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The Fresh Sentinel

The Fresh Sentinel

Greg Gatzke is, himself, a bridge between worlds.

Agriculture has a specific breed of person pumping life through its veins. It requires its own kind of clock, calendar, and seasonality. Fresh produce rides on risk and reward, intuition and planning, art and sweat equity. As the world evolves, requiring technology and data solutions to navigate the digital landscape of security, supply chain risk, compliance, and strategy, those equipped with a foothold in both worlds find themselves at a unique crossroads for integrating today’s ag elite into the world of tomorrow.

Which, in reality, is already here.

Greg, Chief Executive Officer, ZAG Technical Services, is situated at such a fork in the road. Lucky for us, he need not have to choose between technology or fresh produce as he set out on his course. He instead merged the two.

“I grew up in Wisconsin. We were a family of vegetable farmers raising lettuce, which you don’t hear about because no one does that anymore,” Greg smiles, and I take inventory of my expectations of Wisconsin. “My father then moved to Florida and started row farming which was pretty unique for the state at the time. This all happened during the gas crunch. I grew up working on the farm every summer, knowing and understanding that lifestyle.”

Understanding it is the key.

There is a stronger immunity to pain, drive for success, and a sixth sense for the world that is bred out of farming. And while Greg traveled many paths before making his way back to the intersection of fresh produce and technology, he has carried this internal compass with him ever since.

“After that, I went down the aviation track, working for about five years at McDonald Douglas on the C-17, which is a military program,” Greg tells me, pivoting my expectations once again. “But I always loved technology, and so after five years I moved up to the Silicon Valley in California, and started the company in 1998.”

Back then, Greg was working exclusively with Silicon Valley companies, including the likes of Facebook, digging into the challenging work of monitoring the early tech landscape.

But, as Greg discovered, they weren’t his kind of people.

“Every time you entered a conference room, you had to be the smartest guy or tried to be the smartest guy. It wasn’t healthy and didn’t breed collaboration or ingenuity,” Greg says, turning back to the intuition that guided him.

And so the team turned to Salinas, California.

“The minute we did that, it was like a homecoming. I knew that’s where I wanted to be, and so we drove to get the business there—creating the best of both worlds,” he remembers.

“When you work in fresh produce, you understand that you are entrusted with something to manage for the next generation. Most are not trying to build something up to spin it off and sell it.”

- Greg Gatzke, Chief Executive Officer, ZAG Technical Services

As an information technology consulting firm delivering digital transformation solutions, IT assessments, managed services, security, and support to customers, bridging the gap between the two worlds took time and dedication.

Greg knew the people, he understood what kept them up at night and what got them up in the morning.

“When you work in fresh produce, you understand that you are entrusted with something to manage for the next generation. Most are not trying to build something up to spin it off and sell it,” Greg explains. “They want the most cost-efficient, best solution as opposed to what’s cool or what’s hip. Because of that, there’s a true partnership, which you don’t see in others all the time. It’s consistent within ag, especially as everyone has grown to understand that technology is so much more important now than it’s not. We were trying to make their business better, make them more efficient, and they understood that because I understood that.”

With the support of Greg’s wife, he was able to dive into the company’s new direction full-time. Salinas provided the perfect launching point to adapt his technologies to an ever more complicated industry.

“We’ve consistently grown over the years. As of 2023, we were up to nearly 140 employees, all U.S.-based,” Greg says. “With the uptick in cybersecurity needs and requirements driven by the increasing presence of cyber attacks, we have our hands full.”

The past few years in fresh produce have seen an influx of security issues, unprecedented in our industry, with many companies finding themselves severely unprepared.

“We’ve gone through some really, really tough stuff. We’ve also gotten criminals out of networks without anyone knowing about it. So there are good stories there, too,” Greg says, a sigh of relief punctuating the tone of our conversation. “Technology is also now seen as a competitive advantage.”

This marks Greg’s goal of helping companies become proactive instead of reactive. The scales balancing risk and reward have teetered, with the reward heavily outweighing the financial investment.

Greg tells me about days that turned into nights that turned back to days as the team battled a cybersecurity attack. It has become routine for the entrepreneur to invest sleepless nights in his clients’ sleepless nights.

“It is all worth it though, and I am lucky to be able to do something that I love. The effort that my people put into this work inspires me. They work hard, they work consistently. They always think of the best case for the client, for the company, and that is inspirational,” Greg reflects. “It is the attitude I take. And if there’s ever someone we get who doesn’t have that, it’s how we weigh them out. I believe in our values, and we must have that kind of alignment with our people and the shared mission.”

ZAG’s values are of utmost importance to the company, focusing on integrity foremost, as well as a client-centered commitment, a requirement to be accountable always with teamwork throughout, and a goal to be exceptional.

“Values are how you should hire, how you should fire, and how you should live,” Greg shares with me. “I believe values are not something you have. They’re something you work.”

With ZAG’s values driving its actions, Greg can sleep a bit more at night, even among the things that keep him up.

“The number one item that keeps me upright into the early morning hours is cyber risk. It is ever-present, and we see companies impacted that should not be impacted. They don’t deserve it. They’ve done well, and they haven’t done everything,” he explains. “The other thing that keeps me up at night is figuring out how we can expand and help more people because I find that when we get involved earlier, they don’t have those problems.”

Despite all the hair-pulling scenarios that mark the days, months, and years for Greg, he shares that it’s good to go to work and not be at work—he loves it this much. And I truly believe it.

When your love for the work outweighs your fear of the unknown, you find people like Greg. Ever-diligent. Maniacal in his dedication. Keeping watch in those midnight hours so that others may sleep.