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Becoming the Catalyst

Becoming the Catalyst

I remember the first time I encountered the word catalyst. The notion straddled the line between poetry and science, an organic muse or a chemical kickstarter.

A catalyst does not just create greatness, it recognizes it. It assesses the existing parts and inserts itself when the timing is precisely right.

It shouldn’t surprise you at all that a catalyst can also be a person.

Perhaps Fowler Packing’s Sean Nelsen would not use this exact word. But when Sean joined the team, Fowler burst into mandarin stardom. As we begin our conversation one morning when the weather is so sweet—the wind is soft against the windows, the sun is just cresting over the trees—it almost binds our experiences together through the phone.

“When I became Vice President of Sales and Marketing, our conversations were centered around what the Peelz brand meant. We wanted to make sure that we were putting something forward that added value to the shelf,” Sean explains. “California does a great job growing a mandarin. Fowler had to bring the difference.”

As a necessity, the fresh produce industry thinks in the abstract and the hypothetical. Foresight and vision are essential not just for survival, but for success. As Sean considered that Fowler needed to bring this essential thinking to the buy-side, a light bulb went off.

“The health and wellness movement gives the produce industry a huge competitive advantage when we talk about competing for the shopper dollar, right?” Sean asks, further drawing me into the discussion. I find myself nodding. “We don’t have the same external pressures and conversations with retailers as beverages or proteins do. What conversations we do have are centered around retailers who want shoppers to consume more produce. We have an end-consumer who wants to consume more. That’s already a huge advantage.”

The messaging, Sean reasoned, was already built-in. Consumers were demanding the product; it was up to Fowler to make sure they got that product consistently and of high quality so they kept coming back.

“People will not eat healthy if the produce they’re buying is an inconsistent quality. From the minute they purchase the product to the minute it’s eaten, it has to look, travel, and taste amazing,” he comments, before adding with a laugh, “I mean, I never have a problem with Fritos® or Oreos® tasting the same every time.”

"We want to make that connection now so retailers and shoppers will understand that the product they’re buying this moment will still have the same quality three, four, five years from now."

Sean Nelsen, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Fowler Packing

The bottom line is this: If shoppers don’t trust a brand, they’ll take their money elsewhere. And Fowler Packing has done a great deal in order to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“Fowler was one of the first growers to put mandarins in the ground in California, which means we have more experience in growing this category than almost anybody else. That matters,” Sean emphasizes. “We understand what every variety needs from a nutrient or watering standpoint. As stewards of the land, we’ve made capital improvements in water and irrigation practices, all of which equals higher quality fruit.”

The company regards each season in turn, but it makes decisions in the present to impact the outcome of future seasons.

“That’s why we are invested so heavily in social media,” Sean asserts. “We want to make that connection now so retailers and shoppers will understand that the product they’re buying this moment will still have the same quality three, four, five years from now.”

Fowler Packing has also invested heavily in its packing facility, implementing automation technology that is, as Sean puts it, beyond what human eyes can give us.

Not to say that the human element of Fowler and its operations isn’t profoundly important to the company. In fact, it’s only another testament to the grower’s ability to consistently deliver quality to its partners and create a culture that thrives.

“We’re also in the table grape business, and one example of our commitment to quality is that we pick grapes multiple times. That way, we get the best fruit off the vines while also letting the product behind it continue to grow in high-quality conditions. And that matters, you know? That extra cost matters, because doing things the right way at both the packing and farm levels will drive consistency. It’s that cohesiveness that we strive for between growing and sales,” Sean notes. “Because we talk with the people working the land about who our customers are, they know what they’re working on. They know if it’s a bag of grapes for a specific retailer, or if the citrus is being featured in a marketing campaign. They get behind it.”

I can hear how much Sean loves the commitment from the entire team from just his voice. And this is what I mean when I figure Sean as the catalyst in Fowler’s growth. He already knew the greatness and potential of the company.

“It’s been a joy to be a part of this growth,” he says. “What we’ve achieved in the short-term is so amazing, but I’m even more excited about what’s coming three to five years from now.”

Notably, Fowler will be enhancing its farming practices and grabbing additional ground for further operational expansions.

“We’ve also brought organics and Dekopons to the Peelz brand. The organic mandarin is still an underdeveloped category that we want to help develop. And the Dekopon is a great variety that brings a premium ring, which is fantastic for our retail partners,” Sean imparts.

He further explains that Fowler hopes to up its organic production of table grapes, as well as rebrand its clamshells.

“You’re going to see what we call the SamSonS shield,” Sean says, in reference to the new logo. “It’s prominent across our grape packaging, and I think it speaks quality and confidence for the retailer. We put our best foot forward as a company because that SamSonS shield has been our legacy for the last 72 years.”

"We’re innovative, yes, but we also have that family element. You’re not farming for 72 years unless you’re committed."

Sean Nelsen

The name itself pays homage to the late Sam Parnagian, Founder of Fowler Packing, who, along with his four sons, became an essential part of the company’s operations in the 1970s.

Past, present, and future have been distilled in the workings of Fowler Packing. The testimony to its legacy, I think, is how excited it is for the future.

“We’re innovative, yes, but we also have that family element. You’re not farming for 72 years unless you’re committed. The Parnagians and the legacy they bring forward is, to me, one of our chief responsibilities now and in the future,” Sean reflects. “Who we are as a company, what we invest in, how we present ourselves to retailers—all of that connects to what we want to stand for.”

As I near the end of my notes as I write this article, I realize it is hard to follow the act of a catalyst. The whirlwind growth kindled by one such as Sean is experienced rarely, he would likely argue that, as a company, Fowler Packing brings that incendiary momentum wherever it goes.

And Sean is that spark,

Fowler, the fire.