December 12, 2016

Serving Grower’s Needs for Decades

Willy Leon


Vegetable Growers Supply

Salinas, California

Member Since 1953


THE BACKGROUND: It was in 1948 when some of the Salinas Valley’s oldest farming families came together to form Vegetable Growers Supply as a quasi co-op designed to manufacture wooden crates for the fast growing fresh produce industry.  The well-recognized family names that launched the concept of aggregating their buying power for the good of all were: Church, Merrill, Nutting, and Harden.  These four pioneer names were joined by several other familiar surnames on the original Articles of Incorporation including: Nunes, Martella, Ladra, Abeloe, Hitchcock, Storm, Nielsen, Fiscalini, and Christensen.  VGS manufactured and sold about two million wooden crates during its first year of operation.  Then, as now, the company is in the hands of a small group of shareholders.  Some are still the farming families or descendants of those families, though acquisitions and mergers have changed the ownership landscape quite a bit over those seven decades.


CONTINUED GROWTH: The company began in Salinas and to this day its main office is in the same general vicinity.  But the company has grown tremendously over the year.  Today, VGS maintains year-round facilities throughout California, including El Centro, Oxnard, Huron, Santa Maria, Castroville, and Greenfield and in Yuma, Arizona.  Most of these operations include a distribution yard as well as hardware store to cater to the needs of the farming industry that it serves.  While the hardware stores are open to the general public, President and General Manager Willy Leon said farmers remain the focus.  “We’re not stocking a lot of plumbing supplies like an Ace Hardware.  We sell harvesting knives and gloves and other products that a grower will need in his daily operation.”

The geographical distribution of the facilities allows VGS to be within a quick trip for almost any vegetable grower in the state.  “We strive to understand our customers’ needs better than they do so we can stay one step ahead.”


PRODUCT LINE: Packaging products represent as much as 75 percent of the company’s annual sales, but in addition to cartons, RPCs, and produce bags, the stores at each of the locations carry a wide range of harvesting tools and supplies for both the field and the processing plant.  Currently, VGS distributes more than 100 million corrugated cartons annually.


NEW LEADERSHIP: Leon joined the company in July as a seasoned veteran in the packaging and distribution business with more than 30 years’ experience.  He grew up on a dairy farm in Southern California and then graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in Agricultural Business Management.  He started his packaging career with Weyerhaeuser, where he remained for a decade.  He has had several other stops along the way, most often serving in a senior management position for either a produce or an industrial packaging company.


A SHARPENED FOCUS: Leon said the VGS business model is a good one and no major changes are planned or anticipated under his leadership.  “My challenge is to take a well-operating company and look for areas for potential improvement.  We are changing our focus a little bit as we look at innovations in packaging and new technology and, of course, we are always looking for ways to cut costs and gain efficiencies.  My background is in sales and marketing so we are looking for growth in those areas as we look for new customers.”

But he reiterated that packaging will continue to be the driver of sales for the firm and its many outlets, as it was in 1948.


WESTERN GROWERS CONNECTION: Within a handful of years after it was formed, Vegetable Growers Supply joined Western Growers and has been a member in good standing ever since.  While Leon knew of the organization, he had not interacted with Western Growers on a personal level before joining the VGS team.  However, he rectified that quickly by attending WG’s 91st Annual Meeting in Hawaii in November.  “That was a great experience.  It was great to connect on both a social and business level with so many customers and vendors.  It was a great opportunity.”