July 18, 2018

Withstanding the Test of Time

Growers Ice

Salinas, California

Member Since 1978


It is hard to believe that any technology applicable in 1936 is still viable today, but getting the field heat out of produce by topping it with ice is still in vogue. Growers Ice is offering the same service concept today that fueled its establishment more than 80 years ago.

“Some of the equipment is 50 years old,” says Jim White, who is in charge of the operation these days.

But that is not an indication that Growers Ice is stuck in the past. Even as its core business proposition remains the same, it has been moving aggressively on its strategic plan, which maps out a progressive future. In fact, White’s presence is a testament to the company’s forward thinking philosophy.

But before exploring that, let’s go back to the beginning. It was in the middle of the 1930s that four pioneer Salinas farming families jointly established the cooling operation. “Some have called them the four horsemen of Salinas,” quipped White. “There was K.R. Nutting, T.R. Merrill, Bruce Church and E.E. Harden.”

Those names were synonymous with western vegetable production and as demand grew for East Coast bound shipments of their products, it was necessary to find a way to help extend shelf life. Boxes of lettuce were harvested in the fields for these four companies and brought to the Growers Ice facility on Abbott Road in Salinas. “They would dump ice on the lettuce to cool it down quickly,” said White. “I understand it is where the name ‘iceberg lettuce’ came from.”

The operation occupies the same Abbott campus today though it has expanded over the years. For the first 35 years or so, it chugged along as the private cooler for those four operations. In the 1970s, T.R. Merrill bought out the other partners and commercialized the operation, using it for his own product and also providing cooling and loading service for other Salinas Valley shippers. Over the years, Growers Ice Company expanded adding Growers Custom Equipment, Central Coast Cooling and finally Post Harvest Technologies. Each of those firms was devoted to improving the logistics portion of the supply chain assuring that the crops harvested in the West arrived in the East in top condition with maximum shelf life.

The next major change came in 1997 when Merrill Farms got out of the growing and shipping business. At the time, the Merrill family and its descendants, including the Gheen family, began leasing out their farmland to other growers and concentrating their efforts on Growers Ice and the affiliated companies.

Though the future was not known, it was also in the 1990s that the current changes at Growers Ice had their genesis. It was about a quarter of a century ago when Jim White met Bill Gheen. White was a local businessman who made a name for himself as an international entrepreneur. He worked for companies all over the world and in 1991 founded Monterey, CA-based JL White International as a full service management consulting and leadership development firm. He made his name as a turnaround specialist. Over the years he has bought, expanded and sold 22 companies in 43 countries. He has also written several business management and leadership training books and conducted countless leadership training sessions and seminars.

Gheen worked with White in the consulting business in the 1990s, and in 2014 they reconnected as Gheen looked for ways to breathe new life into the Growers Ice Company. White was hired in 2016 to help the company move forward and develop a five year strategic plan. In 2017, he was hired to implement that plan as CEO. Initially, fact finding fueled his activity. Now he is in full execution mode.

White said in analyzing Growers Ice, he discovered a facility that was in need of updating and had many operational challenges. His strategic plan includes updating technology, improving procedures, and upgrading the staff and the training of the staff.

At 70, White said it is a perfect transition to the next phase of his business life as he has been scaling back his consultancy work. As a practical matter, Growers Ice Company has been reorganized with each of the entities spun off as their own operating company. Post Harvest Technologies, Inc. (PHT) is the management firm, which provides management services to Growers Ice and the other portfolio companies. It is under the umbrella of PHT Inc. that White has built what he considers to be a top-notch executive team with good leadership skills. It is in the area of leadership that he believes companies separate themselves from the pack.

He said new technologies and updated facilities will be part of the mix but before he ever calls for capital investment, he strives to take waste out of a company and improve its efficiencies. He believes that effort is proving successful as Growers Ice had what he called its “best year ever” in 2017 as 26 million cartons of product for 38 different growers moved through the facility.

But he said capital improvements will be part of the mix, estimating that $100 million will be spent over the next three to four years. He said the company is investing in R&D and is striving to maintain its leadership role in the industry. He said labor and energy are its top inputs and it will be investing in new technologies in those areas for efficiency sake. White said diversification is another strategy but added that a successful company never wants to wander too far from its core competencies.

The company has moved forward as a real estate management company. It owns all of the properties it manages (pre-cooling and cold storage real estate assets) along with the pre-cooling equipment that is leased to the tenants. Central Coast Cooling (CCC), the largest tenant on the 28-acre Salinas Campus, leases the pre-cooling equipment from Growers Ice and CCC takes care of the pre-cooling operations. And Growers Custom Equipment (GCE) designs, engineers and manufactures the specialized pre-cooling equipment.

As far as he is concerned, White is committed to seeing Growers Ice through the five year strategic plan. And from the outside, the company continues to do what it has been doing for 80 years—taking the field heat out of the product.