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The Heart of a Lion

The Heart of a Lion

"Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

I’m reminded of this quote from the brilliant author and researcher Brené Brown while reflecting on my recent conversation with Brian Kocher. We agree that one of the most fundamental actions we can take as a human is to show up every morning as a better version of the person we were yesterday.

“If I can do that 365 days a year, I think I’m going to be pretty happy with how my year went,” he told me as we settled into our seats on a Monday afternoon, the sweet scent of cherry blossom trees drifting through my window.

Earlier this year, Brian was named the new President and Chief Executive Officer of Calavo Growers, and with just a few months under his belt, I sensed a great pride and passion in his undertaking of this role. Where some leaders may assume the charge with merely a whisper of a vision, Brian comes to the table with a rallying roar.

“The focal points of my role are to make sure we have the proper teams in place with carefully outlined responsibilities and a clear mission, ensuring that everyone understands the goals and objectives of the organization. When that happens, I know the decision-makers—no matter where they are in the organization—have a good compass,” Brian told me.

Many who take on the position of President and CEO may be removed from the day-to-day operations. In Brian’s case, that could not be further from the truth. He explained that while examining whether Calavo was the right fit, the opportunity to be directly involved with employees and customers is what piqued his interest.

"Produce is the combination of complexity and perishability."

Brian Kocher, President and Chief Executive Officer, Calavo Growers

“I’m really lucky that, in this role, I get to have a hand in human resource issues and customer communications,” he said. “These two aspects are my favorite parts of working in this industry— it helps me connect with my heart and the business.”

Another crucial aspect of Brian’s role is ensuring Calavo has an operational infrastructure in place that allows the company to grow.

“We must have our sales and customer service values in line and our logistical processes in place so when we make a sale, we don’t compromise or fail our customers in our promise to serve them well. Especially if you look at what we call our ‘Prepared’ business segment, having the right operational infrastructure in place is key to delivering our orders complete and on time,” he outlined.

That is the true test of whether someone can ride the waves presented by this industry; we are not expected to forecast the storms looming overhead, but we are expected to steer the ship through them. Stepping into the unknown is an act of courage in and of itself.

“I love the variability. Just when you think you’ve got a problem figured out or solution ready to go, then boom, something changes,” Brian voices. “Mother Nature changes, customers change, and you must live in the ‘now’ every minute of the day.”

Brian has clocked a lengthy 17 years in fresh produce, initially making his foray into this world through a finance role at Chiquita. He noted that his diverse background in telecommunications, banking, and finance is what prepared him to adopt the nimbleness required to survive and thrive in this industry.

“Produce is the combination of complexity and perishability,” Brian suggested. “It has been helpful to have a background in finance, so I can understand profit and loss drivers and how to relate that impact to customer dynamics. Now, there were still a lot of things I needed to learn, but it did give me a jump-start and prepared me for the demands that produce places on leaders.”

I think we all have experienced the pressure that is inevitable when existing and working within the fresh produce space. Calavo has navigated these waters for nearly a century, with agricultural roots and grower relations running deep.

“When it comes to our long-tenured grower relationships that span 30 to 40 years, we no longer consider them business partners, but family members,” Brian relayed. “This concept of family extends not only to our employees but to our supplier partners and customers. As far as I’m concerned, we have over 4,000 Calavo family members.”

Brian’s dedication to this statement is unwavering. He emphasized that the company is only as strong as the belief and trust of its people.

“Part of my responsibility in terms of setting strategy is understanding how to grow and provide great value to our customers,” he continued. “We cannot win unless our customers win. Additionally, we must drive these same values among our grower partners and employees. Their understanding of the worth and the proposition is paramount to our overall success.”

"As far as I’m concerned, we have over 4,000 Calavo family members."

From company newsletters and town halls to a new rewards program, Calavo works to communicate a common message company-wide—one that Brian believes in wholeheartedly.

“I spent a lot of time trying to get to know the people at Calavo, how they work, and what’s important to them. If you think about my personal values—drive, the everyday challenge, and variability—they’re very similar to Calavo’s values. Our proposition centers on stewardship and respect for people, again, showing up and trying to be our best selves every day.”

Respect, Brian reminded me, is the bottom line. “Our industry is a tumultuous one, and having the foresight to fill up our own cups while also pouring into those around us is a quality I believe we cannot live without.”

“There’s so much we can celebrate and, frankly, there are some things we can cry about, too. That’s the beauty of the produce industry,” Brian stated. “A lot of my proudest moments surround the things I’ve accomplished with a team. I was fortunate to be able to help grow market share for several years in some of my previous roles, and that is something I look forward to continuing at Calavo.”

Brian echoed a sentiment that is dear to my heart and one of the first epiphanies I had about this industry: Produce people, despite being business competitors, will always be your biggest supporters.

“This is an industry where you might have to fight it out against each other in the daytime, but then you’ll go to your competitor’s weddings, or you’ll send them a card for the birth of a child. You’ll be with them when they have a loss in their family,” he and I both agreed. “I love that fact about this industry. We’re hard competitors, but we’re very empathetic people.”

This idea ties back to the concept of respect. If we cannot recognize the pieces of ourselves that live within others, we will always be living a life that runs parallel to our families, friends, and coworkers, rather than experiencing the journey while intertwined. Calavo Growers simply would not exist without this interconnectedness, and Brian is one in the same.

“I am very excited about the people, the leaders, and the opportunity we have at Calavo. Our industry is evolving, keeping pace with the trends of healthy eating, convenience, clean labels, and organic food that’s good for you. We fit all of those trends,” Brian stated. “I look forward to helping Calavo continue to move forward. There’s still a lot of consumption we can drive both as an industry participant and as a global industry.”

We began this story with the word “courage.” It is something used often to describe someone who has overcome challenges and performed with fierce bravery. I’ve come to learn that Brian’s is the heart of a lion. And in this industry, that is a statement as rich as the fields of green gold held dear to Calavo’s core.

“Challenges range. I mean, heck, I’ve been through hurricanes, I’ve been through depressions, and now I’ve been through a pandemic,” Brian said with resolve. “It’s about working with your team on how to overcome those obstacles and somehow still provide value for your customers and be there for your employees. One thing I’ve learned is you certainly can’t do any of this alone.”

Fortunately for Brian, he does not have to. Calavo’s family is 4,000-strong and counting, with each and every member walking hand-in-hand toward a better version of themselves. 

The Heart of a Lion