January 18, 2017

Sailing His Way to California

California Director Profile

Kevin Murphy



Member Since 1972  |  Board Member Since November, 2016


BACKGROUND:  Kevin Murphy was born in South Africa in 1962.  His family was in the farming business when he was growing up, mostly involved in timber.  He went to the University of Natal, which he said is similar to U.C. Davis with an agricultural focus.  (The university has since merged with other South African institutions and is now called the University of KwaZulu-Natal.)  Kevin received his undergraduate degree in ag economics and then was promptly drafted into the South African Army.


GROWING UP DURING TUMULTUOUS TIMES:  Kevin Murphy grew up in South Africa during very interesting times to say the least.  It was in the 1970s and ‘80s when South Africa’s racial segregation system of apartheid was largely criticized worldwide.  Sanctions were enacted and condemnation continued to grow.  As the situation intensified in the ‘80s, Murphy was in college and then in the military.  After that he went on a three-year journey around the world and moved to California around 1990 when apartheid began to be dismantled.  He in fact, was in California when the system officially ended in 1994.

While living in South Africa as a kid and even through college, Murphy said he was somewhat insulated from the issues.  But he did note that those were difficult times.  The sanctions imposed by much of the world were having an impact and there was world pressure to change.  As time went on, there was much unrest and violence in South African.  While the University of Natal was technically integrated and quite progressive in those times with regard to educating and graduating Black Africans, Murphy said there was not much integration.  The system had different campuses and his campus was not integrated as far as he remembers.  When he served in the Army in the mid-1980s he was exposed to the rancor and saw it from a different viewpoint.  “Those were tumultuous times and seeing it as a member of the Army was very interesting and let’s just leave it at that.”

But when he left South Africa and began traveling around the world, Murphy was exposed to many different viewpoints.  “As I traveled a bit, the absolute unsustainability of it (apartheid) became more clear.  I was exposed to different perspectives and it was clear that the human logic of it all was very much flawed.”

As he has moved through his career, and especially in those early years when apartheid was under fire and his South African accent was more evident than it is today, Murphy was asked about the subject quite a bit and did have to speak to it.  Toward this end, he said it helped being in the ag business in the United States.  “Ag people are open and friendly and pretty straight up.” He encountered questions, but was rarely put on the defensive.


A GREAT ADVENTURE: By the time he was out of the Army and looking for work, his family’s farming operation had been sold and Kevin had wanderlust.  So he decided to see a bit of the world.

As a young man, in his early 20s, Kevin signed up to work on a sail boat and took off from Cape Town.  The boat sailed around South America and up into North America.  That was the beginning of a three-year odyssey that had Kevin seeing a good portion of the world.  “I didn’t quite get around the world, but I saw a lot of great places.”  He supported this lifestyle by being a crew member on a number of ships that flew many different flags.  It was, in fact, this adventure that led Murphy to his wife and ultimately to California’s Salad Bowl.

“I ended up meeting a gal and we became a pair.  We made our way back to South Africa and eventually got married and moved to California.”


AN AG CAREER IS HATCHED:  Kevin’s wife, Mary, grew up in Seattle with a family connection to a frozen food company.  But by the time Kevin met her, she had been living in Santa Cruz, California, which is where Kevin and Mary came back to after leaving South Africa in the late 1980s.  It was here that Kevin began looking for work in an attempt to utilize his ag economics degree and agricultural background.  He ended up at Bruce Church, which soon became Fresh Express.  For the next 15 years—from 1989 to 2004—Murphy had a front row seat during the packaged salad revolution.  At Fresh Express, he held a variety of management positions in virtually every discipline.  He spent significant time in farming and operations and also was in charge of the human resources department for a while.  “I saw the company grow from basically zero to a billion dollar business.”

He stayed through the first sale of Fresh Express, but left shortly after it was sold to Chiquita.

During that time however, he did manage to earn an MBA from Edinburgh Business School at Heriot Watts University, Edinburgh, Scotland, through a distant learning program in 1999.


THE NEXT CHALLENGE: After being involved with one of the fastest growing companies and products the produce industry has ever seen, Murphy embarked on a totally different challenge after he left Fresh Express.  He soon joined Capurro Farms, a family-owned business, headquartered in Moss Landing, California.  Murphy was brought in as president in an effort to bring in some outside leadership.  He stayed with Capurro for several years, helping to transition the family operation into an attractive merger partner.  Eventually, Capurro did merge with Growers Express.  By that time however, Murphy had moved on to Driscoll’s.

He has now been with Driscoll’s for almost a decade, serving in a variety of senior management positions before being named CEO two years ago.  He has managed operations, including the nursery end of the business, and was also very involved in the global strategy that the firm embarked on aggressively over the last handful of years.  In fact, he was president of the global business unit and then COO, before taking the CEO position when Miles Reiter stepped back a couple of years ago.


A CAREER PATH: While Murphy’s career path appears to have traveled a fairly straight line from management, then senior management positions to a CEO slot, he said that was never his ultimate goal.  “I never looked at it that way.  I was not positioning myself to become a CEO.  I just have looked for interesting opportunities that have new challenges.”

He said the opportunity at Driscoll’s made great sense to him after spending the first portion of his career on the vegetable side of the ledger.  He called Driscoll’s a “dynamic company” that is doubling its size about every five years.  He finds the international involvement intriguing and notes that the current push to expand the company’s operations in Asia is very rewarding.  “We now have operations in 26 countries and sell in 60 countries.  The opportunities are very exciting.”

Closer to home, Murphy said the challenges of navigating increasing regulations, including an expanding minimum wage, are robust and require diligent attention and new strategies.


THE FAMILY LIFE: Kevin and Mary have two kids in their 20s—daughter Hala and son Sean—both of whom have graduated from college and followed in their parents’ footsteps a bit.  Currently, they are each traveling, as their college graduation gifts were round trip tickets to anywhere they wanted to go.  Murphy said traveling before he began his career was life altering and he wants his kids to have that same opportunity.

Kevin and Mary are just settling into empty-nesting.  He enjoys golf, they enjoy hiking and Mary is very involved in a number of charitable ventures.  She specifically works with Driscoll’s philanthropy program and is also very involved in working with the homeless population in Monterey County.