It’s 1858 British Columbia, not yet turn-of-the-century. It is a province that will one day be governed by Canada—once it becomes a country—and is home to one grocery and supply store that provides food and necessities to those heading up north from California in search of gold. It’s here in future BC that four brothers settled. After immigrating from Germany to New Orleans, then San Francisco, they braved the cold and unknown to set up shop in anticipation of an industry that was still finding its footing. Locals knew it then as Oppenheimer Bros & Co. Today, we call it Oppy.
“It was actually the first company in BC to be incorporated and the only one remaining 160 years later. It’s the same age as the province and older than the country of Canada,” Chairman, President, and CEO John Anderson tells me as he and Vice President of Marketing James Milne walk me through the memories of a company so vibrant, you wouldn’t guess it was celebrating its 160th birthday.
I’ll have what they’re having, thank you.
For those of you who think markers of age are dulled senses, a little less vitality, or maybe moving more slowly, know that many of the hallmarks of Oppy’s innovation have happened in just the last 40 years of its lifetime.
“I started in 1975 in a warehouse, and in those days we had one office and did about seven million dollars in sales,” John says of his start. “Even though the company was more than 100 years old, the produce division had broken away from the grocery side in the early 60s and was just being developed. I took it from that one office and built it into the billion-dollar company it is now.”
As it parted from its retail roots to become the produce marketing and transport partner we know now, John and James share with me how new products, a computer system a decade or two ahead of its time, and an auspicious rebrand have turned The Oppenheimer Group into Oppy: “Expect the world from us.”
“There’s a rich history there, and I think at times it’s hard to encapsulate it all, especially when it stretches so far back,” James tells me as he explains that the modern interest in storytelling is one of the best things to happen to Oppy. “In many ways, we were in the right place at the right time to fulfill a period of change the industry was going through. From the 90s going into the early 2000s, for example, we were starting to see things that were common in Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East become very much sought-after here as well. We were right where we needed to be and had the capabilities of handling those changes, no matter how obscure or big in volume, and were very adaptable to that scene.”
"...There’s a full-service package here that’s been developed over many years, and we really ensure that we continue to be relevant to the future rather than complacent."
- John Anderson, Chairman, President, & CEO, Oppy
The same could be said for when the company revisited its roots by returning to where the founding brothers’ entrepreneurial spirit started: the U.S.
“Our first foray into the United States in the 1980s was a big thing for us,” John shares as one turning point. “We opened our first Oppy office in Seattle, Washington. We were selling into the U.S. from Canada, but what allowed us to open that office, as well as ones in Los Angeles, California, and Wilmington, Delaware, is that we brought the New Zealand apple business in North America under our umbrella. Previously, the sales structure was fragmented; we were able to bring that all in under us, which allowed us to get established in the U.S. and to get into a lot of other products as well.”
A further step in that establishment was the ahead-of-its-time computer system I previously hinted at, similar to what everyone uses today but that wasn’t even a blip in the early 90s produce world, John tells me.
“People demanded more products on a year-round basis, which started to accelerate the product introduction process and allow for more import opportunities. At the time, we developed a computer system in-house that really put us at a competitive advantage,” John explains.
That system was one that gave a single invoice no matter how many points of transport a load had to go through, as opposed to five invoices detailing the trip. Easy traceability and consolidated information became a necessity that Oppy could provide as its resources grew.
“With 27 countries and all those different growers and products involved, we needed to keep on top of everything and be accountable for orders reaching the retailer at the right time, at the right price, and in the right condition,” John shares. “Those things were put in place so that in the 90s, we could take off and successfully handle that volume.”
The result was an Oppy renaissance of new products, partnerships, brands, and innovations. One of the last, but certainly not least, of those turning points was the rebrand of the company itself. When I ask what milestones make the list, this is one of the first that comes to mind for John and James together.
“When we chose the tagline ‘Expect the world from us,’ that not only set the tone for our culture but also helped back up the one we had in place. I think those words were among the events that occurred that really helped us go to the next level,” John says.
“I agree with John. Once ‘Expect the world from us’ was born in early 2000 to 2001, it really galvanized us and our organization. We asked ‘What are we going to differentiate on and what are we were going to dominate on?’ and what it came down to was customer service. We knew we weren’t going to be the cheapest out there because a lot of our imports require a premium price point to present the most sought-after attributes retailers are looking for—appearance, flavor, convenience—sometimes from an area with a higher cost of production. So, we really needed to dominate in customer service. And what I’m very proud of is how John instilled that you will get the same level of customer service from us as you will in our Tampa, Florida, office, as you will in our Chilean office, and that’s a wonderful attribute I would say has set us apart,” James adds.
In asking about the transition, I confess to them that I don’t even know how long I went before realizing what ‘Oppy’ was originally short for. James and John both laugh, and I feel better about my admission.
"In many ways, we were in the right place at the right time to fulfill a period of change the industry was going through."
James Milne, Vice President of Marketing, Oppy
“It was actually an easy transformation for us because it was already an existing brand, just sort of underground,” James explains. “We were hearing it from the growers and retailers. It wasn’t really resonating with us, but we knew we needed to get more contemporary and friendlier with the generation that was coming through. A lot of them found ‘The Oppenheimer Group’ a bit corporate. So, we embraced it and it’s been great ever since!”
Now what? What is the next frontier for this company that has set out to prove that the refinement of age can meet with what is modern, even fun?
“We have an opportunity to get closer to the consumer than we’ve ever been before because, obviously, social media is having an impact. We can support retailers by giving them the stories they need to tell their consumers, while at the same time, helping tell the consumer ourselves. And we still have new products always in the works—I’d say we’re pretty innovative,” John grins. “We’ve added a lot of products and over 600 different pack-types. We do all the packing, the shipping, the merchandising—there’s a full-service package here that’s been developed over many years, and we really ensure that we continue to be relevant to the future rather than complacent.”
That full-service package, James says, is an increasingly valuable offer in itself, with so many other companies’ solutions in logistics and transportation being handled by third parties.
“We’re blessed that we have our own transportation company for many reasons, including the big picture perspective it provides that’s applicable to other aspects of our business,” James shares. “We are in a position to get creative when there are pressure points on the market. For example, when freight rates from the western to eastern U.S. are high, we can cultivate an openness to comparable product grown in Europe because sea freight rates could be lower than ground transportation, enabling a better situation for our East Coast customers.”
The irony of Oppy’s ingenuity, perhaps, lies in its age—having the in-house transportation before the necessity, the traceable technology before traceability was a buzzword, and the brand story before millennial and Gen Z consumers were around to demand it. Has your concept of age been redefined yet?