Bob Gray, who will be honored by Western Growers in the fall for his body of work and accomplishments over the 40-year career in agriculture. He is clearly enjoying the current chapter in his life which has him in a teaching role as he helps develop leaders in the agricultural realm in his position as president of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation.
After all, it is a position probably much closer to what he anticipated doing in life when he was studying English Literature in his college days. “I thought I would pursue a career in higher education,” he said. “Get my masters, my Ph.D. and then teach college.”
Life has a way of interrupting the best laid plans, and instead, Gray has devoted himself to agricultural endeavors for the past four decades.
He grew up in Yuma, AZ., and in fact, his father was a successful buying broker, whose career was chronicled in The Packer in a 1950 edition that Gray currently has. Evidently, he was a far better produce man than father as he left the family when Bob was five and was never much of a factor in his life, and didn’t directly influence Gray’s decision to go into the produce industry.
Gray received a dual major in English and Philosophy from the University of Arizona in 1971, and was awarded the highly-competitive British Marshall Scholarship that allowed him the opportunity to begin his postgraduate work at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “It seemed like the U.K. (United Kingdom) was the best place to study English Literature,” he quipped.
Following the completion of his Master’s degree, Gray was accepted into the doctoral program at Colombia University in New York. “I couldn’t afford it at the time so I deferred acceptance so that I could recharge my bank account.”
During his high school and college years, Bob did work in Yuma’s number one industry in several low paying jobs. He remembers being at the very bottom of the pay scale as a high school student in a local cantaloupe shed. “I was classified as ‘miscellaneous floor help’. ” When he came back from Scotland, he worked for several different grower-shippers in less than management positions to raise money for his continued education. With a single mom in a non-professional job, money was tight in the Gray household and so getting family financial help for his educational pursuit was out of the question.
It was around 1977 that Paul Couture offered him an office job during the short San Joaquin Valley melon deal. Gray said his work was called “running the sheet,” which was basically keeping track of inventory manually by logging in sales and balancing them against the day’s harvest. “Basically I was a human computer. Today we would probably call that job a sales coordinator.”
It was a five- to six-week job that Gray kept for several years even as he moved on with his career. Soon he landed an entry level management position with Ed Senini at his Yuma lettuce company. For several years, his vacation from that position was spent “running the sheet” at Couture Farms.
It was somewhere along this time that Gray stopped deferring his acceptance into Columbia’s doctoral program and realized a career in the fresh produce industry was his calling. In 1980, he joined a startup operation in the Salinas Valley begun by the Florida-based Duda Company. The firm was expanding west, and wanted a vegetable operation in the so-called Salad Bowl. Completely understating his distinguished career with Duda, Gray said, “I held a variety of positions with Duda over the next 29 years, which culminated in being the CEO of Duda Farm Fresh Foods.”
During that time he participated in, helped build and helped run a very successful vegetable growing, packing, processing and packing operation. He was a well-known industry leader and a valued member of the Western Growers Board of Directors, serving as chairman of the board in 2008.
Shortly after departing Duda in 2009, Gray transitioned to his current position in the non-profit world. He calls it “quite an adjustment.” With no hint of boasting, he said in his years of management at Duda, he never had to go to the post office or deposit a company check in a bank. There were other people who did that work. “I went from having hundreds of employees in a very large for-profit business to managing a very small staff in a small nonprofit. It was quite different, and a big learning curve.”
In fact, he counts managing that transition and succeeding in both entities as one of the top achievements in his career. He explained that the many collaborators in the nonprofit endeavor—from funders to educators—are participating at their own will. They have no obligation to the program and the CEO cannot order them to do anything. “The success of the program depends on persuasion, influence and good will.” He said it is an odd fit for a business executive who is used to giving orders in the for-profit world. In the nonprofit world you “cannot dictate; you can only lead.”
It is this leadership role that has given Gray so much satisfaction over the past six years. He is planning to step down from the position in the middle of 2016, which gives the Ag Leadership Foundation plenty of time to find a successor. Bob is very proud of the work he has done at the Foundation. Initially he launched a program review that resulted in both a renewal of the efforts and evolution of its mission. The success of that effort, he said has been borne out by increased applications for participation and additional funding from industry. Applications for the latest California Ag Leadership class are at a 14-year high. And, he said the permanent endowment has grown by a factor of five. Gray said the Ag Leadership Program is designed for mid-career executives who have held positions of responsibility. The average age of the participant is about 35 and Gray said the curriculum is geared toward millennials rather than occupants of previous generations.
While this longtime agricultural executive is stepping away from this current position, he still believes he has value to impart and expects to work in some type of consulting role moving forward, especially in the area of governance for family businesses.
He is humble in his inclusion in the list of WG Award of Honor recipients. “I was stunned when Tom (Nassif) called and told me that I had been selected. Never in my imagination did I consider that I would ever even make a short list. I feel like a pine tree in a forest of redwoods.”
However, he said he is following the advice he learned many years ago with regard to learning how to graciously accept a compliment. “I am taking this as a compliment and I am honored.”