Zak Laffite, President of Wonderful Citrus

“Innovation is About Daily Incremental Improvements and Significant Shifts”

The executive at the helm of Wonderful Citrus, one of the largest integrated citrus companies in the United States, discusses his vision for the company, the changes he sees taking place in the industry, and the need for tighter collaboration between growers and grocers.

By Edward Vernon

As the President of Wonderful Citrus, Zak Laffite helms one of the largest integrated citrus companies in the United States. The organization is a subsidiary of The Wonderful Company, a Los Angeles-based multi-billion-dollar company that is owned by philanthropist couple Stewart and Lynda Resnick, and whose portfolio includes Wonderful Halos mandarins, Wonderful Seedless Lemons, Wonderful Pistachios, POM Wonderful, FIJI Water, JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery, and more. The organization’s origins date back to 1979, when the Resnicks formed Paramount Farms to begin growing and harvesting pistachios and almonds in California’s Central Valley. 

Born in Honduras, in the northern town of La Ceiba, Laffite’s roots are entrenched in agriculture. With a family business that spans over 55 years, he was earmarked by his father from an early age to continue the legacy as the third generation — being the only one among his 10 cousins with any inclination to pursue agriculture. This early indoctrination into the world of agriculture, coupled with a disciplined educational pathway — a plant science degree from Cornell followed by an MBA from Tulane University — shaped Laffite’s foundational understanding and passion for the field. His decision to venture out of his comfort zone to Cornell University, despite its limited focus on tropical agriculture, reflects Laffite’s inherent desire to challenge the status quo and embrace new experiences.

Laffite’s professional journey is a testament to his resilience and adaptability. A brief stint at the family business made it clear to him early on that his path would diverge from the one laid out for him by his father, “Simply put, I wasn’t who or what our family business needed at that time,” shares Laffite. This realization led him into roles at Dole’s banana operations, where he climbed the ranks from an entry-level position to a financial analyst, gaining invaluable experience in management and leadership. His venture into the finance domain was a strategic move that eventually led him to Paramount Citrus, renamed as Wonderful Citrus in 2015. 

Under Laffite’s leadership, the company has navigated the complexities of the citrus industry, such as labor shortages, environmental concerns and supply chain issues related to the Covid pandemic. Laffite’s journey through various roles within the company, from product management to chief operations officer to chief sales officer and eventually president — which he started in January 2020 — has endowed him with a holistic understanding of the business.

Speaking with Vision Magazine, Laffite discusses what’s in the works at Wonderful Citrus, his vision for the company, the changes he sees taking place in the citrus industry, and the need for tighter collaboration between growers and grocers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

As a leader, how do you foster innovation at Wonderful Citrus?

Innovation isn’t just about tech or futuristic ideas; it’s about daily incremental improvements and significant shifts. At the heart of our approach is the lean method, inspired by the Toyota Way set of principles, which focuses on continuous improvement. This doesn’t just mean adopting new technologies, but changing our working habits fundamentally. In my early days as president, I pushed the team to embrace working differently. Overcoming resistance to change is important, addressing fears and the discomfort that comes with new processes. Innovation isn’t cheap — it demands careful allocation of resources, like capital and time, focusing on where it can truly make an impact. It’s a top-to-bottom philosophy that can’t be forced but must be embraced by everyone to drive real progress.

Can you discuss any obstacles that you faced in your role as president and how you’ve overcome them?

The first obstacle came about seven days after I took over. In a meeting with company leadership, we discussed the prior year and got to a mutual understanding that the phase where we had been leading up to 2020 was essentially over. We were getting to a point where supply was starting to overrun demand, and commodity behavior was starting to intensify. Margins were starting to thin out because we were starting to see an increase in labor costs and so on. We had been running a growth-first philosophy up until that point, and it really shifted the way we thought. This was a big challenge for me, as I was a product of the culture that we had been living through for the previous 10 years.

Then, Covid presented a new set of challenges, particularly in balancing employee safety with operational continuity. For us, doing the right thing is always a top priority. We also faced natural adversities, including freezes in Texas, droughts in California and Mexico, and water issues in Texas, which tested our resilience.

A major turning point was our company’s restructuring in June 2020, during which several peers and colleagues left the company. This period was personally challenging but underscored the essence of leadership: making difficult decisions for the company’s benefit while ensuring the team remained confident and unified in our new direction.

In 2019 you launched Wonderful Seedless Lemons. How has the market been responding to this new product, and what are your future expansion plans?

The one thing that’s unique about this program is that from the outset, we built it for a year-round supply. We didn’t approach it as a trial but planted across all three lemon-growing regions in California and Mexico. We’ve now started exploring partnerships in South America. Our confidence in this product as a consumer favorite was strong from day one. The market’s response has been overwhelmingly positive — it’s as though people were really waiting for this product. 

Awareness is one of the biggest challenges, and we’ve invested a lot of our energy in that. We often hear from distributors, particularly in foodservice, that chefs aren’t requesting our product, simply because they don’t know it exists – but they are quickly learning about it now. We’re building a significant category that I hope will be at 15% of the overall lemon supply in five to six years.

Our approach benefits from lessons learned from previous brands, such as Halos and pistachios. Each successive brand leverages the innovations and best practices of its predecessors, applying these strategies to seedless lemons with some adjustments, given its use as a condiment rather than a fresh snack. This cross-pollination of strategies within our family of brands has been instrumental in our success.

What future plans do you have for Wonderful Halos mandarins? And how do you expand something that’s already so well-established in the market?

I think that’s the biggest question that we wrestle with today. As established as it is, our household penetration can still improve, especially when you compare mandarins to other fruits. Our consumption in the U.S. is also less than half of that in the EU. To address this, one of our strategies has been the introduction of counter-seasonal Halos using citrus from South Africa, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. This maintains the brand’s presence year-round and ensures a consistent eating experience similar to our California Halos during the off-season. Our goal is to achieve a 30% market share in the summer, to match more or less where we stand on the winter window.

Over the last decade, we’ve also had to adapt our marketing strategies to keep pace with changes in media consumption. We were pioneers in TV ads for produce back in the mid-2010s, but people watch a lot less TV nowadays, and so that has given way to more engagement through social media, where we focus not just on raising awareness but on driving usage by introducing the product into new consumption occasions. For example, suggesting Halos as a salad ingredient can inspire consumers to incorporate them into their meals in ways they hadn’t considered before. We’ve even tapped into TikTok as a way to reach new audiences with fun and timely content, creating a series called ‘Hal Has Fun.’

A Wonderful Halos orchard in California’s Central Valley

And what about your plans with your other citrus brands such as Sweet Scarletts grapefruit and others?

Everything has a space. We have invested quite a bit in grapefruit and have a strong leadership position. Grapefruit has lower consumption rates compared to other citrus fruits, but we believe its unique taste can attract a younger audience. Our challenge lies in overcoming the perception of grapefruit as a fruit for the previous generation. 

Limes are another area of focus for us. As one of the fastest-growing items in the citrus category, driven by demographic trends and increasing supply from Mexico, we are actively expanding our lime projects there and exploring new sourcing regions across the continent.

For oranges and lemons, achieving consistency is crucial, although these businesses are getting quite difficult. I would say that international markets are vital for maintaining profitability, given that domestic prices often don’t offer sufficient margins for growers. Without exporting a portion of the produce to capture premium prices abroad, sustaining a profitable business within the U.S. market will become challenging over the next decade. It is a challenge of the broader industry issue of margin compression, particularly in more commoditized citrus categories.

Looking at the next 10 to 15 years, what is your vision for Wonderful Citrus, and how do you plan to achieve it?

Over the past 15 years, our journey at The Wonderful Company has been guided by a principle to specialize deeply in citrus, ensuring we’re vertically integrated and encompassing all aspects under the citrus umbrella. This journey has evolved through three main phases. Initially, we focused on becoming a one-stop citrus shop, offering all major citrus items in one place, which led us to growth through mergers and acquisitions. During Covid, we entered a phase we called “better, not bigger,” where we turned our focus inward to refine our culture, processes and continuous improvement. Now, we’re in what we call the “Wonderful Experience” phase, aiming to deliver value beyond our innovative products and marketing. This includes being better partners and employers, which begins with cultivating a strong culture that encourages everyone to contribute daily.

Being vertically integrated doesn’t automatically mean we’re vertically aligned. Ensuring every part of our supply chain works towards maximizing the whole rather than just individual segments has been a focus. We prioritize internal connectivity and storytelling to instill pride in our employees about their contributions and the impact of their work on consumers.

We’ve embraced a learning mindset, inspired by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s transition from “know-it-alls” to “learn-it-alls.” This approach is crucial for maintaining leadership and driving innovation, including learning from small growers worldwide. Our mission is not only to lead in the citrus industry but also to contribute positively to the world. This drives us to treat people right, lead boldly, and continue innovating and branding in ways that are core to our identity.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the citrus industry?

The most common challenge we’re all facing in the agricultural sector, especially within the citrus community, is water scarcity. We’ve hosted events bringing together growers and producers from around the world to discuss common issues, and water has consistently come up as a universal concern. It’s clear that this issue transcends specific crops and regions.

Another significant challenge is margin compression. The costs of production have skyrocketed, with California oranges, for example, seeing a 103% increase from 2014 to 2024, while prices have remained relatively stagnant. This compression is driving growers to seek markets overseas for better margins and has opened the industry to investments from outside agriculture. Between 2010 and 2018, the citrus industry experienced a profitable run, which attracted institutional money and outside investors seeking to capitalize on the sector’s potential despite these challenges.

How do you see the citrus industry evolving to meet the rapidly increasing demands of sustainability and reduced environmental impact?

To begin with, when we talk about sustainability, what exactly are we referring to? It’s a complex concept, but at its core, for many it relates largely to renewable energy. And yes, we have that. We have a company-wide goal to move to 100% renewable energy in 2025. We have robust and innovative operations that minimize water usage and our impact, while growing products that nourish wellness. But for us, sustainability is a broad scope that encompasses much more. It’s about our people, the planet and our products.

Packaging is another critical area. Our informal survey at The Wonderful Company showed that our top customers prioritize environmentally friendly packaging. Yet, there’s a trend towards more packaging for merchandising purposes, contrary to reducing it. The challenge lies in making packaging materials that are more sustainable without significantly driving up costs. It’s a delicate balance to maintain.

People are also an important aspect. The agricultural sector is facing a shortage of young talent interested in this field. To many, agriculture still conjures stereotypes, overlooking the wide range of opportunities available, from agronomy to innovation. We need to not only retain and develop the talent we have, but also attract new talent to the industry. This involves changing perceptions to showcase agriculture as a viable and attractive career path, addressing both labor in the fields and future leadership. It’s about ensuring a sustainable future for the industry in all respects.

How do you think the balance between labor and automation will shift in the citrus industry over the coming years?

The USDA’s 2022 census showed the average age of a U.S. farmer is 58, nearly 59.5 in California. This shows a trend where younger people aren’t as present in the fields, and a shift towards mechanization in farming practices. We’re seeing more use of technology like drones and unmanned sprayers to increase efficiency and reduce labor needs for certain tasks, such as spraying.

In our packinghouses, we’re investing in electronic grading and automating tasks to repurpose workers from non-value-added to value-added roles. However, options for mechanizing harvesting are limited. We’re exploring the “Orchard of the Future,” which may require a different grove architecture to accommodate new technologies effectively. This concept is already being applied in apple orchards in Washington with vertical trellis systems, though it’s challenging to replicate in citrus.

Labor issues extend beyond the U.S. — they’re even affecting Mexico, where we’ve implemented an H-2A program to bring workers from Mexico to the United States. Some regions in Mexico are experiencing labor shortages as workers move to cities or other agricultural areas, creating “labor deserts.” We’ve had to introduce programs to bring Central American workers to Mexico to address these shortages. This labor movement is a systemic issue facing the agricultural industry worldwide, highlighting the need for innovation and adaptation in labor practices and technology.

There’s been a big rise over the past few years in e-commerce and direct-to-consumer sales models. How do you see this impacting the industry? 

Retailers are increasingly adopting an omnichannel approach — incorporating e-commerce through their platforms. As suppliers, our engagement varies, with each retailer at a different stage in their journey. While this hasn’t significantly boosted our sales or consumption significantly, it presents both opportunities and obligations for us.

Opportunities come in leveraging these platforms to introduce new uses of citrus through recipes or innovative applications. However, there’s also an obligation to ensure quality. With the shift to online shopping, ensuring consistently high-quality produce becomes critical, as consumers can’t personally select their fruit. This focus on quality is more important than ever, especially as consumers have year-round choices, making seasonal items less of a concept.

We haven’t seen a dramatic increase in demand from these omnichannel approaches, and the direct-to-consumer model isn’t widespread in our industry. We mostly see small outfits that specialize in direct-to-consumer packing, positioning us as suppliers to a distributor network rather than directly to consumers.

Where do you think citrus industry investment by private entities should be focused to ensure its growth and sustainability?

That’s a great question. First, I’ll say that the most difficult question to answer today that a grower asks is: ‘What do I plant?’ It’s difficult because nothing is automatic — everything carries risk. Either you’re planting an established variety that’s going into a crowded space or you’re planting an experimental variety that maybe doesn’t have as clear of a track record in terms of market performance or productivity. I don’t think it’s as automatic as it was 10 years ago.

The investment needs to go into the elements that will allow you to at least secure your longevity as much as you can control it — which is a strong water source, optimizing your cost structure, and finding varieties that continue to appeal to consumers, whether they’re new or established. I do think it’s really about working more effectively these days. We do quite a bit of work in terms of new varieties, and I would say that we probably have more new varieties in the pipeline than many of our competitors, but it’s difficult. You spend 10 years working on a new variety only to put it on the shelf, and if you don’t tell the story right, it never has a chance. So, I think this one is more of a go-back-to-basics sort of answer. 

From your perspective, how do you think the grocery sector could improve citrus sales overall?

I would go back to quality. We’re noticing an emerging trend where growers who can’t produce top-quality fruit are gradually bowing out. It’s a tough reality, but it speaks volumes about sustainability in the industry. I strongly think we need a tighter collaboration between growers and grocers to better attract consumers.

If you think about the surge in mandarin consumption, there’s a lot to learn from our collective efforts during that growth spurt. It suggests there’s considerable room for boosting consumption, but it demands a concerted effort.

Then there’s the education aspect. Take apples, for instance, where seven distinct varieties are displayed side by side, each telling its own story. Citrus is somewhat behind in this regard. With the advent of new citrus varieties, we need to be better storytellers. Especially considering first-time citrus shoppers or the new generation stepping into grocery shopping roles for the first time. How do we introduce ourselves? How do we speak in terms that resonate with them, keeping citrus at the forefront of their shopping lists?

What would your key piece of advice be for members of the global citrus industry for the years ahead?

Don’t look out the window waiting for yesterday to come back. Tomorrow is here. It’ll require you to do different things, what worked in the past may not work. And you just need to embrace that. There are too many growers holding onto that notion, which is keeping them from actually making the most of their business today. I think you just have to work differently — you can’t fight. You can long for the past all you want, but don’t let it get in the way of how you operate on a day-to-day basis.