Date: May 20, 2020
Magazine:
May/June 2020

Eric Reiter

Vice President, California Operations

Reiter Affiliated Companies LLC

Oxnard, CA

Member Since 1972  |  Director Since 2019

The Background: Eric Reiter grew up in Santa Barbara, a short drive to the headquarters of Reiter Affiliated Companies LLC (RAC), in Oxnard, CA. As the eldest offspring of the fifth generation of his family to be in California agriculture, it is fair to say he was groomed for his position. In fact, the family company has a well-defined policy in place to bring the future generations into the business.

But that wasn’t top of mind as young Eric grew up in Santa Barbara, the beautiful city that hugs the California coast. He calls his childhood “pretty uneventful” adding that Santa Barbara was a great town as he loved all ocean sports, including surfing and sailing. In fact, he sailed through high school and again in college at the University of Southern California. He loved the ocean so much that while in high school, he was considering majoring in marine biology and pursuing a career in that discipline. However, a tour of USC convinced Eric that was the school for him, and it had no marine biology program. “I majored in business…figuring that would be a good background to have.”

While Eric does not remember spending a ton of time on the farm as a kid, it was a constant presence. “When we were young, we would go down to the ranch on Saturdays with Dad (Garland Reiter) and we had summer jobs on the farm,” he said of himself and his siblings. In high school, he recalls being involved in a flavor testing project in the company lab. “I used to drive down there after school,” he remembers.

While in college, the young Reiter did gain a healthy respect for the business his father, uncle (Miles Reiter) and ancestors had built, and did begin to point his career aspirations in that direction.

 

Company Background: The Reiter family traces its agricultural roots to the latter half of the 19th Century with farming operations on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, south of the city. By the early 1900s, the Reiters had moved south to Watsonville and the Santa Clara Valley. It was there that Ed Reiter and Dick Driscoll began growing strawberries together and marketing them under the Driscoll Strawberries Associates label.

More than a century later, the two operations are intricately intertwined (though they are separate companies) with Reiter Affiliated Companies being Driscoll’s, and the world’s, largest berry producer. The Reiter family name has long been affiliated with Driscoll’s Inc. (as it is now named) as Miles Reiter has served as chairman of the board for three decades as well as CEO for most of that time. Other members of the family also sit on the Driscoll’s board.

Eric Reiter’s Journey: Both RAC and Driscoll’s have a policy in place outlining the path family members must take to move into management roles. It requires varied experiences, including two years working outside of the company for an unaffiliated firm. While in college, Eric spent a summer in Mexico and another in Spain working in berry production. Upon graduation, he took a year off and sailed the family’s 56-foot sailboat down the coast of Mexico and Central America and across to New Zealand. Running aground in Fiji was among the more harrowing experiences. He also recalls being boarded in Panama by armed men. “We thought we were being pirated but they just asked us some questions and left.”

Back in California and ready to start his berry career in earnest in early 2008, Garland suggested that his son become involved in the company’s new philanthropy project. But Eric rejected that idea. “I told him I wanted to learn how the company makes money before being involved in giving it away.”

So Eric was sent to Central Mexico, near Guadalajara, where he invested in an eight acre plot of raspberries to learn about the berry business from the ground up. “I learned a lot,” he said of his year in Mexico. “I also greatly improved my Spanish and gained appreciation for the people of Mexico and how they live their lives. It’s a better pace of life. They take time to create relationship; it’s less about getting things done.”

After his year in Mexico, Reiter moved to Santa Maria and farmed 60 acres of strawberries for two years. That was another great learning experience in running crews and moving a lot more volume through the system on a daily basis. He also learned that making a profit wasn’t that easy. “I made more money on the eight acres of raspberries in Mexico than I made on the 60 acres of strawberries in Santa Maria,” he joked, partly blaming his father for that outcome.  “Dad had a lot of ideas that he wanted to test out but couldn’t get other growers to do it. My farm became his giant test plot.”

They experimented with many things including machine harvesting, longer rows and pay incentives for workers based on the quality of berry that was picked. “There were a lot of little things we learned from those experiences,” he said, indicating that among the learnings was what not to do.

Reiter’s next stop was across the country as he spent his two years of outside work at Wegmans Food Markets in upstate New York. He worked both in-store and in the corporate office during that stint, learning a lot about retailing, category management, the company’s extensive training program, and, unfortunately, how to respond to a major produce product recall.

When he came back to the West Coast, Eric went through the same process that has been laid out for other family members—a review and discussion of what management positions were open at either RAC or Driscoll’s for which he might qualify. While he likes the marketing end of the business and believes it might hold his interest at some point in his career, Eric also loves the supply side and that’s where he has been operating for the last half dozen years. He is involved in all of RAC’s growing operations in California developing the strategic plan that creates the optimum amount of each berry variety on a daily basis.

The Future: Both RAC and Driscoll’s have together, and separately, developed berry opportunities all over the world.  The two companies have growing operations in California, Florida, Mexico, Portugal, Morocco, and China, which is the newest player in their game. Eric believes California will always be a major part of the RAC/Driscoll game plan, but he notes that it is challenging to do business in the state and that other regions are increasingly being relied upon for growth. He said the company is very bullish on China, both for its potential as supplier and consumer of berries. “We think China and these other regions will be our growth engine.”

He said that Driscoll’s and RAC are currently growing all four berries (raspberry, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries) in China using the shared-concept with local growers that it pioneered in Mexico. The program involves a shared investment that allows growers to expand their operations with investments from Reiter and Driscoll’s.

The WG Connection: Before Eric, both his uncle and father served on the Western Growers Board of Directors, which is how the young Reiter became acquainted with the organization. His formal introduction was as a member of the association’s Future Volunteer Leaders Program several years ago.  “That was a great experience,” he said. “I got to meet board members and create a relationship with others in the industry, some of whom have become board members themselves. I also got to meet and know the staff. Karen (Timmins) and Cory (Lunde) put on an awesome program.”

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