Before “The Blend” was widely understood and umami was recognized as a scientific term, a doctor saw a burgeoning future for a fungus that was only beginning to be tamed by produce purveyors.
“We were founded by Dr. Murray O’Neil, who was never a full-time mushroom grower or able to devote 100 percent of his time to the business because he was also a medical doctor,” Aaron Hamer, President and CEO of Highline Mushrooms, tells me from Leamington, Ontario. “But that didn’t slow down our growth. In fact, it's driven a lot of the important characteristics of our culture; the backbone of our business is in his attention to detail, his willingness to take risks, his fanatical focus on innovation—this is all part of the fabric of our business and will be part of our future.”
When the founding father of the mushroom giant got into the business, this delightful toadstool of a food didn’t grow in the summer. Just one of a slew of firsts that the North American produce industry saw because of risks Dr. O’Neil was willing to take, say Aaron and Director of Sales and Marketing Jane Rhyno.
It’s almost an oversimplification to say that today is a different matter. And as the category has evolved, so has Highline Mushrooms. Some of the markers are a new brand, an investment in Top Seal packaging, and even Aaron himself.
“I have a pretty unique path to where I am now in the produce world,” he advises me before sharing that he began his career in banking, specifically dealing with mergers, acquisitions, and investment banking. It was a series of serendipitous events that led to Aaron being appointed CFO of Highline in 2014, then CEO in 2017, as the company went through a key transition of its own.
“Having the ability to attract the best and the brightest, who can execute our strategy, is what I would say keeps me up at night.”
-Arron Hamer, President and CEO, Highline Mushrooms
“The business continued to grow both organically and through acquisition, and in 2016 we became part of Fyffes PLC, now our parent company. With that transition, I noticed that this is a really exciting category and there are lots of opportunities. Our recent acquisitions, the specialization of harvest, the rebranding, and the new innovations we’ve been pursuing have all helped make us a staple in not just mushrooms, but in the produce category as a whole,” he says.
“We never lost our drive to be the best; we never lost our compassion for people and being open with our customers...all those things have remained the same,” Jane agrees, bringing her own unique perspective to Highline’s success, both new and old. “I knew Highline from my retail days and always really connected with its family values, work ethic, and the pursuit of being the best within the industry. I would say all those things that drew me here in 2010 have never been lost. Though many things have changed over the years, we still focus on doing the right thing for our associates, the business, and our customers.”
2018’s record of new products and packaging from the mushroom maker backs Jane up, with a rebrand to match the changes the company has gone through not just in moving from family-owned to public, but also in the decades since it was founded.
“We’re not exactly the business we were in 1961, 71, or 81, but certainly that time was a big part of who we are today,” Aaron shares, while Jane adds that the team wanted the look and feel of the rebrand to reflect who Highline is.
“We wanted something that showed not just the care we put in every day and the craft that’s involved, but also all our innovations. So it was really fun to create something that would better connect with the consumer and showed more about, really, who we are,” she tells me.
Another key component, Aaron adds, was the dual sides of the business Highline works with.
“It was important that we show we are a brand that speaks to both the consumer and the retailer, so it works both as a consumer-facing brand and as a business-to-business brand; that we are comfortable marketing to the consumer and also with the right retail partners, supporting their private label brand. So we wanted something that fit well with both those aspects of our business, and I believe our team did just that,” Aaron says.
Beyond a fresh look and revving up its innovative roots, Highline’s team is looking to the expansion of not only its own company, but the entire mushroom industry.
“We began moving out West about three years ago and have continued to expand out there,” Jane explains. “It has been the biggest thing in our business; it’s about changing the industry out there and bringing it to the next level.”
Though obviously not all secrets can be revealed, Aaron graciously clarifies this expansion means new frontiers for modern mushroom growing.
“We have this huge opportunity to bring fresh mushrooms and innovative new packaging. With a story that resonates with the consumer and different constituents, we think we’re well positioned to be able to do that,” he tells me.
In addition to new horizons, both geographically and seasonally, mushrooms have climbed their way to the top of flavor trends, along with another buzzword: organic. Years before the power of these two words could have been known separately, let alone together, Highline Mushrooms looked to mitigate pesticides. Since then, Aaron says it has become one of the largest organic mushroom growers in the world.
“We were one of the first—and still really one of the only—to grow without pesticides, and we quickly made a decision as a business to really focus on organics,” Aaron says. “At this point, I think that there’s a huge opportunity to increase the penetration of organic mushrooms. As an industry there’s been such growth in organics in other categories and really, if you think about it, mushrooms make a perfect produce item to offer organically. Combined with our story, that really reaches consumers.”
Listening to that story for myself, it’s not a stretch to say that with Highline’s roots, laid by a man of medicine and well-being, it’s no surprise the company would tend to the well-being of the environment. Aaron and Jane take my observation one step further.
“We never lost our drive to be the best; we never lost our compassion for people and being open with our customers...”
-Jane Rhyno, Director of Marketing, Highline Mushrooms
“We strongly believe we are providing the consumer with something unique and different, and we are also hyper-focused on doing right by our customer and our employee bases. Our corporate culture is something we take incredibly seriously, as well as our responsibility to be great stewards for the environment we live and operate in. It’s something we are all very proud of; that we are able to do well while also doing good,” he shares.
“I agree; this is such a key to who we are. We can show our innovations through our output, but a prevalent aspect of what we do every day, as Aaron said, is taking care of everyone we serve, including our team,” Jane adds.
This echoes, too, in what Aaron says is his constant concern: people, people, people.
“Having the ability to attract the best and the brightest, who can execute our strategy, is what I would say keeps me up at night. Mushrooms are a very difficult commodity to grow—having the best people on the growing side and on the sales and marketing sides, and then having all the great associates we need in order to harvest, is crucial,” he shares. “We are still hand-harvesting 100 percent of the mushrooms we pick, and to continue to grow, we need a lot of good people around the rural areas to be interested and willing to enter agriculture—this isn’t a challenge we face alone; it’s a challenge for the entire industry in North America, I think even the whole world. So that’s something I’m constantly focusing on for both ourselves and for our industry.”
For Jane, it’s all the innovations the Highline team has yet to conquer.
“There are so many great things to do, and trying to figure out how to get them all done is mine. We have this great vision, so how to execute and accomplish all we can is a constant thing on my mind as we move from one day to the next,” she shares.
But, if the past is anything to go off of, it looks as though Highline Mushrooms might have this one in the bag. And that view is one Aaron says will constantly be more parallel to, rather than in the rear of, the company’s ongoing success.
“I don’t think we can tell Highline’s story without also including the history. The beginning is very much still a part of who we are and what we do,” he concludes. “Where we’ve been and where we are going as a business helped us realize we have to take calculated risks. That’s one of the principles by which we are building this business; as we lead the way, not everything we do is going to catch on with the consumer and/or retailer, and that’s okay. That willingness to take chances and fail is what allows us to be innovative and unique.”
So, as Dr. O’Neil himself might have said, Highline Mushrooms is in.