e’re not waiting for that next direction every step of the way. Like birds flying south for the winter, we have an instinct for what needs to be done and where we need to go, whether our eyes are open or closed,” says John Dmytriw, Index Fresh’s Senior Business Specialist for Sales and Category Management. “We all have the heartbeat of the business and pride ourselves in having the pulse of our customers. So we’re never having to wonder what to do next—people just act.”
This is a level of trust that might inspire fear of failure in many large businesses. But for Index, John tells me, it’s better than standing still.
“We have the ability to make both good and bad decisions within our organization, sure, but we’d rather have people make decisions and act in Index’s best interest rather than make no decisions and go from analysis to paralysis. In short, our culture is a bunch of doers. From the top down, everyone rolls up their sleeves and digs into the work,” he says.
President and CEO Dana Thomas applies a surprising word to this culture of work: stoic.
I love words and new ways to use them—it is like finding a new path home. A stoic person might seem off-putting, but a stoic company endures and provides no matter the situation.
Such is the case for avocados. Now known by many as “green gold,” it has not always been so. A tried and true company that has seen the ups and the downs, only to be one of the more fun-loving and passionate I’ve interviewed, is Index Fresh.
“We’re a stoic company that has a real solid understanding of who we are: rooted in California agriculture while also being very involved in the global avocado world,” Dana reflects.
Those roots go all the way back to California’s Orange County in 1914, when Index Fresh was originally founded as a corporation called Index Orchards in the heart of the Golden State’s agriculture industry. While Dana can tell me that Index went from a corporation to a co-op to the grower-owned company it is now, things remained a little fuzzy until the 1940s.
We’re a stoic company that has a real solid understanding of who we are: rooted in California agriculture while also being very involved in the global avocado world.
-Dana Thomas, President and CEO, Index Fresh
“When we first started, it was a fairly small organization, and it went along like that until World War II. We don’t know a lot about the Founders before the war, and we’ve actually tried to research this, hiring somebody to look back in the Orange County records, without a lot of luck,” he shares.
It makes sense. Yet in a time where roots seem to define a company, this one has managed to retain a strong identity and trust without too much information on its initial decades.
With this confidence and stoicism comes unwavering loyalty, as Debbie Willmann, who joined the company in 1990 and worked her way up to Senior Business Specialist for Sales and Category Management, attests.
“Everybody is as important as everybody else in the company. You see how management values what every single person brings to the table. It helps people feel empowered, confident, and proud to be here. I think it speaks volumes that our turnover is very low, and we’re fortunate in that aspect as well,” she says.
So, how has Index come to stand in such a place, with one foot in the local market and the other in the global, while keeping its balance? Dana attributes it to a slew of pivotal moments falling together to create Index’s current path.
“I think there’s no question that making the decision in the 1940s to get involved in the avocado business by buying United Avocado Growers was huge, and it was not a slam dunk. In those days, there was no way to know avocados were going to be what they are today,” he says.
The next big move Dana names happened just prior to his coming in to take the reigns in 1996. “We moved into international business in 1991, becoming involved in Mexico and Chile, which has been an important move,” he tells me.
Debbie echoes this mainstay.
“We’ve always been diversified because our number one priority is supply source. Even when people stopped bringing in foreign avocados in favor of going to just the California grower—California is now only ten to twelve percent on average, of the entire avocado supply in the U.S.—I think one of our biggest successes is that we’ve always prided ourselves on supply. We’ve never been without a Chilean program in the last 25 years, no matter what the circumstances were. We had even been in the Peru deal years before it was in the United States, as we were going into Canada,” Debbie recalls.
John goes a little further, attributing this aspect of the business to Index’s ability to help find the right fit for buyers no matter the market.
“We’re a little ahead of the game in offering seamless supply through multi-country sourcing, in the California market as well as Mexico, Chile, Peru, and, starting off in the infantile stages, Colombia,” he says. “We’ve been doing that for twenty-five to thirty years. That is a big game-changer for everyone to be able to connect with the avocado year-round, and we have had relationships with those growers from South and Central America for quite some time. We’re already in that seat to manage what people want, and we don’t dictate what we’re going to give to a customer in terms of country of origin. We work with the customers, showing them what fruit eats best and what works for them.”
Giving customers options both in pack styles and where the fruit is coming from in the market, John shares, is how Index works best with customers. “We don’t want to ever push a square peg into a round hole.”
We all have the heartbeat of the business and pride ourselves in having the pulse of our customers.
-John Dmytriw, Senior Business Specialist for Sales and Category Management, Index Fresh
This is another pivotal marker of how Index has risen to its current status, Dana points out.
“A slow-moving but key moment in our history is that, as we’ve evolved, we’ve understood that our business is to provide a good-quality product—with our transparency, our honesty, our information, and our service. We give the best information we can and work to provide the best we can to growers and customers,” he emphasizes.
On the customer-side, Index has worked on several types of packaging for partners in bags that the company then adopted for all its avocados on the buyer-side. Index has gone so far as to provide cultural seminars and have an agronomist and a food safety professional on staff to ensure growers are food safety compliant.
Because they are not just growers, they are shareholders.
“When we converted from a co-op to a corporation and became a share- and core-based business, I think that really served as a springboard for us. It brought a new approach to the business that really fostered a sense of growth—we were going to be a major participant in the industry,” Dana shares.
It’s no small feat. Debbie explains to me that, from her start at Index to present day, the number of companies selling avocados has gone from around 20 to upward of 200, and the responsibilities that arise from such growth are two-fold: ensuring Index stands out in the market and ensuring there is a market to stand out in.
“We, as salespeople, have to keep evolving, learning, and growing. This business is continuing to move, and we have to continue to move with it as a company and as individuals. I work with one of the best teams in the industry, in my opinion, and it’s been absolutely incredible. So, what can we do to continue pushing this commodity that has been so amazing the last twenty years?” she questions.
Debbie points out that the trajectory of avocados has been astronomical but is approaching a bit of a plateau.
“We’re pushing the envelope on annual volumes, so Index has to continue to stay focused on the core, which is always the growers. I think, sometimes, they can get forgotten, and that is where we do a really good job. Our values, morals, ethics, and being really transparent from a company standpoint both internally and externally, continue to stand,” she explains.
John identifies this, too, saying the company’s willingness to acknowledge and improve upon areas in need is one of its strongest attributes.
“Every year, we reflect where we performed well and areas that we should improve. We’re not afraid to take a look at what we did poorly and figure out a way as a group to improve on it. So, we’re always evolving, whether it’s our services, our product offerings, communication with customers, internal accounting software, real-time inventory analysis, or quality control. For us, we will never have a similar year to the one prior because, if we do, then we’re just being complacent. And that’s just not who we are,” John comments.
In that space, Index has expanded facilities and continued investing in the business, like its new plant in Pharr, Texas.
“In 2017, we opened up a new plant on the Texas border with Mexico, right outside of McAllen, and we run all of our Mexican product through that,” Dana says, giving me perhaps my favorite reference for distance. “If I was a real baseball player, I could probably throw a hardball from the plant to the Pharr Bridge, so we’re really pleased with that. And we continue to invest in the business and look for growth.”
He shares that Index looks to the future in several ways, from small to vast.
“From one aspect, our Board of Directors has been very stable in the long-term and is multigenerational. We maintain that sense of history while the next generation of Directors have come in as well, keeping us prepared for the future,” Dana explains. “There’s a social responsibility aspect that Index has also been on the forefront with some of our customers. We’ve had a Fair Trade program with Costco now out of Mexico for about three years. It’s been complicated, but we’ve been able to get it done, and it’s been very, very exciting. We’re not rocket scientists, and we’re not brain surgeons. So, to know that we can make a difference another way when there’s such diversity in the grower communities globally—talk about rewarding.”
A slow-moving but key moment in our history is that, as we’ve evolved, we’ve understood that our business is to provide a good-quality product—with our transparency, our honesty, our information, and our service.
It’s this human aspect John tells me he wants to continue to see in our industry.
“We need to keep in mind that business used to be done with a handshake, and there’s still room for that. As we progress as an industry and as a world, I think the reason so many people fell in love with this business when they were introduced to it is because it was still so human, and we need to always work toward keeping it that way,” John reflects. “It’s great to use all these efficiencies and things that help us with our job, but I think we need to remember that we’re selling a living product, and that’s important.”
These words echo across the interview space and into the finer elements of Index’s operations. Efficiencies, expansion, and progress exist, but so does its vibrant personality. Perhaps it’s why Index has, as John puts it, stood the test of time.
“Buyers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to select the supplier that is going to not only deliver on what they say, but stand the test of time,” he shares. “There are a lot of steps and processes, from food safety to just overall programs, in what you deliver as a company that you have to present to a retailer, a foodservice provider, a wholesaler, or whoever it may be before you actually work with them. So, customers or potential clients take a hard look at what you have to offer, and I think being with a company that has been in business through the ups, through the downs, and is still here today really says something. As avocados become more and more of a mainstay in the U.S., and continue to gain penetration in all households, you’ve got a lot of people that jump on the bandwagon of wanting to sell.”
John says that supplying is planning in advance for customers while Dana emphasizes focusing on opportunities over the challenges. In fact, just strike challenges completely.
“I don’t talk about those!” he laughs when I bring them up. “The challenges have been there. I think it was in 1999, I looked at some of those I worked with in Chile and said, ‘This avocado business could change drastically in the next five years.’ The irony of that is we put a five-year timeline on these changes when, in reality, it changes every single year. It is just going to continue to change. So, it’s a matter of anticipation. Deciding what changes are going to stick and become real as opposed to being a fad, and then taking steps at the end of them so that you’re well positioned. You must be good at adapting. The fact is, we have a strong financial base; we have a thoughtful process about how we move forward into new businesses.”
In this wonderful industry of ours, you can never know what situation you will be asked to navigate. That strong, stoic base Index holds in its local and global presence is a compass I would surely follow.