Western Growers has long been known as the major voice of the western fruit, vegetable and nut industries. Since its inception almost a century ago, the association has represented the best interests of its members as they go about the business of growing, harvesting, packing, selling and shipping the best medicine in the world.
Western Growers began its life in the Roaring 20s of the last Century representing grower-shippers as they battled with the railroads to secure reasonable rates and schedules for shipping their production across the country. The association has been there for decades making sure its members get the crops harvested and to market and, most importantly, get paid in a timely manner.
Over the decades, the needs of the average producer have greatly expanded beyond the operations directly affiliated with the crop in the ground. Today, WG offers many services that help growers run their businesses as they focus on producing the best products. For example, Western Growers has a Legal Department to help with all types of disputes and also to secure labor. The association’s Assurance Trust and Insurance Services departments offer a myriad of insurance options that are as necessary to keep a vegetable operation thriving as water. The Western Growers Financial Services team is equally important to help keep companies afloat and allow businesses to thrive and employees to prosper as they dedicate their careers to the noble profession of feeding a planet. WG University was established to offer training programs to business owners and their employees—both the mandatory training requirements as well as the business-enhancing programs that can help a company’s employees do their jobs better and grow personally and professionally.
These are just a few of the business services available to members of Western Growers.
Joseph “Sonny” Rodriguez, who is the President and CEO of The Growers Company, an Arizona-based labor service provider, has been an enthusiastic user of Western Growers business services for more than a quarter of a century.
“We use Western Growers for our medical insurance, workers’ comp, liability insurance…any insurance we have we get through Western Growers,” he said.
Rodriguez notes that when he is choosing a provider for his business needs, the service is very important as are the rates. He also factors in that Western Growers does so much more for the industry with the revenues it earns from its business services. “It’s a puzzle,” he said. “We look at a lot of different factors when we make our decisions.”
The company has had its medical insurance with Western Growers Insurance Services for more than 25 years; workers’ comp was added more than a decade ago and the liability insurance it obtained through WGIS became part of the company’s stable of WG products about a half a dozen years ago. “We have been doing our H-2A in collaboration with Jason (Senior Vice President & General Counsel Jason Resnick) for a long time. Now about 60 percent of our workers are H-2A.”
He noted that the entire Western Growers staff “is great to work with. They handle all our needs and make sure we have options.”
He reiterated that the bottom line of an insurance bid is an important aspect of getting the business, but it’s not the sole decider. “Western Growers usually meets the bid, but sometimes we have a lower bid, and we have to take a look. Building relationships is very important to us. And it is important to factor in all the work Western Growers does for the industry. We are very happy with the services we get from Western Growers.”
The Growers Company was established in 1950 by Sonny’s father, Joe L Rodriguez, to serve the needs of growers in the Glendale, Ariz. region. Sonny joined the operation fulltime after graduating from Arizona State University in 1975. Today the company has operations in multiple states, including California, Arizona and Colorado and it is a three-generation family-owned business, like many of the farming companies it serves.
David Zanze is the Executive Vice President of Western Growers Assurance Trust, and the President of Pinnacle Claims Management, Inc., WG’s third-party administrator of self-funded insurance plans. He has been with Western Growers for 37 years and said the individual service Western Growers insurance teams offer to its members is what sets it apart. “We provide services that no one else offers,” Zanze said. “Of course, we are price competitive but it’s not about price, it’s about our quality of service.”
Zanze said The Growers Company’s insurance plans are representative of what WGAT offers to members. “Other outfits offer similar plans but no similar service,” he said. “We go out to the field and explain our plans to the workers in their language. And if you have an issue, you can call me or any of our other executives. Try doing that with one of our competitors. You’ll never even get close to talking to a top officer. We give direct access at every level.”
The fact that Western Growers is an ag-based association that is offering these services can’t be overstated, according to Zanze. “We are member-driven and member-focused. Our customers and clients are in effect, our shareholders. We answer to them, and we report to them. It is not about profits; it is about service and offering the products they need.”
Tim Baloian is CEO/President of Baloian Farms in Fresno and is the third generation to farm under the family name since 1917. His grandfather, Charles Baloian, began the family’s farming tradition on Staten Island in New York Harbor. But he soon followed the trail blazed by others of Armenian descent and moved to California’s San Joaquin Valley. “My grandfather had a vision for a vertically integrated company,” Tim says.
He did not quite reach the full extent of the vision, but he did grow crops, had a wholesale business and evolved into marketing over time. Tim’s father, Ed Baloian, and uncle, Jim Baloian, carried the tradition forward and passed it on to the next generation. Tim joined the company full time in 1971 at the age of 19. It was the second and third generations that expanded the vertical integration further and also honed in on vegetables as their fresh sector of choice.
Tim said the next generation is stepping up to the plate as he has two daughters and two nephews that are working for the operation in key spots. And there are other potential fourth generation leaders still working through the education system. “We do have a transition plan in place,” he said.
It is with this background and 50 years of farming under his belt that the current CEO decided to expand his employee training program this year through the WG University. In the past, Baloian said the company utilized Western Growers for the mandatory trainings required by law, but it had not gone further than that.
“This year we decided to do five different trainings,” Baloian said, noting that trainings are taking place at the rate of about one a month over four to five months. They cover several topics including workplace behavior and regulations, management 101, navigating change, building trust and developing leadership skills.
He added that because of their busy harvesting schedule, which tends to get underway in earnest in May, the company wanted the formal education program concluded before the workload started to escalate. “We’ve done four of the five classes and it’s been great,” Baloian said. “I can’t say enough about Anna (Bilderbach), Learning and Development Manager, who conducted the classes. She has done a great job. She is very knowledgeable and built a rapport with the participants. That was the key.”
Baloian took each of the classes along with about 20 employees each time. “I learned a lot,” he said. “I think I got as much out of it as anybody else.”
The company went down this path because employee evaluations identified a need for more training sessions. Baloian said employees wanted to learn about improving their own business and interpersonal skills. “It’s not cheap but it’s well worth it,” he said. “I highly recommend it. I believe over the years the trainings will produce a significant ROI. It’s hard to put a value on giving your employees the opportunity to learn but I’ve already seen changes. I know the classes have made me a better manager.”
Bilderbach has been with Western Growers for a handful of years but has been in the employee training industry for two decades. “We basically offer a learning and consultancy service to our members,” she said of WG University. “We offer our programs in English and Spanish—on-site, online and on-demand for an affordable price. We have an extensive list of opportunities.”
When working with a member, Bilderbach said she starts the conversation with “What do you need and what are you trying to achieve? We have competitive pricing, and we give a 20 percent discount to members.”
She noted that among the more popular offerings are classes on Leadership Development, Supervisory Skills and HR & Employment Law. “We also customize programs to fit the member’s exact needs.”
Bliderbach believes on-site courses are the most effective, but she said the live online webinars, and the e-learning sessions on-demand are credible alternatives. She did say that the programs are very popular, and members should plan ahead. “Right now, I am pretty booked until at least June,” she said in mid-April.
Mitch Ardantz is one of the managing partners of Santa Maria, Calif.-based Bonipak Produce Company and Betteravia Farms. The company’s roots date back more than 85 years and it has long been a Central Coast leading grower-shipper of a host of vegetables, specializing in commodity business. Ardantz is in the third generation of executives to lead the family farming operation. He has spent most of his career in sales and marketing and is now serving in more of an oversight role.
“We have had the RSP (Retirement Security Plan) plan with Western Growers for many, many years,” he said. “Currently we still have significant funds in the program for the ownership group It’s been a great program.”
Ardantz has served on the RSP Board for many years and said the interaction with investment community experts and prognosticators has been invaluable as he has helped Betteravia pick the right investments for their company while also helping guide the plan from the board perspective.
From Betteravia’s perspective, and for his own personal portfolio, he has been most appreciative of the one-to-one relationship he has developed with his WG Financial Services advisor, which is WGFS President Matt Lewis. “Recently, I have started to share our investments with my three daughters. Matt came up here and personally walked us through it.”
Ardantz said that is the same service any WG member utilizing WGFS can expect. “I also like that Western Growers knows the farming industry. They know our business and how it works,” he said. “The people in ag are a different breed and they know it. In fact, the RSP team are folks just like us. They are steering us down the right road.”
He also repeated the refrain mentioned by many that he appreciates the other fine work that Western Growers does on behalf of the ag industry and fresh produce. To the extent that these ancillary services help fund those activities, Ardantz said that certainly factors into the company’s decision when using a Western Growers business service.
Lewis said his department offers a full suite of financial services. He notes that he spends a significant amount of his time managing the retirement investments of members through RSP and 401(k) plans and managing WG’s in-house accounts. WGFS also manages about 300 privately-held accounts for members, with that book of business now having grown to about $400 million in assets.
While Lewis is hesitant to toot his own horn, he said the performance figures speak for themselves and WGFS continues to get good returns for the many different accounts it manages. He indicated the proof is in the continued growth of the assets.
Lewis also said that the individual service that Ardantz touted is a hallmark of Western Growers Financial Services. In fact, it is the calling card of all WG business services. As Zanze mentioned, it is members that drive these services, not profits.