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Peterson Steps Down As President/CEO Of Naturipe, But Joins Its Board Of Directors

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 29, 2009

The man who built the largest produce operation in the world is going to be a focus of interest for this industry for a very long time.

When we first announced Wal-Mart’s Bruce Peterson Resigns, the industry was dumbstruck as company after company recalled meeting with him when Wal-Mart had seven, eight, nine supercenters and recalled an earnest young evangelist for Wal-Mart telling them of Sam Walton’s vision for the largest food store in the world. They marveled at how so many players in the industry had grown with Wal-Mart.

After he had left Wal-Mart, the industry wondered what he would do next. The answer, for a while at least, was revealed in a piece we entitled, Bruce Peterson Focuses On Traceability, and indeed, it would not be wrong to see Bruce as the father of the trade’s traceability initiative.

Soon though, Bruce startled once again as he moved over to selling side of the business. We called our piece, Bruce Peterson Lands at Naturipe As Its New President/CEO.

There he went quickly to work and soon we announced, Naturipe’s Peterson Builds All Star Management Team, as he had gathered together well known industry stars such as Robert Verloop and Don Harris.

Now, as quickly as it began, it is over… or almost.

Bruce is joining the Board of Directors of Naturipe Farms and is relinquishing his role as President and Chief Executive Officer of the company.

It is all very amicable and everyone has nothing but good things to say about each other. And Bruce will be on the Board of Directors, lending his broad experience to the company.

Naturipe just had an excellent year, and in a sense, you could say that Bruce is leaving because the mission has been accomplished. Expenses are down, management systems developed… the company just needs a general manager not a CEO.

All that would be true, but not the whole truth. When Bruce announced the new management team, this is what we wrote:

Robert Verloop’s produce marketing career began with the California Avocado Commission, but he had the progressive spirit to take a flyer and make the leap to Buyproduce.com., when dot coms in produce seemed all the future. He was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Produce for Better Health Foundation and, while at Sunkist led all kinds of marketing and promotional efforts, from Sunkist’s innovative Take a Stand program with Billy Dean to Sunkist’s cooperation with Sesame Workshop and much more.

Don Harris had been Director of Marketing, Produce and Floral for Safeway before he took on the gig at Wild Oats. His appointment as Director of Procurement and Wholesale Sales, is a sign of the importance Bruce is placing on having people knowledgeable in the needs of Naturipe’s customers handle its procurement.

Wait a minute, though… Naturipe is a partnership of producers, so why does it need a Director of Procurement?

This is a clear sign to the industry that Bruce Peterson does not perceive Naturipe as limited strictly to selling its owners’ berries — in fact the one/two punch of Don Harris and Robert Verloop is like the puff of white smoke in a Vatican election — a decision has been made.

Don will build a supply chain of products that retailers will value, and Robert will add value through consumer research, branding programs and trade outreach.

Clearly what this is about is that the decision to transform Naturipe into a multi-product company is not going to be executed. So why would a solid berry company need — or want to pay for — an executive who ran an operation larger than Safeway? Thus the friendly parting of the ways.

It is probably the right decision for Naturipe. After all, precious few are the growers who have the strategic fortitude to financially fund and emotionally commit to long-term corporate development that has, literally, nothing to do with marketing their own crops. Still, it would have been exciting to see it happen.

For now, at least, the rest of the management team is staying, and we wish them all well.

As for Bruce, well, he did a lot for many producers, so we should, at least, try to help him find a job. Fortunately, that one is a no-brainer.

When Bruce left Wal-Mart, he had a non-compete agreement that prohibited his working in retail. But time has passed and that is now expired.

Since Bruce has a proven track record at taking a small chain and growing it into a giant, yet knows how to navigate around a very large organization, he is perfectly positioned to help a large retailer with a small division grow that operation.

Of course, this means he would be the perfect CEO for Tesco’s Fresh & Easy operation. They are bound to call Bruce soon, so Bruce may want to study up right here.

Best wishes to Bruce, Robert, Don, the rest of the Naturipe team and the complete ownership group. May the wind be at your back.

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