Peruvian Onions

Making the Jump: Members Who Went from Buying to Supplying

Mike O’Brien
Now: Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Monterey Mushrooms |Then: Vice President of Produce and Floral, Schnuck Markets

How does your experience on the supply-side now influence your perspective on the buy-side?
I have a much better understanding now about how difficult agriculture is. I always knew it was tough to be a grower, but I had no clue how hard it is. Weather, water, rising costs, regulations, transportation, lack of labor—these are difficult industry issues that all produce grower/shippers are dealing with today. Fresh produce is a miracle.

What do you not miss about the buy-side?

Mickey Owens
Now: Sales Manager, Veg-Fresh Farms |Then: Produce Buyer, The Kroger Co.

What is one of the most rewarding parts of making the jump to the supply-side?

I spent 35 years at Kroger, and so I have been able to acquire a lot of produce experience and knowledge. It’s rewarding to now be able to bring that to the supply-side and be able to “think outside the box” in an ever-changing field. To help the supply-side grow with those changes and compete in an ever-evolving, fast-paced, technology-driven, and competitive industry.

Tommy Wilkins
Now: Director of Sales, Grow Farms, Texas | Then: Director of Produce Procurement, United Supermarkets

What advice would you give to retail/foodservice operators contemplating making the jump?
As a retail buyer, you control the conversation. There are many choices to retail today, so earning your chance is difficult. You can’t be everything to everyone, so what is your niche? Things are rapidly changing with curbside and online, so how can you be the solution? It’s a different stress, probably less, but it comes down to sales and production. It takes time and whether the group you work with is patient with you, seeing a direction toward profitability. It can be very rewarding, but it was a very difficult move for me to know that I had what it took to make the transition.

Chris Ford
Now: Organic and Food Service Categories Manager, Oppy | Then: Global Produce and Floral Purchasing Team Leader, Whole Foods Market

What advice might you give those on the supply-side contemplating making the jump to the buy-side?

Be nice to people. We are all working hard to establish relationships, and often those relationships travel with you throughout your career. That part of the business is invaluable. Nobody’s job is more important than anyone else’s. Without everyone across the supply chain doing their best to deliver, none of this would work. Everyone has an important role to play. Also, communicate clearly and be respectful even—and especially—if the answer is no. I have found that “no” is better than “maybe,” especially if you know that, ultimately, the answer is no. Be honest; respect people’s time.

Jane Rhyno
Now: Director of Sales and Marketing, Highline Mushrooms | Then: Produce Category Manager, Sobeys

What is the most valuable thing your buy-side background brought to your supply role?
Understanding the goals, the pressures, and the challenges of the buy-side really helps when we are trying to find a way to help our retail partners be successful and make their lives a little easier.

The knowledge I gained in category management and in seeing both successes and failures of such a variety of items and programs has really been invaluable. It’s a perspective I would not have gained otherwise and has certainly helped me identify opportunities and strategies to help drive the mushroom category and innovation.

Roger Pepperl
Now: Marketing Director, Stemilt Growers | Then: Buyer/Merchandiser, Meijer

Whom would you say has been the biggest influence in your change from one side of the industry to the other?

On the buy-side, Bob Summers was my first boss at Meijer and was such a smart person and a mentor to me. He helped me to actually really “get it” regarding the procurement through the promotion cycle, which gave me the coaching to understand what it would later take for me to transition. He taught me the simple lesson that you can’t procure it if the consumer doesn’t want to buy it. Seems simple, but it is amazing how many people don’t really understand the teaching Bob gave me. The economics of the consumer was a lesson Bob could have written a book on. There will never be another person at retail quite like him.

Tom Mathison, the Founder of Stemilt who has since passed, was the person who helped me on the supply-side. Like Bob, he understood the economics of the consumer: Tom felt if he grew flavors that customers loved, he would be successful and sustain a great business. Tom also coached me on his relationship with retail as a grower/marketer, and was the first real storyteller I experienced in business. Tom Mathison was a real icon on the supply-side of the business.