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Making the Leap with Monterey Mushrooms’ Mike O’Brien

“I have always been a believer in pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone,” Mike O’Brien, the new Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Monterey Mushrooms, tells me. “I don’t know anyone in this industry who doesn’t see the benefit of constantly growing and evolving. If making that jump from the buy-side to the supply-side doesn’t invite that experience, I don’t know what does.”

 

It helps that Mike brings a 42-year tenure at Schnuck Markets to his new role. The industry veteran has shown his adaptability and versatility over the years, beginning “as a puppy” bagging groceries in 1972, and working his way through a host of Schnucks leadership roles before landing the position of VP of Produce and Floral. Mike thrived in that role for 14 years.

 

“I consider myself a merchant,” Mike notes, “and I believe that my experience with marketing, merchandising, and strategic development can only help me in my new role on the supply side of things. I see it as exercising new muscles to become an even better merchant.”

  

From the moment Mike announced his plans to retire from Schnucks, he knew it would be more a transition and less of a farewell. He approached his uncertain future as an opportunity to grow and expand his repertoire of experience in fresh produce. Monterey Mushrooms is making the experience an enjoyable one. With company values that center on quality, customer service, innovation, and people, Monterey Mushrooms presented itself as a perfect fit for the retail merchant.  

  

“The principles that drive Monterey Mushrooms’ business philosophy align significantly with my own. They focus on the entire well-being of the company as well as each individual from the ground up. Many of the sales and marketing people come from diverse backgrounds like myself. I hope to be a complement to that great group of people,” Mike tells me. 

He approached his uncertain future as an opportunity to grow and expand his repertoire of experience in fresh produce.  

Many produce buyers in our industry have successfully made their way to the supply-side. From Roger Pepperl at Stemilt and Kori Tuggle at Church Brothers, to Joe Sbrocchi at SUNSET® and Bob Mast from CMI, could these produce chameleons signify a growing trend?

 

mushroom2“I could’ve gone back into retail, but Monterey Mushrooms was a natural match for me. I have had a relationship with them for a while now and knew their reputation well. Monterey Mushrooms is a visionary leader and also a very loyal company to its people, customers, standards, and philosophies,” Mike tells me.

  

When asked about Monterey Mushrooms, Mike chooses phrases like ‘incredibly progressive' and ‘forward thinking’ to describe the company’s dynamic business model. Monterey Mushrooms is continually evolving its program with the most up-to-date and technologically advanced packing facilities and investments, while also improving its cold chain efficiencies.

 

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This fully integrated company produces the spawn (seed) as well as its own compost, in addition to growing, harvesting, and packing its fresh mushrooms. Monterey also continually innovates within the industry by developing new spawn strains, new packaging, new washed sliced products, and new category analyses. The company’s nine domestic mushroom farms, spread throughout the country, provide locally grown mushrooms in every region of the U.S., while its own fleet of refrigerated trucks provide product distribution. Monterey Mushrooms is bringing a fresher product to market as the company attempts to minimize the time its mushrooms spend on the road.

 

“For now, I am looking to absorb everything I can, at every accessible level of the company…learning how mushrooms are grown, getting more involved in the marketing, ” Mike says. “Relationships are key. I have made it my goal to connect with each grower, salesman, and marketer at Monterey. The supply-side is a different beast. But, one thing I’ve learned is that a foundation starts with your relationships - no matter what side of the industry you are on.”

"I am looking to absorb everything I can, at every accessible level of the company." - Mike O'Brien

Monterey’s family-values and culture are truly what Mike fell in love with…and the fact that mushrooms are a growing and versatile category, doesn’t hurt. “I love produce, period… and mushrooms are a powerhouse of nutrition and flavor,” he tells me.

 

Mushroom popularity has grown over the past 5 years from the surging celebrity chef shows to the younger generations’ interest in exploring new foods. The flavor, versatility, nutrition, and weight management aspects are all factors in the continuing growth curve for mushrooms. Mushrooms happen to be one of those lucky foods that take on a broth-like or meaty flavor. The taste also comes in handy for preparing healthy dishes. If you’re looking to keep off the pounds, adding mushrooms to your diet could help, Mike notes, “They are considered a low-energy-density food. You’ll get fewer calories in larger food portions.”

 

This packaging was recognized by the Produce Marketing Association with its Impact Award for 2011.  The labels highlight the “Deliciously Healthy” and “High in Vitamin D” features of mushrooms with a mouthwatering image of a recipe idea.

 

The "Blendability" initiative is also keeping mushrooms top of mind. This effort communicates to consumers about how blending fresh mushrooms with ground meat (beef, pork, or poultry) can enhance flavor, and substantially reduce fat, sodium, and calories. It has a fast-growing following across the country in school lunch programs and in colleges. Meatless Mondays are helping mushrooms gain popularity as well, encouraging consumers to try produce items as alternatives to their usual proteins.

"When someone takes a stand for you, they are committed to your success as much as you are committed to your own success. That is how I try to lead today and will also in the future." - Mike O' Brien

One of the larger marketing initiatives for Monterey Mushrooms has been promoting the health benefits within the category, highlighting one in particular – Vitamin D. “They are the only produce item with natural Vitamin D, important not only for bones, but essential for a healthy immune systems,” Mike notes. “Vitamin D is just as important for bone health as calcium. If you’re running low, the calcium you get from food won’t get absorbed properly, leading to thin and brittle bones. The main source of Vitamin D is exposure to sunlight. When we’re exposed to the sun’s UV rays, our bodies produce vitamin D; mushrooms do the same.” Monterey’s 100% Vitamin D mushrooms provide all the required input for Vitamin D in only one 3 oz serving.

 

“There is a huge opportunity to grow the category. While we find that a lot of people are unsure what to do with mushrooms, more and more are finding access to recipes and all their possibilities,” Mike notes. “It’s really about the connection with the consumer and then building a relationship from there.”

 

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While Mike is continuing to challenge himself on the produce front, you can be sure that his thirst for knowledge also translates into his off-time. Take guitar. “I’ve always been a big music fan and picked up guitar at 50. When people ask me ‘why now?’ I think, why not? No matter what age you are, if you get yourself out of your comfort zone, it keeps you sharp. I love playing guitar and entertaining people.”

 

When I ask him what’s next, he tells me, “I am thinking about learning another instrument, like a mandolin. This will make me a better guitarist. Before I started at Schnucks, I thought I was going to go into broadcasting or the D.J. arts. This may be my chance.”

  

His zest for life and the desire to constantly improve are both inherent and learned, he says. And Mike has had some great mentors over the years.

 

“Joe Croce was my store manager when I was a young Co-manager. He took me under his wing and taught me how to be a great store manager. The blocking and tackling for sure. But more important, he taught me how to use straight talk when dealing with people. People want to know where they stand and it’s good to establish a common ground in order to move forward,” Mike says.

"All these people believed in me when I was starting my career. When someone takes a stand for you, they are committed to your success as much as you are committed to your own success. That is how I try to lead today and will also in the future." - Mike O'Brien

When it comes to his loyalty and dedication, Mike attributes much of what he has learned to Ike Berry, an Executive Vice President of Supermarkets at Schnucks when Mike was a store manager. “He taught me about teamwork and a commitment to people. As a leader, I am committed to people and their careers.”

 

Tapping into the growth of organic categoriesDick Davis was also a huge influence on Mike. The then Vice President of Store Operations for Schnucks gave Mike a few simple words of advice, “You get what you inspect.” In other words, you can't run a store from your desk and it’s imperative that you be on the sales floor where everything happens. “It's not about micromanaging but being involved. As a produce VP, visiting the stores becomes essential to seeing how the items you purchase are interacting in the real world.” From personally constructing displays to revising merchandising concepts, Mike discovered what it meant to be a part of those decisions and concerns made at the store level.

 

And of course, there is Craig Schnuck and Scott Schnuck. Mike reflects, “All these people believed in me when I was starting my career. When someone takes a stand for you, they are committed to your success as much as you are committed to your own success. That is how I try to lead today and will also in the future. Being committed to others’ success with a shared goal will produce results beyond your expectations. It's about a partnership.”

 

It’s been quite a journey for Mike since his bagging days at Schnucks. For a guy who always thought he was going to end up in broadcast journalism, it looks like produce just found its way into his blood. We are glad it did.