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From the Soil to the Sky

From the Soil to the Sky

Blue Angels would fly a Baloian.

“Think about a plane or jet that delivers performance. You're thinking of something incredibly fast and reliable, with impressive engines and enticing colors and graphics. That’s us. We're a performance-driven organization here—we like to take action,” Richard Cowden, Sales and Business Development, tells me, detailing Baloian Farms in a vivid image that immediately has me in the copilot seat, ready for takeoff.

“On the service and performance side of things, we take our orders very, very seriously,” he explains. “We have a high level of responsibility when it comes to our consistent customers, planning for them even when they haven't placed an order. We pre-place anticipated orders so that when they do make their call, we are ready, even if it’s for a really tight item.”

In essence, Baloian puts the relationship before the potential sale to ensure a smooth experience every time. Getting the throttle up too quickly can make or break a new partnership, but the way this company operates tells me it would rather be straight jet fuel than everyone’s cup of tea.

The fourth-generation family-owned operation started in 1917, founded by Armenian patriarch Charles Baloian. The importance of hard work, honesty, and humility were ingrained at home and in the business, building a concept that has been molded and shaped into a multi-national operation that stays true to two things: its founding faith and growing premium-quality vegetables.

“Ours is ultimately a story of a family coming together. Not only are we a multi-generational farm, but we have many employees spanning multiple family generations, too. Not to mention that our employees themselves are an extension of our Baloian family, and that's very important to our corporate culture,” Richard shares.

"This combination of honesty, transparency, and collaboration gives the buyer the confidence that when we come back later and say we have the most beautiful organic green bell peppers right now, they’ll know they’ll be getting diamonds in a box. That’s what helps to build real trust."

Richard Cowden, Sales and Business Development, Baloian Farms

Baloian Farms also works with other farming families in its California growing areas in Coachella, Bakersfield, Stockton, Oxnard, and Hollister, as well as in Mexico.

“These are all families that are just like ours, and we all grow and produce the same commodities during our growing seasons under one label with specific quality standards. Working together as a family of families, we’re able to provide a consistent product year-round to our customers,” he tells me.

Spanning so many regions, I wonder how involved the Founders’ descendants can be. After all, family ties stretch far, but at what point might they snap?

Richard understands and is quick to point out a unique component to the Baloian model.

“The family involvement is active, and not just in one area,” he shares. “Our Chief Executive Officer, Tim Baloian's daughter, Emily Baloian-Martinez, is in the field every day working with President Yosh Kamine and our people on the ground. She immediately communicates with the rest of us about what the observations and expectations are going forward at field-level. Tim's nephew, Peter Baloian, does food safety and is in charge of the expansion of our facility, and other improvements that we're making in various departments. He is absolutely hands-on and a road warrior.”

In fact, Richard points out that as we are speaking, Peter is headed to Coachella for some audits for PrimusGFS, while another of Tim’s nephews, Jon Baloian, is in charge of packing and production, overseeing the packing operation, equipment, and materials at the company’s Fresno facility.

“And even though our other hard-working employees may not be family by blood, they are an extension of the Baloian family in all other aspects,” Richard concludes.

In other words, the Baloian family is a perfect microcosm of the diversity of opportunities available in fresh produce, each part placed perfectly to ensure the engines are running smoothly. Not only are several members helping the company, but they are all pursuing a very different day-to-day experience than each of their kin.

“It’s very diversified,” Richard affirms. “A variety of people are working in different departments that are all bringing the company together under one common vision. That’s important for our long-term planning, survival, and growth.”

"In time, those irregular production waves will flatten out, and by looking ahead you can turn a challenge into a successful solution, but it takes the flexibility of the customer to achieve those results together."

For example, Richard points out, growth cannot be achieved if innovation is halted in the pipeline. Ensuring diversity and versatility keeps the company’s headings and waypoints on course when it comes to decision making.

“It’s a very tight chain of command, and if you have a question, a request, or a need, it is addressed immediately. That type of responsiveness is something that keeps us strong,” Richard tells me.

Another aspect Richard speaks to in maintaining the company’s strength ties directly back to one of its founding values: honesty.

Honesty, to its core, ensures that you can count on what you are being told as the truth. It builds trust, promises communication, and guarantees you will get to your final destination.

“There's an expectation that when a buyer places an order, it's going to get done as they ordered it. Trust means if something doesn't quite go according to plan, the communication will be there to give them some options for recovery or alternatives so their needs are met. To communicate that takes the courage to pick up the phone and be honest with the customer,” Richard says.

He acknowledges that digging into that courage when it comes down to it is tough. But perceiving and addressing a sticky situation in advance, Richard says, does not damage a relationship. Quite the opposite.

“If I can describe to a buyer in advance the potential for an issue, we can collaboratively work together with what we have or look for alternatives. This combination of honesty, transparency, and collaboration gives the buyer the confidence that when we come back later and say we have the most beautiful organic green bell peppers right now, they’ll know they’ll be getting diamonds in a box. That's what helps to build real trust,” he shares.

Richard knows firsthand about building trust from both sides of the board, having been inspired to make the jump from the buy-side to the supply-side by the commitment and passion he came to know in working with the Baloian team.

“I really had no idea what to expect,” he laughs, looking back on the decision he made 15 years ago. “I came over from working as a Produce Manager for Food 4 Less. I was completely unaware of the incredibly hard work it takes to plan, nurture, harvest, pack, and ship fresh produce. That was the experience I wanted when I joined the Baloian team, and I was amazed at how much planning, effort, and teamwork it takes to achieve success in this business.”

He understands now the decisions going into each box and appreciates that Baloian Farms will not let the contents be a surprise.

It circles back to the trust that honesty inspires and, in turn, purchase orders (PO).

“Over time, during annual meetings with buyers, I have heard many times, ‘We really appreciated when you called us in advance of shipment. You saved me.’ It’s reassuring to know that my company had the foresight to protect them. And that protection comes in multiple ways, not just in alerting a buyer of a potential supply issue, but about being true stewards of their PO book,” he points out. “If they entrust us to provide them with a year-round supply of bell peppers, we’re going to do everything we can to supply them and keep them insulated from shortages. Likewise, they are encouraged to purchase other commodities from us knowing we can be trusted for their needs for quality, consistency, and steady supplies.”

In return, Richard emphasizes, flexibility on the part of the retailers and wholesalers is a huge boon to reinforcing a cycle of transparency and ensuring performance remains top-notch.

"We'll get through the changing dynamics of the restaurant industry. We'll find new collaborative ways to get through transportation issues. Because we care."

“We really appreciate and respect those customers that are flexible. Typically, you have what they normally use, and occasionally an opportunity arises to promote sizes or grades which are non-traditional. In time, those irregular production waves will flatten out, and by looking ahead you can turn a challenge into a successful solution, but it takes the flexibility of the customer to achieve those results together,” he imparts on me.

At the end of the day, though, Baloian Farms never forgets its true purpose—the pulse behind its passion and the reason for its success.

“If we can help and give customers what they need, that’s our duty. The amazing thing is, along the way in accomplishing this, we’re employing people and helping our community. I think that’s what makes us strong. We care,” Richard reflects.

It’s a small phrase that sums up the core of what has become a vast network. Richard points out that it might be easy to say, but the continued success of Baloian is a testament to its truth.

“This is a very passionate industry. Emotions run high. I think the more we respect and care for each other, the better off we’ll be as we get through this pandemic. We’ll get through the changing dynamics of the restaurant industry. We’ll find new collaborative ways to get through transportation issues. Because we care,” he sums up.

A true understanding of what’s running the industry’s engines keeps Baloian navigating over clouds of uncertainty and through turbulent markets, with great connections still left to be made in the future.

“We have some of the best produce being harvested and distributed right now. We have new products in development and some new members joining our team as we continue to build out our offerings to our customers,” Richard shares, giving me a glimpse of what is approaching on radar.

As we discuss navigating everything from changing markets over the years to the gnarly diversions of 2020, Richard reminds me it is when the runway finishes that airplanes take to the sky—none so quickly as those in the Blue Angels’ hangar. Thus, with a sleek, aerodynamic body style connected to the past, and something under the fuselage engineered for the future, Baloian Farms might just be the vehicle we thrill-seekers have been waiting for.

So buckle up. It looks like it is going to be an awesome flight.