman of the Grower Shipper Association at the time, the tragedy was one Joe felt was his duty to take head-on and find a solution to, and Scott Horsfall of the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) says the responsibility could not have come to a better candidate.
“The leafy greens industry was incredibly fortunate to have Joe Pezzini in a position of leadership at the time of the E. Coli outbreak in 2006,” Scott says. “His calm, determined and far-sighted leadership was a critical element in the industry’s success in dealing with the crisis.” Scott tells me that on a personal level, Joe Pezzini is among the kindest, most professional, and most conscientious people he’s ever known.
“It’s hard to imagine a better person for the job that was given to him in 2006. Not only did Joe lead the industry’s efforts to rebuild the industry after the spinach outbreak, but, as the first chairman of the LGMA, he was the person most responsible for creating this unique and unprecedented organization. It was the first time a marketing agreement had been created specifically to tackle food safety issues,” Scott explains.
“Like the saying goes, ‘is it leadership that finds you or do you find it?’” Joe responds humbly when it comes to his role in helping the industry through the crisis. A grower, a leader, a family man, and even a runner, I ask Joe what it is that fuels him to accomplish so much. And when it comes to discussing the planning and strategizing for Ocean Mist his eyes light up.
“I’m very process and task-driven,” Joe tells me. “I like the exercise of putting a plan together, whether it be strategic, operational, or even a planting schedule, there’s something about putting a process together and then seeing it unfold.”
His thirst for information seems to have led Joe to be knowledgeable on several topics, something he says is necessary for being able to steer that process and manage the passionate people who help make it happen.
“If there was a theme to my career it would be that I’m a generalist. I’m not an expert in anything, but I know just enough to make me dangerous,” he tells me with a smile that makes me believe it.
“You have to trust your team, get out of the way, and let them do their job.” - Joe Pezzini
Part of that process, too, is trusting those who are the experts, Joe continues. “You have to have experts in order to thrive, but to get all the experts to work together I think you have to be a generalist. You have to trust your team, get out of the way, and let them do their job.”
Currently in the process of planning Ocean Mist’s next moves, Joe tells me that the company is planning and strategizing a way to continue to be at the forefront of innovation while still keeping to its roots.
The company is holding close to the quality that got it to where it is today, but the key to growth is evolving, something Joe describes with both nostalgia and excitement.
“This is an industry of legacy, but we’re the modern version of early-day pioneers who may not even recognize the business today. And change is hard, but it’s necessary and it’s been neat to see.”
But planning, as anyone in the produce industry can tell you, will only go so far.
“We’re not making widgets, this is produce. Mother Nature is always going to have a say, but having good standards and a good quality product to build off of is key,” Joe says, though something in his voice makes me think he’s betting on that plan to be strong enough. And as for what it takes to be a good CEO?
“If anything I would hope to serve as an example to others in this industry. Patience and persistence can pay off. There is opportunity and you can work your way up, but you have to seize it when it comes along,” he says.
Coming from a man who worked his way up the ladder in an industry rooted in tradition, these are words to keep close as we watch him add a new chapter of possibilities to Ocean Mist’s legacy.