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Through the Eyes of a Leader: A Q&A With David Lake, President, 4Earth Farms

Through the Eyes of a Leader: A Q&A With David Lake, President, 4Earth Farms™

There is something so exciting about getting to pick the brain of executives in the produce industry. I think it’s the countless years of knowledge and stories that can be distilled into a single inspiring conversation, leaving both parties more connected by the thread of understanding.

Today, I am eagerly awaiting a discussion with David Lake, President of 4Earth Farms.

The last time we interviewed him for The Snack, he told us about his experiences in the produce industry of the 1990s, which he affectionately compared to the Wild West.

Now, David and his wife, Deborah Lake, Co-Founders of Commerce, California-based 4Earth Farms, are celebrating their 30th year in business. The company started its enterprise as a mixer, but has evolved into a leading grower, packer, shipper, and co-packer of organic, conventional, and specialty produce.

Eventually, I hear the ambient sound of the line connecting, and David’s voice greets me on the other end of the phone. I thank him for taking time out of his hectic schedule to talk with me, and his response sets the tone for the rest of our conversation. “It’s my pleasure,” David imparts. “My door is always open.”

This openness gives me the first glimpse of the many sides beneath the focused face of a leader that could be missed upon a cursory glance at his headshot laid out on the table in front of me.

With a new image of David in mind, we get down to business, discussing the concepts, values, and people who have shaped his career.


Jenna Plasterer: David, I know you don’t like to put yourself on a pedestal, but you have been doing this for a long time and have accomplished some amazing feats. What advice do you have for those looking to succeed in produce?

David Lake, President, 4Earth Farms: First, learn to listen. It is the most important thing you can do in any business and what good leaders must instill in their people. Only by listening to the needs of your customers, consumers, and your people can you make good decisions from the information you collect.

Second, give your people a voice. Your people are out there battling every day on the frontline. When you provide them with a voice, you’d be surprised by the results you can achieve. We are not successful because of a couple of people; we are successful because of everyone along the chain.

Lastly, work hard. Success is never given to you; it is something you earn through grit and determination.


JP: David, to discuss your success in this business, it’s key for us to define what that term means to you. How would you define success on a personal level and a company level?

DL: That is a sage question. I think what applies to me personally is the same as what I have tried to do in our business: Make a positive impact.

I think it is essential to respect the lives we affect. With great pride, I can tell you stories of many of my team that started out packing on a line or working in a field. With experience and initiative, they have grown their careers and are now supervisors, managers, and quality assurance inspectors, holding positions of responsibility. I can say that part of my success can be measured by the accomplishments of the people I work with.

JP: With the idea of success in mind, what are some of the things you consider before getting involved in a new venture?

DL: Who and why.

More specifically, who’s involved in the project, and why are we doing it? Is it to do good? It doesn’t always have to be about profit. Sometimes it is more important what that project will bring. It could be cost savings, freshness, better products, or help to those in need. You have to really look at those factors when deciding if you want to be involved and if your values align.

Regarding the “who” part of the equation, ethics matters—culture matters. Again, we’re all imperfect. If you dig hard enough, you’ll find we all make mistakes, but you have to identify the potential in the people behind the idea.

As a leader, I listen and learn from experts in the field I’m looking at because they have spent years working on and studying aspects of the industry that I may not have as much knowledge of. It’s vital to collect information and then decide whether or not to get involved.


JP: Moving from projects to people, over the years, you have witnessed and helped others hone their skills to become leaders. What are some of the characteristics that differentiate great produce operators from average ones?

DL: It starts with the truth.

Could I stand up and defend this person for the way they work? For their behavior? What it comes down to is, do they stand behind their word and their work. Are they willing to lean in when they need to?

Produce is part of your life. The people that I’m looking for take it home with them, they’re still dreaming about what’s in the field, what’s on the truck, and what’s getting to the consumer when they go to sleep at night. We don’t get to check out of this business.

“Produce is part of your life. The people that I’m looking for take it home with them, they’re still dreaming about what’s in the field, what’s on the truck, and what’s getting to the consumer when they go to sleep at night. We don’t get to check out of this business.”

David Lake, President, 4Earth Farms™

Emotional intelligence is another key differentiator that is incredibly hard to teach but is a big thing. Leadership is hard decisions, and some of them are not popular. Some are downright painful, so you must know what’s appropriate when approaching them.

In the end, you hope you’re on the right side of all those decisions and have more good than bad ones. I’ve got stacks of both. Successful people can reflect on what they did right, what they did wrong, and how they can do better. My team spends a lot of time doing that.


JP: On the subject of people, who are some industry members that have impacted your career?

DL: The first person that comes to mind is Tim York, Chief Executive Officer of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, who recognized our ability and potential very early in 4Earth’s history.

Back when we first met, Tim was the President of Markon Cooperative, and we were working in a little warehouse around the corner from the market. He and Mark Shaw, Vice President of Operations, came to visit because the company was looking to move its business in Los Angeles somewhere new. Despite our size, he believed in our abilities, and we’ve been evolving with Markon ever since.

They led the charge in food safety, and we learned from them and believed in it. So, we always feel like we’ve been a little bit ahead for a company our size.

I’m also a big fan of Grimmway Farms’ Vice President of Foodservice and Industrial Sales, Lisa McNeece. I value her knowledge, intuition about the produce business, and friendship. Although considered part of the foodservice sector, she crosses the lines into almost all aspects of the industry. Everybody knows her. She’s able to talk produce with anybody, and not to mention, she’s always on the go and pretty tireless.

JP: Speaking of industry experts, your wife, Deborah, is a Managing Member of 4Earth Farms with a deep financial and industry background. What have you gleaned from her in your time working together?

DL: Deb is more than a Managing Member. As the majority shareholder of 4Earth Farms, she was instrumental when Fred McConnell and I first started the business and continues to provide critical leadership daily.

Before 4Earth Farms began, Deb was named Chief Financial Officer of a multi-million-dollar company at 27 years old. She is smart, and she runs a very tight ship on finance with our company, which has enabled us to weather many storms our industry has been subjected to without taking on a bunch of debt.

Deb’s financial prowess is truly unique, enabling us to invest in essential aspects of the business. In the last 30 years, we’ve reinvested with a passion for our people, processes, and facilities.

She understands how we’re budgeting, where we’re going, and what we’re investing in and why. Our different skill sets complement one another. Looking to her for guidance in these areas has reinforced my belief that you have to trust in experts to be successful.


JP: As we wrap up, I can’t help but wonder what concepts, trends, and challenges you see on the horizon for the industry. Which ones intrigue you the most?

DL: All in all, I am positive about the future of fresh produce. People need to eat, and they need people like us to make that possible.

That said, I am slightly concerned about the effect private equity funds and their recent food company buying binge has had on our industry and their use of debt. Traditionally, produce is a low-margin business, and debt on produce is tough. It will be interesting to see how this will continue to affect the food system.

Consolidation is another topic that intrigues me. I think there is a real opportunity in it, but the devil is in the details. Companies will need to be careful with the use of monetary instruments because, again, debt in produce creates a lot of pressure that is hard to sustain in this industry.

Last but not least, social responsibility is a topic that must stay in the spotlight. We, as an industry, will have to keep pushing the agenda. Sustainable growing practices, lowering of our carbon footprint, recyclability, use of pesticides, water usage, and human resources are all critical topics we will need to continue to focus on in our industry.

With our final question, my interview with David comes to a close.

The eagerness I experienced at the start of our discussion has transformed into curiosity and inspiration.

When hearing leaders like David speak, it is near impossible not to feel like you just got insights into something bigger, beyond what you see on the industry’s surface. In other words, I got to take a peek behind the curtain, or in this case, the determined eyes of a leader that holds the secrets to success in the palm of his hand.