hat keeps me up at night? Nothing,” Julie Krivanek smiles calmly as I ask her what concerns remain at the forefront of her motivation. With accolades and achievements adorning her history, Julie has carved herself a successful spot not only in the fresh produce industry, but in professional realms beyond. So, for those who know the thriving businesswoman, her answer is right on track.
Julie heads and drives her own strategy consulting firm, Krivanek Consulting, specifically tailored to the produce industry and the executives who lead it. With a heap of notable names to enrich her client list, such as Naturipe Farms, To-Jo Mushrooms, Sunkist, Get Fresh Sales, Mission Produce, SunFed, Mann Packing, Pro*Act, and Kraft Foods, Julie brings the same focus and dedication to success for herself to the clients she serves, launching them further towards business growth, national platforms, and beyond.
Julie’s direct involvement and hands-on approach with her clients is what sets her firm apart from the professional consulting that most companies are used to—trademarks that have helped her company reach its 25th anniversary with ease.
“Every company is different, so each program is custom-made to achieve the most profitable growth for their unique model,” Julie says.
Julie zeroes in on strategy as a management tool for her clients, but warns that her focus has a different connotation than what people might normally expect.
“What happened with the word ‘strategy,’ is that people don’t actually know what it means. It’s been overused and oversimplified. Especially in our urgent, fast-paced industry. People make mistakes when they start at the short term tactical level and move directly into creating ‘the plan.’ Strategic and critical thinking about the future comes first,”
With Julie at its head, Krivanek Consulting helps produce companies rigorously examine their own businesses, analyze the marketplace, and recognize trends on a domestic and global level. By focusing on where a company is at now, and where it wants to be in five years, Julie says that a company is able to develop a plan that engages all company leaders in implementing a clear path to success.
“Strategy tells a business how to aim their human, financial, and operational resources to achieve something tangible in the future. But it is complicated because it also requires deep analysis of competition, consumer and supply chain trends, and what customers tell us about how to improve the business,” Julie says. “It's the hunt for obstacles and opportunities that lead to good decisions and, lastly, a plan for execution.”
Julie provides her clients with invaluable and straightforward feedback as she calculates the executive skills and management practices needed throughout each department in a company. These assessments, although they may not be easy to hear initially, guarantee that each produce business can reach its peak performance by recognizing what is working in its business model and fixing what isn’t.
“I won’t tell you what to do, I’ll show you how to do it,” Julie tells me, clearly outlining what makes her style so distinct and effective as she spearheads the road to profitable growth unique to each fresh produce company.
“Sometimes people get overwhelmed looking at all the trends, thinking that they have to implement everything and turn them into a jackpot. But if you get a strong sense of how to align trends with the talent and capabilities of a business, you can select the ones that are achievable and will make a significant financial difference,” Julie elaborates.
So, how did Julie rise to where she stands now, head of her own firm with a sharp reputation in produce, picking up distinctions along the way such as youngest and first female Vice President in the Fortune 10, and United Fresh’s 2016 Women In Produce Honoree?
Born the daughter of first generation Czech-Americans immigrated from Prague, Julie first called “home” Chicago, Illinois. Julie credits her family’s rigid Czech and “old country” structures for her success. The fearless businesswoman learned the values of prioritization and persistence through the values of her family, especially her grandmother, “Babi,” as Julie calls her.
“She was the inspiration for my life; very funny, and tough as nails,” Julie remembers. “I have Babi’s DNA. Fearless, resilient, never quitting, and an immigrant’s drive. I had to be better than good.”
These traits went further than just laying the foundation for Julie’s future success, as Babi also introduced her to an industry that Julie would later fall in love with. This career destination, though it would be years before she cemented her foothold there, was the fresh produce industry.
“My grandparents were farmers in Czechoslovakia, and then opened a grocery store in the Czech neighborhood when they moved to Chicago,” Julie says, naming her relationship with her grandparents as her heritage in fresh produce. “They worked 18 hours a day in that store, and they always had the best vegetables in the city.”
Julie’s hereditary drive was evident as her grandparents lamentably lost everything to the Great Depression before rebuilding their entire fortune to open the first natural food store chain in Chicago.
“I was a produce baby before I was even in the industry,” she laughs, referring to produce as the “family business.”
Before Julie could secure her own stature in the produce industry, however, she had other professional arenas to conquer first.
Julie attended Purdue University’s Krannert School of Business where she was educated to be a General Manager for Fortune 500 companies, then launched straight into industries where few women had been before; oil and coal.
“The first few years were brutal and I constantly wanted to quit. After work, I’d call Babi and she’d always say the same thing: ‘Pull yourself together!’” Julie says.
Pull herself together she did, and Julie’s drive and professional assets soon helped her transition from being an unwelcome, token female in the industry, to a secret weapon. But, landing in her last position on the merger and acquisition team as the Senior Vice President of the “crown jewel” sector, the coal division, Julie says that she couldn’t shake the feeling that neither coal nor oil were her dream path.
“I wanted my own business. I was at the top of my game, but I was miserable. So I drove to work one morning and resigned,” Julie asserts.
Julie originally started her own firm cultivating management programs for all industries, which came to include noted names such as Oracle, Hewlett Packard, and AT&T.
However, following a call from United Fresh asking her to be the keynote speaker for the inaugural DuPont leadership program, Julie realized she had found her legacy. As Julie’s reputation in the industry flourished, she began consciously cutting out other companies, leaving only produce on her professional plate.
“My first career made me tough. Produce made me grateful,” Julie ruminates.
So, ultimately, why produce?
“If this industry doesn't inspire, nothing will. We are the epicenter of health and wellness, taste, and flavor—all with an entrepreneurial spirit that stands head and shoulders above all other industries,” Julie says, showing her passion for the industry that wooed her enough to settle within it, but not settle for stagnant results.
"If this industry doesn’t inspire, nothing will. We are the epicenter of health and wellness, taste, and flavor." —Julie Krivanek
This passionate dedication has seen Julie through 25 sets of worn out luggage as she travels throughout the world, adding destinations such as Canada, Mexico, Israel, Chile, and Colombia to her professional portfolio.
“I’m personally inspired by my world travels to unique places and cultures. The more different we may feel from others in other countries, the more we are exactly the same,” says Julie. “Being a world traveler has also given me unique insights into the global food industry, and regional farm-to-fork movements.”
For a driven business woman such as Julie, her “work hard” mentality instilled in her from the beginning, paired with her canny leadership perceptions has seen her beyond just advising top-level executives to mentoring the next group of produce leaders as well.
“It’s not just about me, though. It’s all about the people’s journeys that I’ve shared,” Julie says of her over 20 years working to shape the United Fresh leadership program, its alums, and the realms they’ve moved on to. “The industry has been seeded with these leaders who are making lasting and meaningful contributions, it’s really just exquisite.”
As Julie continues to think ahead, instead of focusing on the past or being limited by the present, she says that the advice most commonly given to the next wave of innovators is something she’s well practiced in herself.
“Jump in with both feet! The opportunities simply stagger in this industry, and in order to stay relevant we always have to keep growing and progressing,” she says, drawing on decades of mentorship, strategy, and produce knowledge. “I don’t want to see this industry stagnant.”
With her professional gaze set far ahead on visualized successes that others would barely have begun to outline, there’s one excerpt from Julie’s focused wisdom that’s stuck with me the most, and promises to carry the industry even further: “Obstacles do not block the path, they are the path.” And what an exciting path it has been.