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Lipman: A Rich Heritage

hen Max Lipman thought to plant a tomato seed in Depression-beleaguered south Florida, he couldn’t have known that within a generation it would yield one of the largest field tomato growing businesses in North America.

Speaking with three key members of the team, Darren Micelle, Mark Barineau, and Gerry Odell, I hear firsthand how Lipman Produce grew from core values of customer service, product quality, staff retention, innovation, and food safety.

It is now “a melting pot of families” born of and governed by progeny of Max Lipman, who exemplified respect for clients and employees alike.

Deeply committed to maintaining its culture of integrity while producing fresh market tomatoes, great morale has helped the Lipman family to grow a nimble company that reacts quickly to changing demands in the marketplace. 

"We are a customer-driven company, and it's not difficult to see what consumers want."   - Mark Barineau

Darren Micelle, Lipman’s Chief Operating Officer says, “We are in a very commodity-oriented business, and delivering fresh tomatoes and vegetables of the highest quality and consistency to our customers is our driving focus.” 

Mark Barineau (center) and his Research & Development team

Mark Barineau, Lipman’s Director of Research and Development (R&D), has constructed the program from which the company’s proprietary varieties are born. The best example is Crimson Queen, Lipman’s tomato which is full of the flavor and color characteristics customers demand from field-grown tomatoes.

“I’ve developed about 70 commercial hybrids during my careerthat have been sold around the world. From a product standpoint, I would say that the best innovation, the one I am most proud of, is Lipman’s Crimson Queen,” states Barineau. “It’s the largest-volume fresh market tomato that Lipman sells because it has a unique red coloration, pleasant flavor, and is high in lycopene. I am proud to say our customers ask for it by name.”

Drew Yurko (sitting), Darren Micelle, Glenn Davis, Kent Shoemaker, Toby Purse, and Bo Bates in Napa, CA

While the Crimson Queen holds the crown, Lipman’s R&D department has grown to more than 30 proprietary hybrid varieties, including the newly-born Ripe Bites and Vintage Ripes, both of which grow year-round, and are bred for both high-flavor and versatility.

Throughout that growth, Barineau has seen his department grow to a familial group that strives to succeed and continues to drive flavor in conventionally-grown tomatoes and vegetables.

With a process that is a delicate balance of practice and personality, it is with care that central employees are added. Barineau explains that he hand-selected key members of his staff, having worked with them for several years, to ensure that an essential equilibrium between remaining professional and working as a team is maintained.

Another significant member is Chief Farming Officer Gerry Odell, who has been in the tomato business since 1985. Odell says that one of the key evolutions he’s witnessed in his tenure with the company is the unification of the Lipman brand, executed by Kent Shoemaker, Chief Executive Officer. “Before Kent, we had different names, locations… Now, we have a more cohesive message and approach, and our customers know who we are and what they can expect from us.”

That cohesiveness has become even more apparent, and perhaps more necessary due to the amount of growth and reach Lipman has experienced in recent years.

Lipman has made great strides acquiring companies across the country that align with its vision, drive, and culture of respect. Some of these companies include family-oriented, quality-focused names like Phoenix, Arizona-based Legend Distributing, grower and distributor The Produce Exchange, and, more recently, Denver, Colorado-based Sam’s Produce, which have added to Lipman’s acreage and distribution.

Glenn Davis, Gerry Odell, Drew Yurko, Kent Shoemaker, Bo Bates, Toby Purse, and Darren Micelle in Napa, CA

“We’ve acquired several companies across the country in the last five years, and one of the key factors in an interview for us to acquire a company is whether the principles and the employees will be a cultural fit,” Micelle tells me.

When discussing the process, he paints a picture of a “melting pot of families,” rather than a merging of businesses, with the company’s structure always coming back to the foundation laid, and still governed by, the original Lipman family.

Odell echoes this, explaining, “The Lipman family is very committed to the business and enjoys staying involved. Their biggest focus has always been fresh market tomatoes. They are very supportive and keenly interested in the business.”

That feeling seems to resonate with each member of the team, as each individual tells me that treating employees well is not only important in how the company operates, but it echoes in the respect and devotion each client receives every day.

“We are a customer-driven company, and it’s not difficult to see what consumers want,” says Barineau. “They want safe, attractive, and nutritious foods, but they may not realize that all of these traits require managing very complicated physiology and genetics.”

"Lipman is only as good as the weakest link, so, as far as we’re concerned, we are going to do all we can to bring everybody up."

“Food safety is something we simply must continue to excel in,” Micelle says emphatically when discussing meeting consumer desires. “We want total confidence that when a customer takes a Lipman product off the shelf they are fully assured that they can trust that it’s going to be safe and healthy.”

Ebelio Perez is part of Lipman's Local network and farms in North Carolina

Barineau emphasizes, “We continue to drive food safety initiatives not only in our company, but for every tomato company in the business. As an industry, Lipman is only as good as the weakest link, so, as far as we’re concerned, we are going to do all we can to bring everybody up.”

Another area where Lipman is helping to hone and refine industry standards is packaging technology, a time-consuming challenge. While growing new and improved fresh products and successfully getting them to market is an ongoing challenge, the company embraces it fully.

In more than 80 years, Max Lipman’s tomato seed has sprouted into a proud, transparent company that practices integrity-informed business while accommodating the changing needs and demands of grateful customers. As for what additional fields of innovation are on the horizon, we will have to wait and see.