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People, Produce, Planet: 4Earth Farms' David Lake

It’s a rare produce buyer that counts a handgun as required equipment in his early morning purchase routine. But it was standard issue for 4Earth Farms President David Lake during his early career in Los Angeles. And while flashing iron could have been a tool for haggling better prices with vendors, for David it was covert “supply chain management,” a necessary tool to ensure that his customers avoid gapping due to theft. “Los Angeles in the 1990’s was almost unrecognizable compared to today,” he opined. “Much more the wild west. An environment where caution was the necessary watchword. But a terrific place to start a business, and forge a business culture.”

Such was the birthing of a company that has evolved into a socially-conscious grower and logistics specialist. And through this growth and evolution there’s been one driving philosophy: People, Produce, Planet. It’s the phrase David uses to rally his brigade in the early morning hours, the phrase he uses to remind them what they have accomplished as they pack their bags in the evening, and the phrase he uses during the many coachable moments in between. As I found out during my visit to 4Earth though, the company’s success is only hinted at by the phrase, and best understood by the energy that crackles throughout 4Earth’s facility and people.

“In essence, people are our secret ingredient. They make the difference.”

It’s a blistery, early winter morning and the sun hasn’t quite peeked over the horizon. Before we even had a chance to sit down for our interview in his office, David already has his phone up to his ear, chatting with his team, returning calls, and answering emails on the computer at his desk, effectively multitasking without missing a beat. David turns to me with his hand cuffed over the phone receiver and, in response to a question I asked him before his call, says, “You know what makes our team unique? Hard work, shared values, and focused knowledge.”

Left to right: Mark Munger, David Lake, Kelly Daniels

Rest assured, getting to that level of collaboration with his team has meant traveling a steep and difficult path. After finally getting a few minutes to take a breather, David tells me about this journey in great detail; not just about the trials and tribulations he’s faced, but also the accomplishments – large and small – that made every day worth it.  

“The biggest challenge any company faces is developing a core philosophy, pro-actively deciding what you’re going to stand for, and what you’re going to accomplish through the conduct of your business,” he says, coolly drinking a cup of coffee. “From there, the next challenge is developing the culture and the systems that animate the philosophy.”

 

 

That’s arguably taken the entirety of David’s twenty years in the industry - and continues unabated - but results in extremely motivated employees working closely with 4Earth’s many partners to grow and deliver great produce daily.

David takes a moment away from his daily routine to show me a photograph of one of his great mentors, Fred McConnell. About 23 years ago, before the Internet took off and before modern cell phones, David and Fred had a dream. Like many passionate businessmen, they longed to build a company founded on ethical business practices, stellar customer service, and consistent quality. Recognizing their shared motivations, and sensing the potential to construct greatness, David and Fred joined forces to establish 4Earth (then known as MCL Distributing) in 1993.

As we take a short walk away from his office and begin our tour through the headquarters, David reminds me that although 4Earth is a produce company, it’s really a people company, and people that must categorically come first for success.

“We surround ourselves with a team of great people who subscribe to our philosophy of people-driven excellence,” he says. “In essence, people are our secret ingredient. They make the difference.”

In its first years, 4Earth gained a reputation as one of Los Angeles’ leading growers, packers, and distributors of specialty fruits and vegetables.  And it took years to build great staff and great programs – the time required to hone relationships with farmers, identify the best growing regions and microclimates for specific programs, develop win-win relationships with customers, and the trust that results from years of superior performance under all market conditions.

“Building a diversified and integrated company required hiring and motivating many core people,” David continues, as we weave through the various departments in the sprawling 160,000-square-foot headquarters. “The goal has been to find people who share the ‘People, Produce, Planet’ mindset and are willing to breathe life into the philosophy with dedicated hard work.” 

David greets his team for the morning, smiling and shaking hands with sales members, before going on the daily food safety walk and discussing production updates and market conditions from the team. The atmosphere is electric as I’m shuffled into an office to meet Mark Munger, VP of Sales & Marketing, and Kelly Daniels, VP of Operations, to discuss 4Earth’s business.

“If I had an elevator pitch, I would need the Sears Tower,” Mark laughs. “Being this incredibly diversified and vertically integrated, we bring an amazing amount of versatility and opportunity to the discussions with our customers.  We’re in touch with our competitive advantages and relentlessly focus on delivering value to our customers on an ongoing basis.”

When I ask Mark about the 4Earth culture and how it informs the relationships the company builds with its customers, he notes, “It’s the details. We have a culture where everyone in the company—from receiving and QA, to sales and shipping, to upper management—knows the needs and parameters of each of our customers individually. We also like to see passion both inside and outside the company, and strive to work with farmers and customers who share our desire to deliver amazing produce to the consuming public and thrive on lasting, win-win relationships.”

 
 
 

When it comes to 4Earth’s programs, Kelly Daniels is quick to tout the company’s portfolio of farms and farmers. 

“It’s simply amazing how much our people care about delivering quality product and stewarding the land,” he says. “And they’re generally the most recent generation of a lineage of people holding these strong beliefs. In an era where farming is sometimes disparaged in the media, our partners are true superstars, and are leading the industry forward.”

Moving to more everyday concerns, he reminds me of the work involved.

“We are continually investigating new regions and building our knowledge base and portfolio of growers,” Kelly says. “The industry is ever-changing, and you simply can’t rely on yesterday’s solutions to continue delivering excellence.” 

The company’s unwavering work ethic has clearly produced results. In total, 4Earth now carries over 250 conventionally grown produce items and 120 organically grown produce SKUs. The company also operates a state-of-the-art repack facility in Southern California with the capability to customize packs and offer private label programs to customers. 

“We have the ability to be creative, to fine-tune pack and product to satisfy customers’ specific needs,” Kelly continues, “and the great thing is that we’re getting America eating more produce and eating healthy.”

Mark returns to one of 4Earth’s value propositions, saying, “We recognize that our customers need to be uniquely differentiated in the hyper-competitive marketplace of 2016, so a grower that approaches customers with ‘cookie cutter’ programs does not offer value.” 

And the best part of it, David assures me, is that 4Earth Farms is committed to leaving the planet in better shape than it found it. 

“We are focusing on sustainable solutions by expanding our organic farming programs and investing in the latest innovations at both the farm and distribution center levels,” he explained. “We have a culture of continuous improvement, and are constantly challenging ourselves to improve our operations.  Whether it’s identifying a new technology to reduce farm inputs or exploring ethical sourcing solutions, we are never satisfied with the status quo.” 

Most recently, the company invested in a complete transition to LED lighting in its 4-acre facility, and a retrofitting with water saving technology, changes that have produced strong double-digit percentage savings.

Before I leave the 4Earth headquarters, I realize how strong the inherent desire to succeed is in everyone at the company. It manifests in their attitudes, their day-to-day work, and the company’s overall performance. It’s also clear that the desire is infectious, and motivates other team members. In fact, as I walk to my car, I’m toying with the idea of planting a few rows of vegetables in my backyard.  

And I can still hear David’s final comment, “Everyone here is passionate about the produce industry, and committed to building a collaborative, innovative and fun culture at 4Earth. It’s a core prerequisite to working here.” 

Building on this, he continued, “We also all love to win.  It’s critical, and to stoke the energy this provides, I encourage people to take risks, and remind them that some of our best innovations have emerged from seeming mistakes.”

If that doesn’t inspire you to rally your team and experiment with new ideas, I don’t know what will.