Date: Jan 14, 2020
Magazine:
January/February 2020

From the opening gavel of the on-site board meeting to the closing Award of Honor dinner, the 2019 version of the Western Growers Annual Meeting in mid-November had the underlying theme of celebrating the 18 years of service President and CEO Tom Nassif gave to the association.

Of course, the Western Growers Annual Meeting, held in Maui on November 10-13 at the Wailea Beach Resort, also featured dynamic celebrity keynote speakers, a solid array of educational sessions and, as always, many opportunities to network and socialize with friends and colleagues from across the western fresh produce industry. The event also served as the formal introduction of Ryan Talley of Talley Farms as the elected chairman of the board for 2019/20 and the elevation of Executive Vice President Dave Puglia as Nassif’s successor. Puglia will assume his role as president and CEO on February 1, 2020.

Nassif was presented with the association’s prestigious Western Growers Award of Honor in recognition of his service to the organization and the agricultural industry. February 1, 2020, will mark the 18th anniversary of Nassif’s hiring on February 1, 2002. Nassif retires on Jan. 31, 2020.

He was hired during tumultuous times at the association and quickly righted the ship setting it on a course where it excelled like never before in the areas of its expertise as the premier grower-based organization in the country. Nassif also led the association to new unchartered territory of representation such as establishing its own government affairs office in Washington, D.C. and leading the ways in diverse areas such as immigration reform, technological advancement, transportation and expansion of its insurance offerings and services to the ag community.

The WG Board of Directors meeting on the first morning of the convention began the celebration with a fun-filled and heart-felt tribute to Nassif that honored his achievements while poking good-natured fun at his style, tenacity and competitiveness. The president was clearly touched, but saved his remarks for the Award of Honor two nights later.

At that gala event, his son, Christian Nassif, introduced his father with a loving tribute that again honored what he brings to the table every day and the value his leadership bestowed on the organization and all of agriculture. Christian also detailed Nassif’s service to his family, community, church and nation during his life. He took the audience on a video tour of his father’s career, which included stints as an agricultural labor lawyer in California, a political appointee of Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., and as a U.S. ambassador in Morocco. The WGA CEO was noted for his tireless efforts on behalf of the industry especially in the areas of immigration reform and securing a spot for specialty agriculture in the U.S. Farm Bill. But Christian also pointed out his father’s devotion to his church and family.

Tom Nassif thanked the throng of well-wishers and noted that his “service to Western Growers and the fresh produce industry has been a fulfilling culmination to my career. Every day since 2002, my inspiration has been derived from the hard-working, innovative, and ethical family farmers who comprise our membership. I am proud of the major strides we have taken as an industry during my tenure.”

He also singled out his family—both immediate and extended—as the inspiration for his efforts and whose support has made it all possible.

The three-day event also featured a bioplastics startup company securing a $500,000 investment after winning Western Growers proprietary AgSharks competition, which is patterned after the popular Shark Tank reality show. Coincidentally, Daymond John, one of the Shark Tank judges, wowed the crowd as the keynote speaker during one of the event’s general sessions. Reagan administration economist Arthur Laffer also was received well as the keynote speaker during the Political Action Committee luncheon. Another business session featured three financial experts discussing the economy and investment strategies. The meeting also included several networking opportunities including a golf tournament and a number of social gatherings. More than 500 people attended the event in Maui as Western Growers celebrated its 94th anniversary year.

The Passing of the Gavel

Talley officially received the gavel from the outgoing chairman, Ron Ratto, president of Ratto Bros., Inc., Modesto, Calif., at the Monday morning board of directors meeting. “I am both eager and honored to embark on this new role as Western Growers’ Chairman of the Board of Directors, working with the rest of the board to further our commitment to the industry,” he said.

The board selected Albert Keck of Hadley Date Gardens as senior vice chairman; Stuart Woolf of Woolf Enterprises as vice chairman; Carol Chandler of Chandler Farms as treasurer; and Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies as secretary.

Ratto’s final official event as chairman was to give the Chairman’s Address at the Tuesday luncheon. He detailed his involvement with the association, which dated back to the mid-1990s. Over the years, Ratto Bros. has availed itself of many Western Growers services including several of its insurance products. Ratto also noted the association’s involvement in establishing the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement after the spinach crisis of 2006, which he believes was a game changer.

During his tenure as chairman, the Modesto grower pointed to the increased advocacy of the association across many important topics in both state and federal government. “I expect our advocacy efforts to increase as we collaborate with others for the betterment of our industry.”

And he also singled out the great, forward-thinking effort over the last few years that has seen the establishment of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. He said it is through advances in technology that agriculture will remain ahead of the curve.

AgSharks Competition

One of the highlights of the Annual Meeting was the 2019 AgSharks Competition, which featured five start-up companies giving pitches to a panel of judges in an effort to secure investment funds. Prior to the event, many more companies had applied for the opportunity to present with off-site judging whittling dozens of entries to those five companies.

mobius pbc, an early-stage company that creates waste-based biodegradable polymers as a plastic substitute with many agricultural uses, won the pitch competition and was offered the opportunity to negotiate with S2G Ventures (Seed 2 Growth) representatives on stage. The pre-event publicity noted that the start-up companies were competing for a $250,000 equity investment, with the caveat that S2G was not obligated to reach an on-the-spot agreement with the winner.

After some negotiations, S2G did offer and mobius accepted a $500,000 equity investment. S2G representatives indicated that they were interested in being long-term partners. (See separate story in this issue profiling mobius).

AgSharks, which launched in 2017 to help budding agtech startups bring their inventions from development to market, was the first agtech event to offer real-time investment opportunities in front of a live audience.

Shark Tank’s Daymond John

Another highlight of the Annual Meeting was the fast-paced, multi-media, keynote presentation by Daymond John during the Chairman’s Lunch. John is a judge on the popular Shark Tank series and is a successful entrepreneur as the CEO/founder of FUBU, a well-known lifestyle brand, which he launched with innovative and cutting edge marketing schemes. He kept the audience at rapt attention for more than an hour as he detailed the rise of his FUBU brand, which initially targeted fans of hip hop. John brazenly asked stars to pose wearing his attire. Many of the photos and videos went viral, making his clothes “must-have” items in that community.

The Shark Tank star outlined his unlikely career path as he is truly a self-made businessman coming from humble beginnings who has succeeded where many others have failed. Of course, one of the keys to his success is that he does not recognize failure. He finds all efforts to be learning experiences. His specific steps for success are setting a goal, creating a good work/home balance, love what you do, remember you are your brand and keep swimming upstream regardless of the obstacles.

Reagan’s Economist Arthur Laffer

Known as the supply-side economist of President Ronald Reagan’s tax overhaul, Arthur Laffer entertained the audience during the annual Political Action Committee luncheon with his uncompromising view that virtually no wealth should be redistributed but rather should be left in the hands of those who make it. He believes there is no value in increasing income tax and claims that history has proven that any state that has ever raised taxes has experienced an economic decline in the years that follow.

Laffer’s remarks were mostly met with delight by the audience of ag entrepreneurs. However, he did raise some eyebrows with his declaration that Reagan and Bill Clinton were the best presidents in history and also noted he greatly admires former California Governor Jerry Brown. Of course, Laffer admits to being non-partisan with a politician’s economic views being the one characteristic by which he judges. In that regard, he loved Brown’s flat tax when he ran for president, and also advocated for Clinton’s tax policy during his tenure in office.

He gave Donald Trump mixed reviews with the current president’s tax cuts getting very high marks but his protectionist trade policy earning Laffer’s disdain.

Future of Finance

Another educational session that was very well received dealt with investment strategies and the economy. The WG Annual Meeting has featured similar sessions in the past and this one was back again by popular demand. The panelists were Ashley Kennefick of Fidelity Institutional, Quoc Tran of Lateef Investments and Richard Alpert of Raub Brock Capital Management. They each brought a different set of investment strategies to the table as well as varying views on the U.S. economy and how it might perform moving forward.

At the November event, Kennefick reported that there is too much uncertainty in the marketplaces, especially surrounding trade issues and consumer spending. She said this has led business to slow down its spending. She also noted that historically, the U.S. economy is overdue for a contraction as history proves that financial strength runs in cycles. She did note that current economic conditions—including low unemployment, low energy prices, and improved personal savings—are very good. And she added that Fidelity is cautiously optimistic about the near-term economic future.

She said that what the Federal Reserve does with interest rates is important but that Fidelity does not believe cutting the interest rate, as President Trump has advocated, will stimulate spending.

As he has done in the past Tran singled out a few noteworthy stocks to explain how his firm invests in the marketplace. For this seminar, he discussed Visa, Aptiv and U-Haul as solid long-term stock picks. Lateef only trades in a narrow group of stocks at any one time employing a buy and hold strategy for the most part. The company’s analysts look at stocks, settling on ones with long term growth potential.

He said Visa is in a great position as the entire world continues to migrate from cash to credit. The company makes its money on the transaction with very little risk. And he said the size of the market in which Visa, and a few other players, are operating, is so large that there is virtually no fear of new entrants to the space.

Aptiv is involved in building component parts for autonomous driving. If, like Tran, you believe self-driving cars and trucks are the future, this company is poised to reap benefits.

Tran also likes U-Haul for both its equipment rental and self-storage product lines. He said both of those are growth services and U-Haul’s approach of converting empty retail spaces to self-storage units is a low cost way to grow its business.

Alpert discussed his company’s investment strategy, which he boiled down to investing in high-quality companies that over perform in the paying of annual dividends. He said that strategy outperforms the market by a significant amount over the long term. He explained that over a long period of time, dividends, on average, account for about 50 percent of total return of any stock purchase. Consequently, that should be a very important factor in picking the stocks to invest in. “Companies that pay dividends do better and make better decisions,” he said.

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