Date: Nov 02, 2019
Magazine:
November/December 2019

A few months ago, former Western Growers chairman and longtime board member Gary Pasquinelli commenting on the career of soon-to-be-retired WG President & CEO Tom Nassif, said the association got more than it bargained for when it hired the former ambassador to Morocco almost two decades ago.

“When we hired Tom, we knew we had a good man. He possesses a rare skill set and has brought a remarkable degree of professionalism to the job,” Pasquinelli said. “His commitment to the job and his integrity are unmatched.”

Others pointed to those same varied talents, specifically mentioning his financial skills. Pasquinelli succinctly said, “we got a twofer” referring to Nassif’s ability to handle the business side of running a large organization as well as the politics involved in any member association.

Interestingly, when Tom Nassif recently looked back on his Western Growers career, he noted his biggest surprises upon taking the position was the immediate need for his business acumen. “I was surprised by the financial shape the organization was in,” he said. “Very few people knew it…not on the staff nor on the board.”

But Nassif quickly tapped into his ability to run a company and righted the ship. He worked with the board to jettison some financially failing programs and sharpened the accounting pencil. Over the past two decades, he has developed what is arguably the most innovative, and most financially secure, trade association in the fresh produce space.

Nassif came to the position with a lot of experience because of both a fascinating career that spanned a couple of continents and several industries. He worked in the United States and North Africa; lived in the East, West and Midwest; worked as a lawyer, businessman and diplomat; lived a spiritual life and founded a church; and through it all, has had a thoroughly rewarding and challenging life.

The Early Years

Thomas A. Nassif was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July of 1941, and lived there for the first decade of his life. His family had emigrated from Lebanon to the United States, first coming to the East Coast. Nassif said the relocation to Iowa by his parents was simply an effort to pick a place where they could try to be successful. “Immigrants went to areas where they could make a living. My dad came to Iowa to barter with farmers bringing dry goods out to the farms trading them for food to feed his family,” he said, adding that there was a Lebanese community in Cedar Rapids large enough to support two Orthodox churches.

The Nassifs moved to Hollywood, CA, in the early 1950s with the elder Nassif exploring an opportunity to invest in a draft beer business.  “My dad wanted to use the proceeds from the house we sold in Iowa; my mom would have none of that, telling my dad he had to buy the family a house.”

So Tom’s dad sold Oriental rugs instead. “He was a great salesman,” Tom remembers.

Tom graduated from high school and then went on to Los Angeles State College, getting his degree in business in 1965. That was the first year the school became part of the State College system, changing its name to California State University at Los Angeles.

Though his father wanted him to become a doctor, Nassif had set his sights on a law degree in high school after reading a book about the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow.

He, in fact, graduated from California Western School of Law in 1968.

The Labor Lawyer

By the time Nassif began his law career in Los Angeles, he was married to Zinetta. “We were living in L.A. with all the freeways, and it didn’t seem like a great place to raise kids.”

The Nassifs did have some familiarity with the Imperial Valley as he had college classmates who lived there. “We thought we would give the small town a try. What I remember is that there were locusts everywhere. They were on the grass; they were on the roof. A thick layer of locusts. That was tough getting used to.”

But relief came to the pest problem and Nassif remembers the Imperial Valley as “a wonderful place to raise a family.” Both of his children were born there, and the family lived there for more than a decade.

At first, Nassif hung out his own shingle, handling whatever cases came through the door. During this period, he interacted with local growers both socially and professionally. It was at the beginning of the ‘70s that the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association was looking for a lawyer to handle some labor law cases. Nassif was recommended for the position by his local farmer friends. “When they interviewed me, I told them I know nothing about labor law and I know nothing about agriculture. But I told them I hate to lose. If they hired me, nobody would work harder.”

He did get the contract and represented the association and Imperial Valley farmers throughout the 1970s. He practiced a lot of labor law with Western Growers member and fellow attorney Ron Barsamian. In fact, he recommended Mike Saqui to Ron and they eventually became partners. Saqui noted that Nassif was a “badass” lawyer in his day.

Nassif remembers that he was the first attorney to lose a case in front of the newly-minted Agricultural Labor Relations Board in the mid-1970s. He said it was a sham case with a pre-ordained decision in which he had no chance of prevailing. But the loss did lead to a partnership position with San Diego’s largest firm—Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye. He maintained an office in the Imperial Valley and got further involved in that community, both professionally and personally. It was that involvement that led to his second career…this time in the public sector.

The Public Servant

It was in late 1980s, after President-elect Ronald Reagan had won the election, that Chuck Tyson contacted Nassif and asked him if he would consider working in the Reagan Administration. Tyson had worked for Reagan when he was governor of California and he was named as a member of Reagan’s first National Security Council team in D.C. Nassif went to President Reagan’s inauguration, but was reluctant to take a position in the new administration and disrupt his family life and career. “But then I was offered the position of Deputy Chief of Protocol for The White House where I’d be greeting all of the leaders and high-level people that would come visit. That was just too interesting to pass up. Zinetta and I prayed about it and decided we would do it for a couple of years. I was appointed in April. The kids (ages of 11 and 9) finished the school year in the Imperial Valley and then the family joined me in Washington.”

From there, Nassif’s diplomatic career took off. “It was a case of the harder I worked, the luckier I got.”

He became Acting Chief of Protocol and then was promoted to the position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian affairs in 1983. It was a plum job as Nassif was very much interested in working on policy for the Middle East, where his family roots were deeply planted. Two years later, in 1985, he was selected by President Ronald Reagan to serve as ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco. He and his family moved to Morocco, and he stayed in that position until the end of Reagan’s term.

In the world of ambassadors, about half are career diplomats and about half are political appointees, who typically are large donors to the party in power. Nassif secured his position through hard work as he was neither a large donor nor a career public servant. He came to the ambassadorship with several goals established by President Reagan involving diplomatic relations among the countries in North Africa, including re-establishing the relationship between Algeria and Morocco and ending the war in the Western Sahara. There were also many other initiatives including rooting out some systemic diseases. While he was ambassador, some significant activities occurred including the bombing of Libya by the United States. “We were very successful in getting everything done that was asked of us, including restoring diplomatic relations with Algiers and ending the war in the Western Sahara.”

In fact, Nassif was decorated by the late King Hassan II of Morocco and the president of Lebanon for his work on Middle East issues. He calls the experience life-changing and said it is one of the highlights of his life. “I was asked to stay on for the administration of George Bush I, but it was time to go home.”

A New Home & New Skill Sets

Nassif took a position as chairman of Gulf Interstate Engineering, a Houston, Texas-based company working on developing oil and gas pipeline properties in North Africa and the Gulf. His position required a lot of travel so he gathered his family and let them decide where they should relocate. “They picked La Jolla.”

The family did move to the San Diego County city in California and Nassif stayed in that position for six years. His bona fides as a businessman were well developed, but he said it was a period in which he had to travel too much, spending too much time away from his family.

Next on the professional bucket list was work in the immigration environment. From 1994 until he joined Western Growers in 2002, Nassif worked as a consultant on border crossing issues helping to develop the Calexico East Point of Entry. “We built the border crossing from scratch,” he said.

The actual crossing was built in 1996. As the work was winding down, Nassif was just starting his own consulting firm when Western Growers came calling.

A Final Career Stop

In 2001, longtime Western Growers Board Member the late Jon Vessey asked his friend Tom Nassif if he would interview for the top staff position at the organization. Nassif was not that interested. He liked the idea of establishing his own consulting business, working on the international stage, and he was happy with his home location in La Jolla. But after consulting with Zinetta, he agreed to at least interview for the spot. A couple of interviews later, he was offered the position. “We prayed about it and decided that if it were offered we would take it,” he said.

At the time, the search committee had been charged with “looking outside the box” as they contemplated potential candidates. Nassif’s depth of experience checked many of the boxes that were on the committee’s wish list, and the position also checked many of the boxes on his wish list for future employment. First and foremost was his passion for produce. As a labor lawyer for agriculture three decades earlier, he learned to love the industry and the people in it.

It seemed like a match made in heaven…literally.

Setting the Association on a Better Course

Nassif took the position on February 1, 2002, and was raring to get to work to tackle the thorny issues that faced agriculture, such as immigration reform. He never gave it a thought that the association was in a difficult financial position. But it was, and that became his first order of action.

Nassif realized that several programs were not fiscally solvent and he went about to eliminate those financially failing efforts. By the end of his first year in office, the necessary steps had been taken and he was named president/CEO of both the association and insurance sides of the business. Running a fiscally solvent organization has been at the top of his agenda ever since.

Since those early days, the organization has done very well with its for-profit entities running a profit every year. “My goal was to create a rainy day fund of $10 million that was free of obligation so that no matter what happened, we would always have that. We have established that and exceeded it many times over.”

In fact, he notes that being a fiscal conservative might be a drawback. “The board is always telling me we should spend more money. I’ll leave that to the next president,” he quipped.

The Western Growers Experience

While Nassif did list some specific highlight efforts during his Western Growers career (which are explored below), it is the association’s culture that he both inherited and honed that will be his most enduring legacy. He noted that Western Growers is a “top roots rather than grassroots organization.” The board of directors is made up of company owners and CEOs. They are the people that run companies and quickly make decisions. That structure was instrumental as Nassif and his staff tackled emerging problems and launched new entities.

Under his watch, Western Growers greatly expanded its business in the agricultural insurance world expanding Pinnacle Claims Management and becoming a contractor for Covered California working with small business firms. For this, David Zanze and his team deserve the credit, he said. The association took the lead in the development of food safety solutions after the spinach outbreak and has led the charge in ag innovation.

The ability of the association to pivot quickly meshed well with Nassif’s leadership style. “I don’t micromanage but I will get into the weeds,” he said, adding that he likes to give his staff direction and then let them take the ball and run with it.

He was reluctant to single out staff or board members for specific praise as he has worked with dozens of excellent people and didn’t want to leave anyone out. But he did say that many of the accomplishments under his watch came about because of the hard work and direction of many staff and board colleagues. For example, board members Bruce Taylor and Vic Smith, as well as staff member Hank Giclas, were instrumental in establishing the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. David Zanze took the lead for the advancements on the insurance side of the building. Jasper Hempel and Giclas were the point people for the solutions that came from the spinach crisis. “Matt McInerney and Jasper Hempel were my mentors and most trusted colleagues,” he said “Dave Puglia’s hire was a seminal moment for the organization and the recruitment of Ward Kennedy, Karen Timmins, Jason Resnick and Dennis Nuxoll has formed a strong foundation for our future leader, Dave Puglia.”

Nassif believes his first non-moves after joining the organization were critical to his success. “The staff in place was a blessing. I didn’t clean house like a lot of CEOs do after they take over. I didn’t fire one person and I never hired a family member or a friend, except my executive assistant, Audrey Seybert.”

Instead, he has utilized the talents around him to achieve great success for the association as a whole, leaving Western Growers as a leader in the ag space on so many fronts.

Immigration Reform

The battle to achieve immigration reform has been the source of Nassif’s biggest frustration and, ironically, possibly his greatest success. Under Nassif, Western Growers has been leading the charge for immigration reform, and the creation of regulations that would establish a legal workforce for production agriculture, for two decades.

That outcome has not yet been achieved, though Nassif remains optimistic that it will come to fruition and he plans to work on the issue for Western Growers even after he leaves his post. Speaking on the third day of October, he was hopeful a bill, with bipartisan support, would be passed by the House of Representatives by the end of October. “We will know by the end of the month but I’m hopeful. We are working with representatives on both sides of the aisle and we may get it done.”

He says bi-partisan support is critical as the bill would have no chance in the Senate unless it can garner 20-30 Republican votes in the House.

Nassif has been at this crossroads before. In fact, he calls the effort in 2013 that saw the Senate pass an immigration reform bill with bi-partisan support one of the most rewarding moments during his Western Growers career. He has long been credited with spearheading that effort and being the difference-maker in getting the Senate bill passed. Unfortunately, it was killed in the House by a group of inflexible legislators.

Nassif knows it is a Herculean task to pass immigration reform, especially with the divided political nation that currently exists. Compromise is the key. Whatever bill emerges is not going to be perfect but to Nassif it can be good enough. He said that for agriculture that means there has to be provisions for a legal workforce as well as a path to legal residency for the millions of workers who are established in this country, have raised their families here and are doing the nation’s work in agriculture and in other industries. A bill that doesn’t address that is not good enough for the Western Growers leader who has devoted countless hours over the past two decades to this issue.

The Spinach Outbreak

When looking at the highlights of his Western Growers career, Nassif points to another effort that had a very negative connotation. In 2006, the E.coli outbreak in spinach led to a financial bloodbath for spinach growers and a gigantic black eye for the industry. “It was my first experience with a major contamination issue and we jumped right in and were determined we would solve it ourselves without State legislative assistance. Jasper Hempel, who was the first person I had hired, was very instrumental in helping to establish the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California and another one in Arizona.”

It took time, but the spinach industry came back and contamination issues have been few and far between since then. And Nassif said that effort has been used as a national model in establishing food safety regulations for the industry.

Science & Technology

An additional business direction for Western Growers came earlier this decade when it launched the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. The center is a place for ideas to incubate and for thinkers to work on solutions for the industry’s most challenging problems such as a shortage of labor and water.

Industry leaders Bruce Taylor and Vic Smith were instrumental in launching this effort, and Nassif says it wouldn’t have succeeded without them. But it was his idea to build and own the Center with Western Growers taking the lead position in this effort rather than a secondary role. Though, it will take time for solutions to emerge, Nassif said “we have seen phenomenal progress. Ag innovation has taken a prominent place with many investors coming forward. We are on the right track and we are starting to see results.”

Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance

Nassif plucks a success story from the early days of his Western Growers career as another highlight of his tenure. Working with the association’s contract lobbyist, Robert Schramm, Nassif said the two of them wrote the bill that eventually led to the inclusion of a Specialty Crop title in the Farm Bill. For decades, program crops were the only teams on the Farm Bill playing field. The work by Western Growers, in conjunction with other specialty crop organizations around the country, led to the new dynamic, which has funneled billions of dollars of public investment to the industry.

That also led to another Nassif initiative with the invaluable assistance of Steve Patricio and Matt McInerney to establish full-time representation in the nation’s capital for the association. Western Growers had always used contract lobbyists but under Nassif’s watch, the organization has established one of the most robust government affairs offices for specialty agriculture in D.C.

The Relationships

As Nassif prepares to exit the Western Growers center stage, he does say it is the relationships that made the job, both with staff and industry members. Again, he was reluctant to single out the few at the expense of the many. He did say he formed an extremely close relationship with his first two chairmen of the board—A.G. Kawamura and Edwin Camp—as he traversed the early days of his presidency. He also mentioned longtime top lieutenant Matt McInerney. “Matt and I developed such a great relationship and respect that I expect to endure long after I leave the office. There are a lot of people on the board and on the staff that have been very special but I just hate to name names as I will leave out too many.”

He did note that he is leaving behind an excellent staff and is hopeful that the new CEO will treat them in much the same way he did 18 years ago. He mentioned that a handful of longtime WG staffers have retired in the past few years, creating a loss of a great deal of institutional knowledge.

Western Growers Afterlife

Tom Nassif’s spiritual side has been on display for all to see throughout his years at Western Growers so it is not surprising that his first thought for retirement is to be able to get more involved in his church. Nassif, who was ordained a deacon in 1998, was a founding member of St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in San Diego two decades ago. He serves the congregation every Sunday as a deacon but plans to do more as he time will allow.

He also expects to spend more time on Middle East issues, as he has done at various times in his career. With more time on his hands, he plans to once again work with the American Task Force for Lebanon, a group that he has led as both CEO and chairman over the years.

He also will continue to work with Western Growers on a four-year consultancy contract in which he expects immigration reform to be on the top of that list.

And of course, Mr. Nassif is looking forward to spending more time with his immediate family, which consists of his wife, Zinetta; his two adult children and grandkids. “My clear inspiration came from the sweetest heart I have ever met, my loving wife Zinetta,” he said. “My family is my treasure. We have unconditional love and an infinite fount of love for one another. My sisters and brothers-in-law gave me unending support which has never wavered.”

The motivation and timing of his retirement were fairly simple. “I have had to wake up to an alarm for too many years now; it is time to go.” He added that while many might have expected him “to die with his boots on” retirement has been in the works for a lot longer than most people knew. “Two and a half years ago I told the Executive Committee that I was planning to retire at the end of January 2020.”

And while he is looking forward to sleeping in, he also quickly added that he is “not going to be a couch potato” leading one to suspect there may be another chapter in the Tom Nassif biography.

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