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Creative to the Core

Creative to the Core

As a writer, you tend to feel kin right off the bat. It might be the way that another artist sees precision in language, or maybe it is the care they take in pulling a thread through a thought to make sure it resonates—just right.

When I met Brianna Shales, I felt that pull toward her deliberate and creative choices immediately. In an industry both as competitive and rooted as ours, Brianna knows that differentiation can find its kindling and fire through words and that a progressive mindset demands the ability to communicate a vision to the industry and consumer with not only clarity, but meticulousness and care—a feat she knows well. This may be why she finds a home on the page as much as a home in the orchard or in the offices of the growing, marketing, and visionary giant Stemilt Growers.

Sometimes that path informs our journey and gives us a hint at what our future holds—for Brianna, Stemilt’s Senior Marketing Manager, hers began to whisper to her as she readied to start her last semester at Washington State University.

“I found out the requirements for my degree had just changed and I needed one more credit. Cue the panic for my type-A, plan-everything personality. My advisor encouraged me to do a three-credit internship, and I agreed—although a bit reluctantly, because I was looking forward to an easy finale to college,” Brianna shares with me. “Boy, am I glad he pushed me to do that! He helped me find an internship on campus with the College of Agriculture in their News and Marketing Services department. I spent a semester as their news intern, interviewing people and then writing and editing feature stories that went into various publications they had for students, faculty, and alumni. Near the end of the semester, they asked me what I would be doing after college. I still wasn’t sure, but knew that I wanted to try and find a job in Wenatchee, Washington.”

Brianna’s partner, who would later become her husband, had roots in Wenatchee as well, and so the couple placed their feet solidly on the ground.

“I met with the Director at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research Center, and he said he would talk to his industry connections about me since they did not have a need for a communications person. Shortly after, I met with West Mathison—Stemilt’s now-President—and was soon applying for one of two open positions Stemilt had in Marketing.”

After jumping through the interview hoops and getting to know the company on a deeper level, the team hired her and truly ignited the passion that has fueled and grown her fierce love for the business since day one.

“There is something about knowing the people and ways our freshest foods are produced that is contagious and motivating.”

Brianna Shales, Senior Marketing Manager, Stemilt growers

If we take a beat and look back at the state of the nation during this time, around 2007, we know that this was about six months before the recession hit here in the U.S.

“With what shook out in our industry, and really all industries, during the recession, I look back on this luck with so much gratitude that the timing worked for me,” Brianna reflects. “It’s been an incredible almost 12-year journey at Stemilt now, where I’ve been able to grow up professionally, and personally. This company is incredibly supportive of its employees, and I’ve been blessed to work with a fantastic team led by an amazing mentor, Roger Pepperl, and grow into new roles and responsibilities as I gained knowledge and skills in marketing and produce. Today, I am so passionate about this company and the produce business. I look forward to work because it is fun, and I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Stemilt is a family-owned company now run by the fifth generation who are, as Brianna says, incredibly humble people. There are several values guiding the company culture today, but the ones that resonate most with who Brianna is are Stemilt’s values of trust and integrity.

“Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m very trusting of people—and maybe sometimes to a fault,” Brianna pauses to describe. “But it’s a trait that has allowed me to grow as a person and in my career. To me, trusting others shows that you believe in them and helps motivate us all to do a great job every day. Integrity is another personal value of mine that helps me live into Stemilt’s values. It was ingrained in my head at an early age to tell the truth, always. As a kid, I probably told the truth more out of fear of not wanting to be grounded, but now it’s something that is personally important to who I am. Telling the truth, even if it’s not something that someone wants to hear, helps you build stronger and more meaningful relationships with people, along with better teamwork and results.”

One of the common stories that I love to hear is the one about arriving. Arriving in the sense that we have covered enough ground, broken through enough myths, and found enough truths to look down the road by which we have come and pause with gratitude—and maybe, if we are lucky, a little bit more insight than when we started. This, I believe, is one of the greatest gifts our lives can give us. In a way, we can become witness to our own story—and in that space, we can lift lessons and milestones from it that we could not see at the beginning or even in the middle. And in this industry, there truly is no end.

“One of my favorite things about working at Stemilt is how your role can naturally grow and evolve here. It happens through time. Mentors like Roger make you personally reach for more, and through the knowledge and confidence you gain around our business and products and, of course, through lots of hard work, you step naturally into the path of least resistance: your own,” Brianna expresses.

When she started 12 years ago, Brianna was the main Copywriter at Stemilt, writing press releases, newsletters, web copy, managing its very new Facebook page, and more. While she still writes a bit today in that space, she has truly grown with the company and, in turn, so have her responsibilities.

“I am so passionate about this company and the produce business. I look forward to work because it is fun, and I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“My role is evolving right now. I moved from managing our communications programs to a Senior Marketing Management position,” Brianna says. “It is incredibly interesting to trace back through the steps that have brought me here and to perceive the path ahead.”

What that means is that she gets to help more with marketing strategy today, while learning about Stemilt’s retail customers and their needs in order to better support the Wenatchee-based operation’s branding, packaging development, and merchandising work in the future.

Brianna will, no doubt, continue to work on all of Stemilt’s communications work—both B2B and B2C—which she loves, but more in an editorial role than in a writing and executing role.

“Our world of fruit has changed so much in the past decade with the emergence of new varieties. At Stemilt, we take a holistic approach to building our brand, working to delight consumers and bringing them into our ‘family,’ or circle of fans, one person at a time,” she notes, adding that this is a tall order as the team works to build its communications and marketing programs around an authentic, transparent, driven, and fun-filled vision. “That’s what you find in the walls at Stemilt and what we want people to see outside of them, too.”

I imagine that, with all the people at Stemilt we have gotten to know over the years, these strands of an authentic, transparent, and driven mindset resemble a cultural ideal for the team, built around the individual, but honored as a collective.

“Our culture is evolving, and in great ways,” Brianna shares. “And that is all credited to West, our President, and the work he and our leadership team are doing to inspire teamwork and excellence at Stemilt. But even with the evolving culture, I would describe Stemilt as a place where people are honest and work really hard to provide great service and high-quality products. Our mission is to cultivate people and delight consumers, and it takes a lot of teamwork to see that through. We have so many passionate people working at Stemilt, some because it comes naturally to them, and many because they believe in what we are doing to grow fruit with ‘World Famous’ flavors for people around the world to enjoy.”

Producing fruit is a hands-on, year-round job, and Stemilt’s culture is to do that really well at every step, and to never stop innovating. It’s a constant journey that has no endpoint, and that’s what makes the work exciting for Brianna.

We often talk about this industry and the passion it generates as being truly unique from any other. So, I asked Brianna, what gets her up in the morning and drives her throughout the day? She responds that her answer might be cliché—but, then again, I believe that clichés come into their status for a very good reason: their truth.

"Mentors like Roger [Pepperl] make you personally reach for more, and through the knowledge and confidence you gain around our business and products and, of course, through lots of hard work, you step naturally into the path of least resistance: your own."

“My family, and mostly my two young boys, are what get me going each morning and drive my passion throughout the day. I want them to grow up and find something that they enjoy as much as, or, hopefully, even more than I do,” Brianna tells me. “Enjoying your job and the people you work with makes it less like a job. Plus, we spend so much time in our profession, so we might as well enjoy it. I love that my boys are starting to understand what mom does for work, and how it encourages people to eat healthy foods so they can feel good. And like other parents, I want to teach and show my boys the world out there and how diverse it is. Stemilt has afforded me the opportunity to broaden my horizons, and hopefully, I can pass that along to my boys, too.”

As we continue to speak about that marrow-deep devotion that ripples through our industry, the calling that signals us in the storm, Brianna takes some time to pull her thoughts together in precise reflection.

“There is something about knowing the people and ways our freshest foods are produced that is contagious and motivating. I think people in our industry feel like we are collectively working for a cause, more than individual companies,” she responds. “Getting people everywhere to enjoy more of our wholesome and flavorful fruits fuels me here at Stemilt.”

Our industry, impacted by the challenges and the fluctuations that demand we be both nimble and provocative, is one with heart and a fierce determination to capture the consumer’s and the retailer’s vision for the future of fresh produce. Necessitating that firm adaptability brings about another demand: addressing the changing landscape in technology and managing what that means for progress—including its hindrances.

“Produce is such a hands-on and unique industry, and my thought is that it’s going to be hard for technology to understand those nuances: sudden crop changes, supply disruption, the business finances itself, and so much more,” Brianna shares. “If it can, then we will be golden. But if it doesn’t, or we adopt technology that doesn’t work with the flexibility our world needs, then it could really set us back in our work around upping consumption of fruits and vegetables. Adopting technology can make us more efficient at growing and supplying produce, but we always have to remember that we are feeding people, and we must deliver flavor and share the authentic story that makes our farms unique. In this vein, people will remember our brands and seek them out because they trust us and believe in what we’re doing.”

Brianna has a love that runs deep within Stemilt, the entire fresh produce space, and within her own personal life. Outside of work, you’ll usually find her trying to help her two boys burn off their endless energy by going on bike rides as a family or sometimes just jogging while the kids ride to their hearts’ content.

You can picture her, caught in a moment of infinite reflection as her personal life and professional passion align and root deep—exactly as she had hoped.

“I came from a family of all girls, so the boy-mom life is quite an adventure in itself for me,” she reflects as she laughs. “When I do have some free or ‘me’ time, I love to read a good nonfiction book, but you’ll probably find me tuning into a podcast. I am a habitual listener of a DIY home décor podcast, even though I have zero interest in home décor, and a barely decorated house to prove it. I just love the stories they tell around the ups and downs around renovations or home projects. It’s entertaining and authentic.”

And, as you would expect from someone with a passion for what we put into our bodies, she enjoys good food and good wine.

“Also, I’m a big football fan. It used to be the WSU Cougars on Saturdays and the Seahawks on Sundays, but with less time in life now, it’s all about the Cougs!” Brianna notes. “I also recently took on the role of coaching four-year-old boys in soccer, which is basically the best and most challenging hands-on lesson in leadership that I’ve ever had! Seriously.”

We are so much of what we do in this industry, and for most of us, that is a beautiful thing: to have work be a lifestyle and a job be our passion. Inside that space we are so much of our own stories as well, built in the smallest of ways.

One seed.

One apple.

One root at a time.