Miles Reiter, executive chairman of Driscoll's

“It’s Essential to Make Room for New Leadership”

The recently retired CEO of Driscoll’s — a giant of the berry industry — discusses the organization’s evolution under his 35-year leadership, his vision for the future and the legacy he would like to leave behind.

By Edward Vernon

Few names in the produce industry carry the weight of recognition quite like Driscoll’s. Headquartered in Watsonville, CA, it is one of the world’s largest fresh produce companies and is estimated to control roughly one-third of the U.S. berry market, with a sprawling global network of 900 independent growers in 21 countries, and selling in close to 50. In 2023, Driscoll’s was identified by market insights company Circana as one of America’s Top Ten Retail Grocery Brands.

With its origins stretching back to 1904, when friends and brothers-in-law Joseph Reiter and Richard Driscoll began growing strawberries in the state’s Pajaro Valley, the behemoth has not only dominated the berry landscape but has been a driving force in shaping the entire sector. Renowned for its premium-quality berries and proprietary genetics, the company’s impact is felt globally. 

As a leader and innovator, Driscoll’s has set industry standards, influencing how consumers perceive and interact with berries. In the 1990s it also became the first company to introduce the clear clamshell package, which revolutionized the way berries and other fruits and vegetables are packaged in order to minimize food waste. Driscoll’s continues to shape the industry and is focused on sustainability with the goal of more berries with fewer resources. From water stewardship to newer more sustainable materials for packaging, the company has a continuing improvement mindset.  

In December, Vision Magazine sat down with Miles J. Reiter, a multi-generational grower and owner. Reiter announced in October 2023 that he would retire from his position as CEO of the company at the end of the year but that he would stay on as executive chairman. He has been succeeded as CEO by Soren Bjorn, who has been with the company since 2006 and most recently served as president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.

Reiter, whose family is a majority owner in the company, started working in the business after graduating from Princeton University. He was elected board chair in 1988 and has served two stints as CEO — from 2000 to 2015 and from 2018. His younger brother, Garland Reiter, is with Reiter Affiliated Companies (RAC), a multi-national berry producer of Driscoll’s varieties, while his daughter, Brie Reiter Smith, is Driscoll’s vice president of product leadership, and Garland Reiter Jr., Miles’ nephew, is the company’s chief commercial officer as of January 2024.

In our conversation, Reiter discusses the lessons that stayed with him from his early days growing strawberries, the vision he sees for Driscoll’s after he steps back and the biggest trends he sees shaping global dynamics in the coming decades.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What was behind your decision to retire as CEO of Driscoll’s?

It’s just the right time. I’ve been in this role for a long time — I’m now in my mid-seventies. We’ve built a strong team of both experienced leaders and younger talent. As the majority owners of the company, my brother and I have witnessed the energy growing within both the management and ownership groups. It’s essential to make room for new leadership; you can’t hold on indefinitely. 

I’ve had a pretty successful career by any measure, but the true measure of success lies in how effectively the company continues to thrive after I step out of my current position. My ambition is to facilitate a smooth leadership transition — both in terms of management and ownership, as well as relationships. I think I have a better chance of success if I start this process sooner rather than later. If I wait too long, my impact may be minimal. I genuinely want to support the capable new leaders we have and reinforce their success; that’s a significant part of it. And, of course, there are a few other aspects of life as well.

Are there any areas or projects that you would like to focus on once you’ve made this switch?

The biggest things revolve around our strong set of mission, vision and values — these are sacrosanct, even with our new generation of owners. They originate from the heart of the company, rooted in its ownership and traditions. I’m confident they resonate well. I acknowledge that challenging decisions lie ahead, especially concerning our mission to continue delighting consumers through alignment with customers and growers. I want to ensure support in making those tough decisions.

We’ll also be navigating board transitions in the coming years, and I’ll participate in rejuvenating the board, initiating the process that others will continue. We’ve got a lot going on internationally, and so there are areas where I’ll pay a little extra attention here and there. And I’ll keep my hand on the pulse of a couple of things that are sort of far-flung and that have a lot of investment associated with them. Financially, we’ve always been very conservative, and I’ll be quite involved in terms of how we leverage the company, in collaboration with our board and management leadership.

As well as that, there are a few personal passions within the business’s food chain I’ll be involved in. We have to rethink how we do raspberries, which I was very involved in establishing. It’s not typical for a CEO to step down and get involved in something like that, but Soren and I have a good understanding. There are some things that I just can’t help but stick my nose in, but not a lot. 

What is it about the raspberry business that you feel needs to be changed?

It’s pretty simple. It’s still very labor-intensive. The way labor issues are going, especially in rich world countries, you just won’t be able to operate unless you’re way more efficient with labor. And how can you do that with the most delicate of the berries? I think further growth will require a better consumer experience. I don’t think we’re where we could be in terms of true raspberry flavor. I see a way to put all those together now, not someday. But there are a lot of habits we’ve got to break.

They will never be a long shelf-life item, but if we make them flavorful, people will consume them the day they buy them. We have some promising genetic traits, but the full value comes only when the entire process aligns — from growing plants to crew management and handling the fruit supply. I’ve trodden this path before, and I’m genuinely excited about how close the opportunity is and how necessary it is.

What is it about Soren Bjorn that makes him the right choice to lead Driscoll’s into the next chapter?

For one, he is a strong believer in our mission, and he values passion, humility and trustworthiness. We share the vision of being a global company with a positive footprint, enriching the lives of everyone we touch. We’ve collaborated for 17 years, and he’s a very smart guy who also has the courage and conviction to make decisions. And he’s been effective in challenging himself. 

Over the past few years, he has been more involved in the industry than I have, building a good track record and earning respect from peers and the trade. He also brings valuable international experience, having grown up in Denmark, so he’s adapted culturally.

And for you, outside of the world of work, are there any personal projects or ambitions that you’re looking forward to pursuing?

To some extent. I was born into a berry family, and it has always appealed to me. But I typically had packed schedules while traveling, and I’m looking to embrace a slower pace. I want to have my wife join me, and together we’ll put in a few days here and there. I’ve always enjoyed the people I meet, the good food and learning a bit about different environments. I’ll still do some traveling but with a more interpersonal element.

I’ll also be doing a couple of my favorite activities — trout fishing and body surfing. I’ve invested in a new wetsuit and fins. My ambitions have dropped in terms of wave size, but anyway, we’ll see how that goes. I also have a couple of fishing trips planned.

I’m also concerned about what I consider to be extreme government waste in the public sector. I probably won’t do anything about it on the national level, but maybe locally. The situation is worrisome, particularly in certain parts of California.

Reflecting on your early days growing up in a berry-growing family in California, what are some key lessons from that time that have stayed with you?

For one, given the increasing availability and orientation toward data — and with even more to come — don’t solely rely on data without being in the field. Similarly, don’t go to the field without having the available data that informs you about its history. We engage in a lot of R&D genetic development and applied research, particularly in production at Driscoll’s. Although I spent most of my time on the production side, a key element is never getting away from the reality of the product.

The second is that this business demands a vast number of people. It’s highly labor-intensive in the field, and while some aspects are automated — a bit more so with blueberries — it fundamentally revolves around people. Berries only add to the workforce. Given the variability, especially in the quality of raspberries, berries are heavily influenced by environmental pressures. The key is respecting the people and ensuring everyone gets a fair opportunity.

Fair treatment and a reasonable income opportunity need to be extended throughout the process. The people aspect is something where you cannot have winners and losers; everyone needs to be a winner along the entire supply chain. 

Can you share some pivotal moments from your early career that helped shape your journey to becoming CEO of the company?

There are a couple of things. Driscoll’s was founded by my father’s generation and others already involved in berry farming. It was never a cooperative, but it kind of functioned like one. My family was a bit slower in reproducing than that group, so I came in as an in-between and there really weren’t many others the same age as me. I got a lot thrown at me quickly by these old-timers who were transitioning. I remember one colleague saying, ‘Man, I thought you were going to quit the way those guys were so hard on you.’ I didn’t think they were hard on me. I found it fun. I had many opportunities in my twenties. By 32, I became vice chairman of Driscoll’s, and at 38, I became the chairman, which in those days really meant being the CEO. 

My parents were killed in the Canary Islands plane crash of 1977, but my father had already turned over a lot of work to me. He had been ready to step back, but things were turned over to me quite quickly. I was lucky to have all those summers working as a teenager, experiencing a lot, practically working all summer. We don’t do this with our own kids. I came right out of college and went straight to work. With our kids, we told them to go out and do something different for a while. But for me, the way things turned out, it was probably better.

What would you say have been the key changes that you have driven as the leader of Driscoll’s?

It’s been 35 years now, and I’ve led significant changes in our company. It was focused on California strawberries with a relatively long season, and it expanded under my leadership to include raspberries — a venture that my father had started although it had somewhat faded away, and that I moved forward. By my first year as chairman, tropical fruit companies that were way bigger than us were diversifying. I was actually approached by each of them — for instance, Chiquita, approached me with interest in buying Driscoll’s because even though we were just a California strawberry company, we were quite a prominent trade brand.

Our company initially focused on breeding new strawberry varieties, and we have a very differentiated, premium product. So that’s what I stepped into. We were the biggest of the strawberry companies, but we were losing market share due to a strategy that aimed to protect the premium position by limiting acreage. I am so opposed to that approach now, because we really helped create better competition by shorting the premium end of the market. We decided to grow the company and fill the potential that we see in all four berry categories. 

We decided to create a berry patch in grocery stores, which at the time you were just starting to see with some retailers, but you see it all the time now. Our plan was to offer a year-round supply of the four major berries. We knew our packaging was bad, so we had it redone to better protect the fruit. We shifted from a cooperative mindset, where the purpose is kind of enriching the growers as a priority. Instead, that was going to be the vehicle that we would grow the company. So we, the growers, still had to make money because they were going to be the driving force of growth, but it was with the purpose of creating a stronger company and brand. So we did all that, and actually, in my first year, the reinventing of the packaging turned out to be the clamshell that didn’t exist.

How do you envision Driscoll’s evolving and expanding over the coming years?

First of all, our international expansion is at different stages. So there’s a huge amount of work and opportunity. We have a China business unit, and we’re pretty well developed in Australia, but there are some real gap opportunities there, similar to North America. We see there are underdeveloped markets in Canada and Mexico. Europe’s kind of an enigma. We’ve been there a long time, but we’ve got a lot of improving to do. We produce in South America, but we don’t sell there, and that’s the same with Africa. So there is a global part, and our best-developed markets are the U.S., Canada and Australia. 

Our primary focus is on fresh berries. We’ve thought about other ventures —  there’s a big opportunity to improve the consumer experience with berries in both developed and developing markets. Even in areas with high consumption, our products could double in popularity with improvements in consumer appeal and reliability. 

As far as moving beyond the fresh berry business, I personally don’t have any interest in that. So that’s another reason I need to get out of the way. I just think there’s so much runway in fresh berries from our least developed markets to markets we have nothing in, like the whole Indian Ocean area. 

And how do you see the domestic U.S. berry market evolving and growing in the future?

It’s all about repeat purchases, and we can drive that with the consumer experience. We have a lot of work to do in blueberries, which I think we are now getting right, but we’ve got a lot of catching up to do in our blueberry program.

There are times of the year that are still weak, but the digital side has been a bit of a surprise. I think that’s true in produce in general — the amount of fruit that people will buy online. That growth has slowed down, but it has turned out to be a real branding opportunity. So reinforcing the consumer experience is really important in that area. There is also room for some new formats, like mixed berries, grab-and-go and things like that.

How quickly do you envision automation having a significant impact on the industry and helping it to rely less on human labor?

This is happening right now with blueberries, with some really effective harvesting and packing machines. The varieties have to be adapted to it on the harvest side, but blueberries don’t seem to be hurt too much. We invested a fair amount in strawberry harvesters, but we quit doing it. There’s a lot of work going on, and maybe somebody will come up with something. If they do, we’ll use it, if it works. Most of what I see happening in automation will be more in supporting activities in things like strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. So, some of it can occur; we’re seeing more controlled environment settings.

A little bit of a concern I have is, in general, the automation opportunities in produce are much more on the vegetable side, and all the fruit still requires a lot of labor. So fruit will probably get more expensive relative to vegetables, but they’re really not that interchangeable. A big job is to take more of the plate with fruit and vegetables, and less with animal protein or salty snacks or whatever. That’s a massive market — we just need to bring more of it into the produce world.

What do you think will be the biggest trends that reshape the global berry industry over the next 10 or 15 years?

Genetics will continue to be a major factor, and the techniques associated with it will also evolve. We got involved in that early on, along with a few other companies, extending the genetic footprint. The capabilities have tremendously advanced, providing more opportunities. Alongside genetics, there will be advancements in production systems. A big question in our business is how significant controlled environments — whether in glass or indoor — will become. I personally don’t think it’ll be that significant in the mainstream in the next five or ten years, but there is a role.

Demographics are a crucial factor, considering the interesting global demographic landscape with population growth, migrations and our commitment to feeding people. There’s a bit of bias in our crops towards the middle class and those with more financial capability. However, being a part of people’s diet is essential, and the demographic shifts in where people live and move will influence our industry. It’s challenging to predict, but demographics will undoubtedly be significant. 

With conflicts around human mobility worldwide, the third key aspect is climate change and our response to it. We operate in various regions, facing some inefficiencies, but we’re actively seeking ways to minimize our footprint and achieve more berries with fewer resources.

What advice would you give to young professionals in the industry who are aspiring to leadership roles?

I would advise getting your hands dirty and gaining a broad set of experiences. This is particularly crucial early in your career when it’s easier to move around. If you’re committed at an early stage and have the opportunity to take on something different, go for it — get close to the product. Don’t confine yourself to a theoretical world. Driscoll’s strives to create opportunity for everyone in the enterprise regardless of what level that an individual starts at. The business is complex and the broader breadth of experiences are valuable for future leaders.

What would you like your lasting legacy to be, both at Driscoll’s and in the wider berry industry?

I would like to be thought of as someone who treated everybody with a similar and high degree of respect, regardless of who they are or what their background is. And that both I and our enterprise created that opportunity for those who wish to pursue them.

That’s the main thing. I would hope that even our competitors would say that I was a tough competitor but always open and honest, and that everything all got done the right way.