Date: Jan 08, 2014
January 2014: New Seed Variety Issue
Bruce Taylor is WG's 2014 Chairman

When Bruce Taylor was passed the gavel at the Western Growers November board meeting signifying the start of his year as chairman of the board, he told those in attendance that he hoped his year could be the beginning of the “changing of the conversation” within the industry.

He opined that that those in the room, and the members of Western Growers, do a fantastic job of growing fresh fruits and vegetables, developing new products and marketing those products to the public.  But he would like to see more collaboration within the industry both as it goes about solving some difficult issues that it faces, as well as the image it presents of itself to the public at large.

“We do a great job of producing the best fruit and vegetables out there and then we beat each other up in the marketplace,” said Taylor, Chairman and CEO of Taylor Farms, Salinas, CA.

A third generation member of a prominent Salinas produce family, Taylor is well aware that there will always be winners and losers in the marketplace, but he believes the industry can work together much more collaboratively on many issues with solutions benefiting the entire industry.  Growers and shippers are business people and they are competitive but on issues such as water use and nitrates in the soil, reduction in the use of fertilizer and other crop protection tools, Taylor advocates working together to solve these problems.  Just as most agree that food safety should not be used to gain a competitive advantage, he said many of these other concerns fall in that same category.

“We can accomplish a lot more working together than any of us can do on our own,” he said.

He believes leveraging technology to address many of these issues is something the industry should tackle as a group.  “It might not be everyone at once but if we can start the conversation and start bringing like-minded people together that would be a good start.”

In fact, Taylor and others in the Salinas Valley got together a few months ago and discussed some of these technology-related issues.  He said most of the top dozen or so shippers in the area were involved and there was some progress made.  He believes that working through an association, like Western Growers, is an excellent way to address some of these issues to assure that an industry-wide approach is taken rather than a proprietary one.

He sees his term in office as an opportunity to not necessarily push this agenda but to bring it to the forefront to see if his view is a majority one.

He hopes for a similar collaborative effort in “telling the industry’s story” to the public.  From his perspective, the California fresh produce industry should change the way it interacts with the public.  Most of the outreach, he said tends to focus on the farm and the farmer.  We want the public to see, he said, that this a great group of men and women and “we want them to trust us to do the right thing.”

While Taylor knows that is true, he believes there is a disconnect, especially with our Sacramento legislators.  “We need to change the conversation because there is a lack of trust that we will do the right thing.  I think we need to talk (to the public) through our workforce.  We need to let them see how well our workers are treated and that this is a good industry and a good way to make a living.”

He believes that though farmers are a serious bunch with a serious task at hand, “we need to show the fun side of the business.”  He firmly believes that if the public is on “our side, the Legislature will follow.”

Though Taylor’s grandfather, Bruce Church, is one of the icons of the industry, and his father, Ted Taylor, was equally revered as an industry leader in his time, young Bruce was not at all interested in being a farmer himself.  He went to the University of California at Berkeley and majored in a couple of subjects, including business administration.  He followed that with a stint at the Harvard Business School.  He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew it wasn’t farming.  “I thought I’d end up in the high tech sector,” he said.

But in the late 1970s, as he was moving through the formal educational process, his dad was pioneering a new fresh produce business segment, which later would be dubbed value-added.  The processed end of the business was something that Bruce Taylor found fascinating.  It was and is a sector more akin to business principles of market segmentation and market share.  Red Coach Foods eventually became Fresh Express, which Bruce joined in 1981 and helped run and build into an industry powerhouse through the ‘80s and well into the ‘90s.

Fourteen years later with the value-added sector quickly expanding and seemingly everyone going after the retail part of that business, Taylor left the family operation in 1995 and formed Taylor Farms, with several other partners.  “Our initial business model had us focusing on the foodservice sector (with value-added fresh products), and that is still a large part of what we do.”

But over the years, Taylor Farms has expanded and added a line of packaged products for retail produce sales and another for distribution in the deli end of the supermarket.  The company has its own labels and also does quite a bit of private labeling for these sectors.  “Foodservice is still the largest part of our business but the other two segments are growing faster.”

The deli salad introductions make great sense to Taylor where fresh produce is only one component of the salad.  “But,” he added, “it is the most difficult part and it is what we do best.”

As he has helped grow both Fresh Express and Taylor Farms, Bruce Taylor has been an active and vocal member of the produce industry.  He served on the Produce Marketing Association board rising to that group’s chairman role and has now done the same thing at Western Growers.  Of association involvement, Taylor said, “It has been of tremendous benefit to me.  I have made some great friendships all over the country.”

He said he is very much looking forward to his year at the helm at Western Growers interacting with WG President and CEO Tom Nassif and the WG employees.  “Tom Nassif and his staff are just great.  We are very lucky to have Tom leading that staff on behalf of our industry.”

He also said that there is a great business benefit as well to being involved in industry organization.  “I have had a tremendous opportunity to get to know people all over the country” that have become customers.

And he added that the opportunity to help shape industry views and discussion points around the issues of the day is another advantage and significant reason that he welcomes these opportunities.

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