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Mentors in the Making: Alex Berkley

W
hen Alex Berkley tells me she was born into produce, I picture her popping up out of the dirt ready and rarin’ to go, because it’s hard to think of her as anything other than the fully-formed produce pro she is today. Alex was lucky enough to have mentors aplenty from day one, including her grandmother, Frieda Caplan, Founder of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, and mother, CEO Karen Caplan. Although she never thought she would end up in the family business, her strong roots in the industry led her right back to where she started as a child.

Alex Berkley, Director of Sales, Frieda's Specialty Produce“Being in a family business, you can say my career started when I was two-years-old, coming in to the office frequently and being dubbed the ‘official taste tester.’ When I was 13 years old, I started my career as our sampling person at every trade show booth—I took that so seriously, I would study the products on the flight to the show like it was a test!” she tells me.

After earning a degree in Communications, Alex spread her wings to explore other companies in the produce industry, working as a Marketing Intern for DMA Solutions, and later, Perfection Fresh Australia.

“Those experiences made me fall in love with the produce industry—I saw it as an industry full of amazingly passionate people who immediately feel like family,” Alex comments. “I also learned the value and privilege of having a family business, particularly one with a strong legacy.”

It’s that passion that drives Alex—the ability to influence the way people eat and how they live their lives. Alex brought that fire in her belly with her when she eventually came home to Frieda’s, gracing the company’s marketing department with her talent and expertise. But there was more in store for her and, once again, family played an important role in the evolution of her career.

“One day, my mom, our CEO, threw me in to sales—I am not joking—on a Monday after an Account Manager had to abruptly resign due to health reasons. I was not thrilled,” she recalls. “However, my mom was, because she knew I was a natural salesperson and would kick a**. She was not wrong. I have never looked back and am now the Sales Manager at Frieda’s.”

Alex’s family gave her a foundation on which to build a career. But that’s not to say that family was her only influence, because at every step along the way, Alex was lucky to be exposed to industry pros offering guidance and support, including Marianne Santo, Senior Category Manager at Wakefern Food Corp.

"Since working together as co-chairs, Nancy has helped me navigate through managing people, how to truly give back to the industry in an impactful way, and to go above and beyond for consumers. Her spirit is contagious and inspiring, and I am so grateful to have Nancy in my corner.”

- Alex Berkley

“Marianne Santo is one of my longtime mentors,” Alex says. “I remember meeting her when I was in marketing at Frieda’s before she became one of my buyers when I went in to sales. Marianne has seen it all, she grew up in the ‘good ol’ boys’ club of produce and has helped foster the change of increasing the younger and female talent in our industry. Every week, she teaches me something new about retail execution, pricing, and seasonal strategies with every commodity. I consider myself honored to be able to call her one of my mentors.”

Another mentor of her’s is Nancy Johnston, Vice President of Produce Procurement for Renaissance Food Group, a true industry powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with.

“Nancy Johnston and I became close with each other when we were Co-Chairs of the Women’s Fresh Perspectives Committee for the Center for Growing Talent by PMA,” Alex recalls. “She stood out to me as someone I wanted to know because of her hunger to do the right thing for consumers, as well as industry talent, no matter the roadblock. Since working together as co-chairs, Nancy has helped me navigate through managing people, how to truly give back to the industry in an impactful way, and to go above and beyond for consumers. Her spirit is contagious and inspiring, and I am so grateful to have Nancy in my corner.”

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak, and sometimes they even come in the form of customers. Like Marianne, Brian Balladares, Produce Director for Ralphs Grocery, is another customer who offered Alex a peek into the retail side of the produce industry.

“Brian is the customer I have had the pleasure of working with the longest in my career thus far. Being in our backyard, I am fortunate to see Brian on a pretty regular basis. Not only has he helped Frieda’s become a better partner through his honesty on our programs, Brian has helped me learn how to be a better partner to the produce buyers I work with. He has shown me how to successfully navigate through trial and error and what metrics really mean the most to a retailer. I am grateful to have such a smart man as a mentor.”

With no shortage of mentors, Alex can rely not only on her own ambition and verve (of which she has plenty), but also on the support of other industry experts—an invaluable resource for anyone.

 

 

Marianne Santo, Senior Category Manager, Wakefern Food Corp."Alex Berkley is a force of nature whose poise, energy, and sales expertise clearly drive her success. I first met Alex in 2013 at a Cooking Light event in New York City, and the following year we both attended the PMA Women’s Fresh Perspective Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was impressed by how she seamlessly navigated that conference, met with attendees, and spoke at several different sessions.

She has a knowledge and passion for the produce business that could be attributed, in part, to her family ties. But it’s clear that Alex doesn’t rest on her laurels or family name—rather, she has solidified her reputation through hard work, perseverance, and an innate understanding of what customers want.

I’m so honored that Alex considers me a key mentor. She is already a leader in the produce industry and a legacy and mentor in the making. She inspires me to reach higher and do better both professionally and personally, and I look forward to watching her career grow in the coming years."


Nancy Johnston, VP of Produce Procurement, Renaissance Food Group"It would be easy for anyone to say that Alex was walking through this industry in the shadows of her grandmother and mother, however those of us that know her know that she is building her own career and making her own path. Not only is Alex always wanting to learn about every aspect of this industry to further her own knowledge, she is the future of our industry and is taking a leadership role in helping us develop what that future is going to look like. I had the pleasure of working with Alex on the Women’s Fresh Perspective committee. Alex really listened to the questions and concerns from the women who attended the annual conference—if she didn’t have an answer, she didn’t stop until she found one or was heard by the right people who could help her. Alex was and is so approachable for all who want to share in her passion of produce. I hope that people just joining our industry seek her out and pick her brain as at such a young age she already is and will continue to be a great mentor. I am honored to know Alex and not only call her an industry peer, but a friend, and look forward to watching her grow in all aspects of her life."


Brian Balladares, Produce Director, Ralphs"It’s always nice to see new talent enter our industry and watch them grow into leaders. Alex is one of those individuals that you know will be an industry leader for many years. Growing up in the trade provided her with occupational insights prior to entering the business, and she has rapidly become a great partner for us as we work together to grow the specialty category. Alex quickly gets to know her business partners, their needs, and how to work together to achieve common goals. She’s dedicated to helping our consumers understand new products and how they are used in order to create consumer awareness. Her passion for results and mutual success is evident during each meeting as we collaborate to create new selling events. I look forward to watching Alex continue to prosper and take on new leadership roles over the next several years."