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Making the Map As You Go

Making the Map As You Go

Plans are meant to be broken.

Or, at the very least, changed—especially in an industry as dynamic, evolving, and unanticipated as fresh produce. The people who end up here, fate or accident, have a sixth sense for its unpredictability, gravity, force, and life of passion and dedication. Their ability to adapt and change has allowed them to both learn and unlearn simultaneously, a feat Lara Grossman understands well.

“Agriculture and produce were not part of my original life plan,” Lara, Director of Marketing for Ippolito International, tells me as she paints the picture of growing up in the sandy dunes of Phoenix, Arizona. “After studying Business Administration at the University of Arizona—go Wildcats!—I left Arizona for the more exciting vibe of Southern California, where many of my college friends lived.”

I imagine Lara as a young 20-something, mapping out the remainder of her life as she stood on the beaches of Santa Monica, California, looking over the expanse of the Los Angeles basin—big goals and even greater dreams. Such a journey started as a Media Planning Assistant at Rubin Postaer & Associates—an agency that held high-profile accounts, such as American Honda Motor Company and Kubota Tractors.

“Working in ‘the industry’ in Los Angeles was so energizing. I even rubbed elbows with Betty White once at a production studio. It was very memorable for me,” she shares. You may have even seen Lara in those early years, participating in an audience forum in MTV’s “Choose Or Lose” town-hall-style taping of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

After a couple of years, the hard anonymity of Los Angeles began to wear on Lara, and her plans found a new path.

“My then-fiancé and I moved to San Luis Obispo, California, where I got a job as an Assistant Product Manager for Rembrandt Oral Care. This taught me about product management, product development, account-specific marketing, packaging, advertising, public relations, and consumer response,” Lara explains. “It was a very formative phase of my young work life, as we had to look at the entire business, from sourcing and costing of inputs, production, and finished goods to sales and distribution. To this day, things I learned at Rembrandt inform my approach here at Ippolito.”

Before she could get too steady on her feet, Lara’s plans took an unexpected left turn when her now-husband was offered a position in the city planning department in the City of Salinas, California.

“It was a very formative phase of my young work life, as we had to look at the entire business, from sourcing and costing of inputs, production, and finished goods to sales and distribution. To this day, things I learned at Rembrandt inform my approach here at Ippolito [International].”

Lara Grossman, Director of Marketing, Ippolito International

They gambled and made the move.

“I found myself at Full Steam Marketing, where I was inducted into produce. I worked on the Fresh Express account, the largest account the agency had. It was a time of high growth in packaged salads, and I was involved in account-specific promotions and packaging development. I went to night school and finished my MBA a few months after our first daughter, Catherine, was born,” Lara tells me. While I feel the fatigue of what that period must have carried, Lara is energized recalling it. “After a couple of years, I left Full Steam and went to work for Tanimura & Antle. At the time, Tanimura & Antle had decided to transition out of its old brand, T&A. Helping with the re-launch of the Tanimura & Antle brand concept was one of my first projects.”

Lara looks back at this time in her life with such reverence at that process. Between working on Tanimura & Antle’s product development with the team’s Romaine and Leafy Commodity Crop Manager and operations team to collaborating with the operation’s production and packaging team to review all of the seed varieties, Lara found her experience expanding as she cut her teeth.

Staying on the fresh produce course, Lara gained experience in fruit and vegetable variety development with Bayer CropScience. At Robinson Fresh, she gained an appreciation for supply chain and logistics. Both experiences offered Lara a variety of challenges and paved the way to her current role at Ippolito International.

“When I arrived at Ippolito, it immediately felt like family. The culture is authentic, sincere, and grounded. I enjoy the trust that the company places in its employees. Every day feels like I am giving 110 percent to Ippolito. And I’m happy to do this,” Lara reflects. “The challenge of supporting the flow of product from field to family is motivating to me. I like to work with different departments each day because it gives me a broader view of the business. Ippolito International is a small company, and we each wear many hats. Because of this, there’s a respect among departments and a no-hesitation, hands-on ‘let’s get it done’ mentality.”

I look at Lara and take in all I have learned from her in this one conversation. I hope the silence communicates my deep appreciation for this wealth of information and knowledge sitting in front of me. I recognize that sparkle in her eye, the forever student and the grateful teacher—a combo that is essential to success, both personally and professionally. I have a desperate need to know more about where this passion comes from.

“Ippolito International is a small company, and we each wear many hats. Because of this, there’s a respect among departments and a no-hesitation, hands-on ‘let’s get it done’ mentality.”

“Driving to work each day, I pass along the fields of lettuce, berries, and, yes, Brussels sprouts, which is an Ippolito specialty,” Lara describes. “I can look at the work I do and feel like I’m doing something that benefits others. Every single person in our industry can look in the mirror every day and whatever else we may not feel great about, at least our work keeps us in good stead! I don’t know how many other people in different industries can say that. We truly do good for others. For that, I am forever grateful to have found myself in this industry.”

With a deeply held passion and diverse knowledge bank, I imagine Lara has created a well-informed outlook on what is on the horizon for our industry, even amid its unpredictability.

“From a marketing perspective, the growth in produce consumption will continue across many different channels and product categories,” she reflects. “We’ve had trailblazers in the industry bring new varieties to market and change the culinary world. New growing processes with CEA can now further shorten the supply chain.”

She pauses as her thoughts form the next picture for me.

“I expect increased complexity as time passes, with greater expectations on suppliers. Fresh produce is no longer a business of simply putting together a quality pack, getting it properly cooled, and loaded onto the truck,” she says, concern in her voice. “Both consumers and customers in both retail and foodservice want more information about our products—about how the product is grown, farmed, and harvested. Sustainability in packaging materials, and in production, has become more important. It’s exciting to see the energy and the traction on sustainability efforts! And a lot of it has been due to customers and their interest in making a difference. Because of this commitment, we are all more aware of how we operate as fresh produce companies, and how we can improve.”

Lara also names traceability and supply chain efficiencies, including increased mechanization and A.I., which have become crucial to the produce business. These will continue to be a dominant force, she notes.

I am left more than mildly astonished at how Lara gets it all done. Between the day-to-day responsibilities of her role and anticipating the needs of the future, I feel my own need to take a nap for us both. But, as she tells me, the life she has built more than makes up for the sleepless nights and the long, challenging days.

I admire this woman whose words flow over this page without challenge and leave an echo of wonder I hope readers discover as well. I feel lucky to receive the gift of her time at this moment. I dare not ask where it comes from. But I do ask her what advice she would have given to her younger self in those more pivotal moments of her career.

“Surround yourself with the right people, a peer group is important,” she begins. “Having a few good friends who were or are also working mothers was key. I needed the validation of other working moms that it was okay to go through the McDonald’s drive-through on a regular basis just to solve the dinner problem after a long day at work—and daycare.”

This leads Lara to her second piece of advice.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. Really,” she says. “The house does not need to be a showcase, don’t waste energy keeping up with the neighbors. Shake it off! And get comfortable doing so. Tune in and trust your instincts, with the corollary being that you will, at times, stand alone—in big ways and small. Get used to it because when you are a parent and especially a working parent, there is no way you can follow the crowd.”

Follow the crowd? Not Lara. Follow plans? No way.

Reinvent the map?

That’s the Lara Grossman way. 

Making the Map As You Go