May 8, 2019

Injury Dooms Baseball Dream; Marriage Leads to Produce Career

Director Profile

Kelly Strickland

Vice President of Operations

Five Crowns Marketing

Brawley, CA

Director Since 2018 | Member Since 1985

Growing up in San Jose, CA, Kelly Strickland was quite the baseball player. He was heavily recruited out of high school as a pitcher and continued his planned path to the Major Leagues at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California.

His selection of a course of study—business administration—ultimately proved more important in his career path than the baseball diamond he thought would lead him to post-college employment. “It is funny that I chose business administration as a major and that is the role I am filling at Five Crowns,” he said.

He noted that he is part of four members of the second generation of the family operation currently in management positions. The other three slots are filled by Danny, Tyler and Billy Colace, sons of founders Joe and Bill Colace. Those three second generation Colace men are involved in sales (Danny and Tyler) and plant operations (Billy). “I am on the operations side,” said Kelly. “That was the missing piece. They didn’t have someone to step into that role and so I was the family member for that position and it does fit well with my undergraduate work.”

Strickland readily admits that when he picked that major, he didn’t expect to use it. Speaking of his baseball ambitions, he said, “when I was a freshman all my eggs were in that basket. I picked Business Administration because it was a general business degree.”

After his freshman year, Strickland hurt his elbow, had reconstructive tendon surgery (“Tommy John” operation) and missed two years of action. “That derailed my baseball plans,” he said.

But he soon pivoted in another direction. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he began studying theology and envisioned a career in ministry. In fact, he was a youth minister in Orange County working toward that career when he reassessed his chosen profession. He had met Kristin Colace in college and was planning to marry her. But the fact was that his ministerial position didn’t pay very much. “I quit that, moved back home and went to work with my dad,” he said.

His father was a framing contractor and young Kelly did that work long enough to earn enough money to buy an engagement ring. He and Kristin did get married and began their married life in San Diego, as Kelly took a position in commercial real estate. He stayed in that industry for about six years, and then in 2011, launched a solar development company. The family connection gave the company its first major project, which was a solar installation at the Five Crown’s facility in Brawley. “In the process, I worked quite closely with Bill and Joe and they ended up offering me a position with the company.”

It was the vice president of operations job he holds today. Kelly and Krsitin gave it careful consideration and with their first two children in tow moved to Brawley in 2012. “We did have to talk about it and carefully consider it,” Kelly said. “It was quite a change to go from San Diego to Brawley. Kristin grew up in Brawley and she didn’t envision moving back here again. But it is a phenomenal company and family and we decided to make the move. It was a great move. I love Brawley. I love the small town and it’s a phenomenal community.”

It could have been smooth sailing ahead, but the story took another unexpected turn. “After moving back here, I was diagnosed with genetic heart disease. At the age of 32, I had an 11-hour, open-heart operation to repair the aortic valve. And then, two years later, I had a second procedure on the tri-cusped valve. I feel great now but it does cause you to stop and re-evaluate your life.”

That re-evaluation led Kelly to understand that he is right where he should be. In fact, while he calls the genetic disorder random, he is a great believer that everything happens for a reason and is not random at all.

Presently, he believes his business background and education created a skill set that is a perfect fit for the family firm that he married into. And he is excited about the growth and changes that have occurred at Five Crowns over the past decade, and what the future holds. Strickland joined the firm in 2012 and he said the growth has been tremendous since then—and the most aggressive in the firm’s more than three decade history. “We have added watermelon, berry and asparagus programs, opened a new cooler facility here in Brawley and are building a new 170,000 square foot processing facility in Tracy. And we’ve opened up a logistics operation.”

As he was being interviewed for this story, the Stricklands were getting ready to embark on another new adventure. “In July, we are moving to Ripon (in the San Joaquin Valley) and I am going to run the new Tracy facility along with my current duties.”

That facility will also have an office for Five Crowns’ Northern California team. “We will have 20-22 people in the office up here and it will be used as a distribution facility as well as for our watermelon packing operation.”

Five Crowns already has a collaborative partnership with Tracy, CA-based GloriAnn Farms and its line of packaged sweet corn. Strickland said the move is an affirmation of the company’s belief that California still offers lots of opportunity for an agricultural firm. He said the company currently has sales north of $200 million and is in the throes of succession planning. The two founders are in their 60s, committed to continued growth and proactively making sure the company stands the test of time through the second generation and beyond. The second generation is populated with the four members previously mentioned directly employed by the firm and three others involved as suppliers in one way or another.

The third generation of the family tree is headed by Kelly and Kristin’s nine-year-old son, Jack. Kate, 7, and Grace, 2, round out the family unit. Proud dad said Jack is a lefty and is showing athletic ability. He said the family is very much looking forward to the move to Ripon and immersing themselves in the community just as they did in Brawley. In fact, Kelly was an elder in the local church until he recently resigned because of his pending move to the San Joaquin Valley. In his spare time, he likes to golf, coach his kids in their sports and enjoy wine with Kristin. “We are looking forward to being closer to wine country,” he quipped.

Kelly first got involved with Western Growers as a member of the fourth Future Volunteer Leaders Class, which completed its term at the 2018 Annual Meeting. That was the same meeting in which Kelly became a member of the Western Growers Board of Directors as the elected representative from the Brawley district, replacing Jack Vessey who stepped down after several terms on the board.