Sometimes we go off script—in conversation and in life. And sometimes it is the best thing to ever happen to us. If you are Julie Olivarria, the new Vice President of Produce for Sysco, there was no template laid in front of her for the life she would lead—a freedom in itself. So, instead of taking a path that would lead to a career in nursing—her first passion—she veered into fresh produce, a fork in the road that has benefitted us all and, of course, her the most.
“Prior to starting my career in produce, I was going to school to become a nurse. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, but I find you can make a difference with a meal. It is rare that you will find me not smiling or not in a good mood. I try to always keep a positive outlook,” Julie reveals, reflecting on how her choice, though unexpected, still aligns with her values in new and exciting ways.
Julie began her produce career with Fresh Choice more than 26 years ago. While more than two decades in fresh produce may have weathered some, Julie carries a vibrancy with her that I believe makes her a shining beacon in the industry to draw other lights.
“Today the opportunities are countless. I’ve seen the industry evolve and roles expand, for both men and women.”
–Julie Olivarria, Vice President of Produce, Sysco
“I began with an entry-level position and worked my way into sales. I was then recruited by Sysco to be a produce buyer back in 1999. Since then I have held several roles with Sysco in the produce procurement office, including the last five years as Senior Director, overseeing the accounting and procurement teams, before this recent promotion,” Julie expresses.
In Julie’s new role, she has been entrusted to lead the Sysco produce team across the business and is responsible for continued growth in the category in order to maintain the foodservice operator’s position as an industry leader.
“Under Rich Dachman’s leadership and mentorship, we changed the way we procure and bring product to market. I feel a tremendous responsibility to carry on his legacy and continue to grow our business into the future,” she smiles and says.
Rich Dachman. That is one name that more than rings a bell in fresh produce, and Julie has had the great pleasure to work under Rich, who is retiring this summer. When Rich passed the baton to Julie, he did so with full faith in both her passion and her ability to accomplish great things for Sysco. With his more than 25 years at Sysco, you can see why this belief speaks volumes.
“At Sysco, we have worked tirelessly to develop and evolve our produce program into the industry leader that it is today, and so moving on to this next path in my life is not something I have chosen to do lightly,” Rich takes a moment to share with me. “A wise man once told me that your legacy is defined after you leave. In my case, it could not be in better hands than with Julie as my successor. Julie has such a great reputation for integrity and the ability to perfectly walk the fine line of being a highly-effective, assertive leader, while at the same time gracefully and admirably treating people fairly and with respect. Additionally, her deep relationships with our suppliers are a great asset. I have no doubt she will take Sysco’s produce team and FreshPoint to the next level.”
Julie voices that over the last five years Rich has accelerated her leadership growth and prepared her for this new role of Vice President of Produce with his continued guidance and mentorship—especially in that area of relationship building.
“We pride ourselves on our supplier partnerships,” Julie says. “We have many longstanding relationships that have been years in the making, and we couldn’t do it without them. They play an equal role to ours in supporting our customers. It is our responsibility at Sysco to be our customers’ most valued and trusted business partner. As part of that, we must ensure that our customers always have a consistent supply of the highest quality fruits and vegetables. I love that each day brings something new and the landscape is constantly evolving!”
“We pride ourselves on our supplier partnerships. We have many longstanding relationships that have been years in the making, and we couldn’t do it without them.”
I have always felt that trends are discovered at the dining table where we break bread with the consumer and their buying and eating behaviors, and Sysco is one of those companies on the front lines, taking the pulse of the changing consumer palates.
“Sysco is a global leader in foodservice. We are constantly looking into the latest trends. One of the ways we enable our customers to succeed is by helping them to differentiate their businesses,” Julie shares with me. “An example of this is our Cutting Edge Solutions (CES) platform, exclusively for customers. CES products are sourced from leading and up-and-coming suppliers and assist customers with refreshing their menus, driving increased traffic, and streamlining back-of-house operations. Since its inception, CES has delivered over one million cases of new, on-trend, innovative product offerings to customers.”
When I ask Julie how working for Sysco evolved the way that she views the possibilities and opportunities within fresh produce, she replies that when she started in 1999 as a Produce Buyer she had a hunger for knowledge and a passion to learn all she could about the business. Julie sought out every opportunity to learn and grow and invested her time in building relationships and making connections across the country, and when an opportunity presented itself for career development, she was ready for it. The industry has changed dramatically from 20 years ago. As Julie shares with me, there used to be very few roles in produce—you were in sales or you supported sales.
“Today, the opportunities are countless. I’ve seen the industry evolve and roles expand, for both men and women,” Julie expresses.
And while growth sends Julie on a global search of new and quality items near and far, she is blessed that her home office will remain in Salinas, California.
“I have the opportunity to impact the industry in unlimited geographies,” she reveals. “There is a huge responsibility in carrying that kind of potential for our company and at the end of the day, being grounded in the things I love helps me put it all in perspective. And I have many things I love and am so thankful for.”
For Julie, while travel tops the list of things she loves to do, she also loves entertaining at home and spending time with her husband and two adult children—cooking and working on home improvement projects. This is a space that grounds her, resets the world when havoc and uncertainty rock the boat.
She may be a beacon for many, but for Julie, her lighthouse is home—where the heart is. Her heart. But, with Julie as a beacon shining, I do believe, there are many storms we will be able to weather together.
And I, for one, take great comfort in that script.