October 31, 2016

Dozens of Partnerships Drive Business Model

CA Member Profile

Tom Russell


Pacific International Marketing

Member Since 1990

Family Background: Tom Russell was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1951, the son of a banker.  His father did participate in the ag lending universe, but Tom was not exposed to the agricultural industry and really had no plans to go in that direction in his career.  He went to Arizona State University, majored in business management, and envisioned a career in martial arts.  In fact, he had a career in martial arts.


Kicking His Way Through College: Russell started wrestling at age 12 and was a martial arts student by 15.  He became quite the expert and paid his way through college because of his karate skills.  A company with a string of schools in the Southwest would fly him all around the area on weekends, teaching and giving exhibitions.  He once did an exhibition in Madison Square Garden as the undercard to a Mohammed Ali boxing exhibition in the early 1970s.  Somewhere along this time, he also opened up his own karate school, an endeavor he remained connected with for the better part of a decade, even as his ag career was taking off.  Though he still trains in martial arts, he gave up fighting as he approached his 30s.  “I won most of my matches, but I was still hurting the next day; that’s when I decided to stop fighting.”  Russell estimates that he competed in 1,000 matches in his career, winning the vast majority of them.


The Ag Connection: It was an early relationship that introduced him to agriculture.  The end of the relationship set the stage for the business model that has proven successful for about 40 years.  His ag career began with the J.A. Wood Company in the mid-‘70s with his backside firmly planted on the seat of a tractor.  When he joined that company, he thought it was for a desk job, but soon learned differently.  After he became fairly well acquainted with the fresh produce business from the ground up, he did move into the sales office, and eventually the end of the relationship pushed him out on his own.


Traveling the Produce Circuit: “It was the early 1980s and there were a lot of 30-day fields.  I was a hired gun,” he said.  “I went from deal to deal selling the production and then moving on.”

Russell spent time in Alamosa, Colorado; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Brawley, Phoenix and Salinas.  Wherever there was a crop in need of a salesman, he would go.  He largely lived out of the back of his car.  He picked up a lot of experience and a lot of friends.  One of his early friends was Vic Smith, who was also in Alamosa working that deal.


The PIM Business Model: It was during the mid to late-1980s, that Russell opened an office in Phoenix and another in Salinas.  He formed a partnership with Dave Johnson and started Pacific International Marketing in the mid-1980s, formally incorporating several years later.  About this same time, he formed a partnership with Smith.  “We’ve been partners for 37 years,” Russell said, counting this as perhaps his longest standing partner.  However, the Smith partnership has plenty of company.

“I have about 40 partners,” he said rattling off a who’s who in the western vegetable industry, with partnerships in virtually every phase of the business, including growing, harvesting, cooling, sales and distribution.

In fact, he was hard-pressed to define Pacific International Marketing.  “Everyone asks me that.  What are we?  We’re a confederation.  We have a bunch of different growers and we work together on a lot of different crops.”

Russell believes the key to PIM’s success is finding the right partners, giving each of them an equity position and sticking with them for seemingly decades.  The longevity of the relationships and the way they were crafted over the years makes them relatively easy for Russell to keep track of, even though there appears to be dozens of them.  “I’ve been putting this together for 40 years, piece by piece.  I inherited a good accounting gene.  I see numbers.  I can look at a spread sheet and see pretty quickly if it’s going to work.”

Another key is the way Russell goes about his crop rotation plan.  “We do it differently than most.  We look at what we can sell and then we work with growers to provide that.”

And it appears that he has those grower conversations with a deft touch.  “It’s his money and if he wants to grow it, he can.  But we tell him what we can sell.  Otherwise, it’s just like going to Vegas.”

On any given day, PIM is selling product that it has zero to 100 percent ownership of.  “But it makes no difference.  The salesmen can’t see that on their screens.  We treat it all the same.”


Contract vs Open Sales: “We try to never have more than 30-40 percent of our production contracted,” he said, noting that Mother Nature plays a huge role and can make volume fluctuate greatly.  He clearly doesn’t want to have 10 loads contracted and only six loads produced that day.

“What we try to do every day is maximize returns to the grower.”


The Future: Even as he is approaching 65 years of age, Russell has no plans to ever retire.  He expects them to pry the sales phone out of his cold, stiff, dead hand one day.  Today, he spends most of his time planning for the future.  He loves working out the numbers as to when he will need what to satisfy his sales desk.

While he sees many major challenges, including labor and water, Russell said the advantages in the soil California and Arizona have over other areas is not going to change.  He did note that the labor force is increasing in age and declining in number.  “We have to mechanize,” he said, stating that it has to come to all areas of production from planting to thinning to harvesting.

Russell said he has more plans and ideas for growth than he will ever accomplish in his lifetime, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.  Over the last three years, the company has registered a growth rate of about 25 percent.


On a Personal Note: Tom and his wife, Carol, have been married for 33 years and have three daughters and a son.  Son John has joined the business and works for Will Rousseau (another Tom Russell partner) at Rousseau Farming in Arizona.  His daughter Anna runs the family winery business in Monterey County.  The De Tierra Winery has a tasting room in Carmel.  He said daughter Olivia’s passion is conflict resolution.  She works for a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) in Burundi, Africa.  His daughter Sarah Cieglar, who is married and lives in Los Angeles, is in her second year of residency in radiology at the USC Medical Center.

With the kids and their families spread out a bit, he and Carol have indulged in quite a bit of leisure travel in recent years, largely to visit the various members of the family.  Last year, they took a trip around the world via airplane.