“You’re always going to have a challenge if you’re doing something worthwhile,” Steve Barnard tells me as we talk about the path, the passion, and the ambition that brought him to his current position as President and CEO of Mission Produce. “There are endless opportunities around the world, ripe for the picking.”
Despite his formidable credentials as Founder of one of the largest avocado growers on the planet, I note how genuine and approachable Steve is, as a field worker waves to him while we pass by. We are walking through an avocado orchard on the foothills of the Topatopa mountains in Ojai, California, a place where Steve comes on the weekends to get away from it all.
“I actually like to farm as a hobby,” Steve confides with a smile as he looks out over the sun soaked valley. “It’s relaxing to get away. In the office there is constant excitement with meetings and the phones ringing off the hook. This is a good change of pace for a Saturday or Sunday.”
As Steve narrates his journey to the top of the global avocado category, a distinct pattern emerges; he possesses an innate ability to connect the dots in the bigger picture.
Steve sees possibilities where others skim past them, and it all started in 1983 when he began working on the foundation that would build the avocado empire that Mission Produce is today. Steve noted the untapped potential in the category and decided to pursue it. So, he and his business partner cobbled together an office from garage sale furnishings, while renting a quarter of the facility that Mission now owns in its global operations, including five packing houses, and eleven ripening centers around the world, three of which opened this year.
Mission was a part of the movement which paved the path to market in an era before avocado ripening technology existed, and before consumers were familiar with how to use the curious fruit. And increasing consumption was a major challenge that the Mission team tackled head on under Steve’s enterprising vision.
“We ran trials for preconditioning, the predecessor for ripening, which was an expensive thing to do wrong. But we fine-tuned our techniques, and ran a ripe avocado pilot in a Southern California grocery chain. In the first year sales went up 300 percent. I’m not a mathematician, but I knew we were on to something big,” Steve laughs. “So I showed those numbers to Reggie Griffin, the head produce buyer at Kroger at the time, and he told me, ‘you build them, and I’ll fill them.’ I agreed, and then walked away wondering, ‘okay, how do I do that?’ But we made it work, and from there the program went national. We’ve continually made advancements to the technology, and now ripened fruit is the standard in the United States.”
Reggie's experience with Steve echoes the same sentiment, and it’s clear the partnership has grown into one of the more impactful relationships in both of their careers.
“He actually built ripening facilities in several cities just on our handshake, and they were all very successful,” Reggie offers when I ask him about Steve. “His ‘can do’ attitude, personality, and his understanding that as a supplier, he could help retailers be successful, drove not only our business friendship, but our personal friendship. His ability to assemble a high performing team only means continued success for him and his company.”
A vertically integrated, global company is the product of Steve’s methodical approach to connecting the dots. The avocado purveyor boasts recently opened ripening centers in Canada, California, the Netherlands, and Shanghai. Mission has also been nurturing a Peru program since 2012 to supplement the parallel California season, adding yet another link to the supply chain.
“With our model, we have our own teams and facilities in the countries in which we work. Our team believes in building infrastructure, and we set ourselves apart by investing in our people,” Steve tells me.
The company is always looking to invest both up and down the supply chain, working to fill the gaps like pieces in a puzzle. As Steve tells it, the company was even one of the first to establish supply in countries like Mexico and Chile, despite taking a lot of heat for it in those early days. He smiles as he recounts how the company had to conduct training for workers to harvest in these countries, which now dominate the supply.
“The challenge is in pushing the envelope,” Steve ruminates. “If you aren’t doing anything innovative, it’ll be easy. So, play offense and tackle those obstacles, whether it’s bad reception on a product or a difficult customer. Look at it from other perspectives, and then find a compromise so that everybody wins. And in this industry, if you don’t do that, you better sleep with one eye open.”
With that, I think to ask if there is anything that keeps him from a good night's rest.
“Not me. I’m tired from working hard all day,” he cracks, with a twinkle in his eye.
Each morning, Steve wakes up ready to take on the day with the commitment and intensity that differentiates Mission Produce from the pack. With an exclusive focus on avocados, the company has galvanized a business model that instills the highest confidence to buyers and consumers alike.
“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Steve says, despite the unprecedented growth the avocado category has seen in recent years. “When populations move from poverty to middle class, one of the first indicators of the change is the switch to a healthier diet. In fresh produce, we work in a meaningful space, where we can make that kind of impact in the world. Avocados are a major part of that shift, and if you’re late, you’ll lose. So let’s go!”
When Steve says, “Let’s go!” he means it. The company holds nothing back when it comes to leading the charge.
Mission Produce recently introduced the latest brand in the company’s international portfolio, Mr. Avocado, following the opening of its first ripening center in Shanghai, China. The brand is a product of a partnership between Mission, distributor Lantao International, and an agreement with Pagoda Stores. Mr. Avocado is being thoughtfully positioned as the pioneering brand in the ripe avocado category for Chinese consumers, and the company anticipates major growth over the next decade, setting up Mission to become a leader in the burgeoning market.
The innovation doesn't stop there. The company also recently launched it's "Small But Mighty" line of Mini avocados. Though small is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of this massive global company, the product is the result of an initiative to efficiently sell what the tree produces while also addressing a consumer need. The Minis are the perfect single-serving avocado at approximately 3.5 ounces each and yielding about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of creamy avocado apiece.
Steve’s passion for his business is abundantly clear the second you start talking with him. And when it comes to the motivation behind that passion, according to Steve, it’s quite simple: The driving force is the avocado.
"Our team believes in building infrastructure, and we set ourselves apart by investing in our people.”
- Steve Barnard
“Avocados are on TV every night,” Steve suggests fondly. “Everyone loves them. They’re nutritious, they make your hair shine, they are delicious on everything—we don’t even really know the half of it.”
This visionary entrepreneur truly knows no bounds, a sentiment which was passed down from one of his biggest mentors, the late Jack Simplot of J.R. Simplot.
“Despite quitting school in the 8th grade, Jack became the third largest landowner in the United States, and he taught me two of the most important lessons in my life,” Steve shares. “The first is to work through your problems. Everyone has problems, and nine times out of ten, people give up when they get knocked down. Jack told me to be the one person who gets back up and tries again. The second was to think bigger, and coming from someone as successful as him, that meant a great deal.”
Throughout his career Steve has embodied this mindset with his expansive outlook. It is evident in the way that he speaks, and the ease in which he smiles as he talks about the future. And the attitude is contagious. As we talk, I notice it everywhere. I see clear traces of it when I meet the rest of the team along with his two sons, Ben and Keith Barnard, who work as Sr. Director of Operations and Director of Global Grower Relations, respectively. As we walk into the lobby of the massive new Oxnard ripening facility, I even catch it on a sign, which says: Welcome to Mission Produce. A positive mind finds opportunity in everything.
Today, Mission Produce is seemingly unstoppable, positioned for continued success on a massive scale. It is a far cry from the company’s humble beginnings over 30 years ago.
So, I ask Steve, “When did you know Mission had finally made it?”
Without skipping a beat he smiles and tells me, “Oh, the best is yet to come.”
And, I’m positive he means it.