No one walks alone in their careers. This is especially true in fresh produce, where the threads of knowledge, shared experience, and relationship building make every success story a brightly colored tapestry.
For Brian Cook, the weaving of his produce career began over 20 years ago, when he started a job with Plastech Specialties. This outfit supplied and printed sign programs for retailers and point of sale (POS) materials for brands to increase their on-shelf presence. It was a perfect launch site for the now Chief Executive Officer of Pete’s, who found himself immediately bumping shoulders with retail giants.
“While I was at Plastech, I took to the produce rags to get a feel for the market and the who’s who of the industry,” Brian tells me. “Dick Spezzano was always being interviewed and quoted, so I dug up his info and reached out to him to see if he was willing to give a new kid on the block a little guidance. He was amazing. Not only did he accept my invitation and provide his thoughts on how to make an impact, but he also shared his story.”
It stands to reason that Dick’s story influenced Brian’s own, as he too felt the pull of the produce world. Through this connection, he became involved in the Fresh Produce & Floral Council (FPFC), where he started working on committees. From there, he found himself taking his first position in produce as a Salesperson for United Produce Sales, a start-up focused primarily on melons.
Once Brian had a taste for this industry, there was no going back. He met Jan Berk of San Miguel Produce while working on the Expo Committee for FPFC, who asked him if he’d be interested in exploring options to work together.
“This turned out to be a huge move for me personally. It ultimately led to a lot of sacrifices with my immediate family since the position was in Ventura County, California,” Brian notes. “The experience, however, was a great one. I moved from a Sales Associate into running the sales and marketing departments for the company, and eventually became the Director of Sales and Marketing. At San Miguel, I learned a lot about reaching out to other departments to assure alignment for the greater good of the company.”
One person who specifically helped mentor Brian in this role is none other than Rick Cruz of Pavilions, Assistant Sales Manager of Produce.
“Rick is an inspiration on innovating within the retail segment,” Brian exclaims. “From merchandising and signage to product launches, he is always checking every detail to make sure the shopping experience is at an all-time high. As I developed programs over the years, I took his lead in working collaboratively with the full team. He thinks outside the box and isn’t scared to innovate, and his overall management of taking care of a team is very inspirational.”
At the end of 2015, a thread in Brian’s career tapestry pulled taut, landing him the opportunity of his dreams.
“I was approached for a position in a space where I saw huge potential: the controlled environment agriculture sector. I started with Hollandia Produce/Pete’s as Vice President of Sales and Marketing in February 2016. By the end of 2017, an opportunity came up to serve as the interim President. It was like a childhood dream coming true!” Brian says with a smile.
“I am truly a sum of many mentors, advisers, experiences, and learnings that have come over the years. Both positive and negative experiences can be used to guide and form you into a strong leader,”
- Brian Cook, Chief Executive Officer, Pete’s
The previous CEOs of Pete’s, Pete Overgaag and John Cochran, saw in Brian the leadership qualities that would take their company to the next level.
“I’ve always hoped to be a leader that could make a difference,” Brian says to me. “With an amazing team in lockstep, Pete’s has done some incredible work.”
To be the kind of leader Brian aspires to be, he’s had the help of his third mentor, Kent Kuwata, who is currently Category Manager at Smart & Final.
“I learned a lot from Kent about the people side of the business. He has been my go-to as I progressed in my career, making moves to the companies I have worked and volunteered for. He is a selfless individual and will do everything in his power to help the causes he represents,” Brian reflects.
As we speak, it’s clear Brian values every single person he’s encountered in this big wide world of produce. He tells me mentorship doesn’t necessarily come from someone higher in status, but from someone who sees your strength and wants to respond with their own experiences in order to build you up further.
“I am truly a sum of many mentors, advisers, experiences, and learnings that have come over the years. Both positive and negative experiences can be used to guide and form you into a strong leader,” Brian concludes. “I have had the opportunity to work in various industries, and produce is the best by far. There is this level of selflessness, passion, and overall camaraderie that is intoxicating. Externally, I love thinking about what we are accomplishing. When you get out of the proverbial trees to look at the forest, we provide healthy, nutritious foods to families all over the world. What’s not to love about that?”
It’s clear Brian will never walk alone as he weaves his produce tapestry, and I can’t wait to see who he will guide in turn.
Here is what they have to say about Brian...
Retired President, Spezzano Consulting Service
"I got a call from Brian about 20 years ago when he was a new salesperson for a plastic sign company that we were using at Vons where I then worked. Brian asked if he could take me to lunch and talk about the industry. We did, and what impressed me then was the great questions he was asking. Later, Brian moved on to Pura Vita, a Los Angeles, California, produce brokerage firm, and then to San Miguel Produce as the company’s lead Salesperson. After that, he got a job at Hollandia Produce, which later became Pete’s, and he was appointed CEO. During his work journey, we have had many conversations about the industry and life in general. I have followed his career and have been a fan of Brian since our first meeting. From a new Salesperson to the CEO of a large produce company—impressive."
Category Manager, Smart & Final
"I met Brian in the early ’90s. During his early years in the produce industry, he was selling plastic signs. Brian gave his presentation and at the very end, he came back to my office and asked if we could talk. He wanted to know how he could improve. From that point on, that’s how we’ve grown our partnership.
One thing that I admire most about Brian is his dedication to his family. We’ve stayed close throughout all of his moves, and every time Brian made a career change, he wanted to make sure that the fit worked for his family as well. To me, that’s really important, because family is number one. Brian is a hard worker, and while he has moved up in his career, he’s also made it a point to give back and pay it forward.
Brian’s taken that passion to the next level through his relationships with Fresh Produce & Floral Council, as well as with the International Fresh Produce Association in their separate capacities as the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association. Watching him grow and become a part of these organizations has made me very proud. I think what sets him apart is how he’s always wondering what he can do for the industry. I’ve watched Brian mentor others, both in his company and across the industry, and it’s amazing to see those people blossom under his wing. Words cannot express how proud I am to be a part of Brian’s success."