‘We Must Reshape Perceptions of Produce’

John Anderson has helped transform Oppy from a modest $7 million company to a $1.4 billion global powerhouse, led pivotal industry mergers and balances his corporate success with a passion for aviation.

by Edward Vernon / Portrait photography by Derek Hader

A key figure navigating the dynamic landscape of the fresh produce industry is John Anderson, who serves as chair, chief executive officer and managing partner of The Oppenheimer Group (also known as Oppy), a grower, distributor and marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables that is headquartered in his hometown of Vancouver, Canada. Over the years the organization has become one of the leading players in the North American produce market. Beginning in October 2023, Anderson will also be the chair of the International Fresh Produce Association.

When he joined Oppy in 1975, starting in the trenches as a warehouseman, the company’s operations were modest, with an annual turnover of about $7 million. Fast forward to today, its sales have skyrocketed to $1.4 billion — a feat that came largely under Anderson’s stewardship, with the executive having led the company since 1993 when he became its president and CEO. By then he had also opened offices in the United States and introduced North America to fruit from Chile and New Zealand. Today the company has 20 offices worldwide.

Under Anderson’s tenure, a majority stake in Oppy was acquired by Total Produce, the Ireland-based produce company which later acquired Dole Food Company Inc. The deal culminated in 2021 with the creation of Dole plc, a global industry behemoth now listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Beyond his business interests, Anderson has a passion for flying. He acquired his pilot’s license as a teenager — even before getting his driver’s license — and since 1980 he has owned and operated the Vancouver-based corporate airline Anderson Air, which serves clientele with charter services across North and South America as well as Europe.

In 2015, he received a major recognition, being named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Pacific winner. Lui Petrollini, the award program’s director, noted at the time: “His integrity, work ethic, taste for innovation and commitment to transparency have transformed the company from a small operation in Vancouver to an international, full-service produce marketing force to be reckoned with.”

Vision Magazine recently sat down with Anderson to discuss: lessons learned from his early days at Oppy which guide his decisions today; how he embeds an award-winning corporate culture and an environment of continuous innovation; his perspective on how to move the needle on fruit and vegetable consumption; and where he sees Oppy in the next decade.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you first come to work for Oppy in the 1970s?

My dad was the chairman of the board of the Skating Committee at Capilano Winter Club in North Vancouver, and one of the other board members was the general manager of Oppy. There was a strike among Safeway employees, and so they had a bunch of railcars and trucks that needed to get unloaded in a hurry. He had seen I was a hard worker when I helped out at the figure skating carnival, and he asked if I could help. So, they gave me a shovel, hip waders and a 50-foot railcar full of cabbage with about two feet of ice, and they said, “You’ve got four hours to get all this out of here because the train’s going to depart.” Then they offered me a job in the warehouse, and a year or two later I ended up getting an offer from sales. The first thing to sell was New Zealand kiwifruit and apples.

And you’ve also had many other roles at Oppy over the years?

Every role imaginable. I was responsible for discharging vessels, collaborating with longshoremen, booking trucks, entering orders into the computer and handling category management. On the apple side, I coordinated with food editors in various areas to incorporate recipes using Granny Smiths into newspapers and with retailers to go on ad with them at the same time. And at the time there were prevailing perceptions about that variety. This was the same for kiwifruit. I think I undertook every role in the company back then, because we were a tight-knit team. When I joined, the company just had one office, and it had mainly been in the grocery business. It was quite small in produce at the time.

What lessons from those earlier years still guide your decisions today?

You come to realize how important everyone’s role in the organization is, and so you have to make sure you support those people, give them the tools they need to ensure everything goes smoothly from the ground up to the final consumer. If it doesn’t run smoothly, you’re not going to be successful.

Oppy has consistently been recognized over the years as a top employer and for its outstanding corporate culture. How crucial do you think a company’s culture is to its overall success?

It plays a critical role. I began thinking about this way back in the early 1990s when corporate culture wasn’t really a subject. As I traveled around the world, expanding from one office to the next, I wanted each new location to embody the same values as our original one. It wasn’t about replicating individuals, but having the same concept. So I got started developing an idea for a culture — I visited all our offices, presented my vision for our culture and sought feedback. Together, we shaped our organizational culture with everybody in mind, published it and then worked towards embracing it.

How do you go about embedding that culture?

It’s interesting. We have clear determinants for the culture to be infused with an entrepreneurial spirit, and key to this vision is our group called the “Champions of Change.” They aren’t the top leaders of the company; instead, they come from every sector, be it IT, accounting, transportation or sales, and they represent all company locations. Each year, around 20 of these champions gather to provide feedback on our culture, company operations and industry practices. Their insights contribute to our strategic planning process, giving us a clear picture of everyone’s perspectives.

We also do external surveys through independent consultants. We bring the Champions of Change together in Vancouver to review the survey results before I even have a chance to look at them. They then present the main themes and their recommendations, expanding our insights beyond the survey. This method has been hugely successful, sometimes yielding as many as 85 to 90 pages of feedback about what’s going on in the organization. What’s unique about our strategic planning process is that by the end, each of our staff members can pinpoint how their input was integrated. This approach promotes genuine engagement and greatly reinforces our culture.

Under your leadership, Oppy has seen tremendous growth. Could you share one or two pivotal moments or decisions that were key turning points in the company’s trajectory?

Two things come to mind, both of which took place around the 90s. One would be the development of a fully integrated IT system tailored for the produce industry. As we began operating from various locations around the world, this system allowed for seamless integration. It gave users the ability to monitor the product quality from the moment it was loaded onto a transport vehicle, throughout its journey and the subsequent delivery of a singular invoice at the end. This was a game-changer.

Another important moment was when we realized the need for diversification — not only in our company culture but also in our product range, clientele and sourcing locations. We are fortunate in the number of growers who trust us with their products, and feel privileged to represent them in the marketplace. Recognizing a demand for year-round products, we strategized to source from different global regions, ensuring consistent supply. Today, we offer over a hundred varieties from more than 30 countries, totaling over 50 million cases. These accomplishments trace back to our early strategies: staying at the forefront of technological innovation and understanding the significance of diversification in IT, human resources, products and sourcing locations.

How, if at all, has your passion for flying influenced your leadership or business strategies?

Tremendously, believe it or not. Whenever you’re flying from one airport to another, pilots rely on a flight plan. That idea inspired my approach to strategic planning. I tell my team that we need a roadmap, a clear vision of our starting point and our destination. Of course, like any flight plan, you will need to occasionally deviate due to unforeseen challenges, be it other aircraft or changing weather conditions. And just as in aviation, it’s crucial to have the right people in the right roles, whether piloting the plane or serving as its mechanic. And above all, we have to make sure we’re building trust. In the skies, lives depend on it.

From October you will be the chair of the IFPA. What will your priorities be?

It’s an exciting opportunity. I’m deeply honored to be chosen as the chair of the International Fresh Produce Association, succeeding Laura Himes from Walmart, who’s become a dear friend. Contributing to the industry has always been a passion of mine. I’ve been active with the PMA/IFPA and CPMA boards and various sub-committees for over 25 years. After completing those roles, I was surprised but delighted when they approached me to chair this new association in its third year. My initial thought was, ‘Why would they want an old guy like me?’ My wife was concerned about the commitment because of all the time I’d already put in, but she’s always been supportive, and she understands the importance of giving back.

The association aims to address numerous pressing issues in today’s challenging environment. Consumption and sustainability are at the top of my list. DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] is also a major focus. I’m proud to say that almost 50% of our board will be female.
Global advocacy is another key area, especially given the diverse governmental landscapes worldwide. And innovation is also crucial. Our convention in October will feature a segment focused on exploring available innovative solutions and our vision for the future.

Where do you see Oppy in the next decade, especially in the context of a rapidly changing landscape for the fresh produce industry?

We’ve been in business for 165 years, and we’ve really been able to figure out how to adapt to various challenges. We’re always nimble and always looking at new ideas, product varieties and new innovative ways for how to grow product. Our plan for the next five years is to grow the business by over 25%. But it’s going to be a challenge, especially with the current geopolitical situations that are getting in the way of a lot of things. And that’s where the association comes in to assist industry members in navigating these events.

Could you delve a bit deeper into Oppy’s partnership with Total Produce and Dole plc, and how these ties will affect Oppy’s future?

We first got involved with Total Produce in 2013. Both companies had 150 years of service in the produce industry. Over the years, lots of different private equity companies talked to me, but private equity wants five years of big returns. What set Total Produce apart was their long-term vision and their culture, which is closely aligned with ours. They saw an opportunity to expand into North America through a collaboration with us. After several years of discussions, we forged a partnership, and that gave us opportunities to liaise with their European operations and get some synergies together there.

This collaboration set the stage for Total Produce’s merger with Dole. This move put us in the position where we’re the largest produce company in the world. As partners, we’ve found lots of areas of collaboration, allowing us to leverage each other’s strengths and resources. Looking at the future sustainability of Oppy, we’re now aligned with some of the largest and longest-serving companies in the world that are in our industry — not other industries where they come in and try to figure out how to run your industry but have no clue.

What are some of the ways in which Oppy is innovating?

Our innovation department is constantly exploring cutting-edge agricultural technologies. We collaborate closely with our growers, recommending new techniques and sharing advancements. A significant portion of our innovation is dedicated to developing new varieties, from grapes to citrus and even kiwis. Our marketing team actively partners with various media outlets and events to ensure our products aren’t just sold to retailers but are also promoted effectively. We emphasize the health benefits and unique taste profiles of our products, likening them to the nuances you might discuss in a wine tasting.

We’re also delving into innovative farming techniques. For instance, we’re experimenting with covered agriculture that allows lettuce to be grown using 95% less water and eliminates the need for pesticides and human touch until harvest. In California, we’re elevating strawberries using trays positioned at waist height and sheltered with plastic hoops. This design protects the berries from adverse weather and offers ergonomic benefits for harvesters. Our goal is always to combine innovation with efficiency and sustainability. We’ve tested lots of robots on apple orchards with cameras to detect the color and size of the fruit.

How quickly do you see robots taking over a significant amount of tasks on the farm?

There are so many different factors to fresh produce that make it hard for automation, because robots can easily damage the products. But we’ve done a lot of things to help workers and make their job easier. We think it’s going to take five to 10 more years for that sort of innovation, but if we don’t have it done in 30 years we’re going to be in trouble.

What technologies or shifts do you think will define the industry over the next decade?

I think artificial intelligence will have a big influence on us in the future. It will probably allow us to predict and understand consumption patterns and consumer habits. It will pick the information up and say: ‘Here are the trends. Here’s the adaptation you need to make to be able to deal with those trends.’ That’s where I think it’s really going to help us. Maybe grocery stores will be able to use it to somehow boost sales of fruit and vegetables.

And as for other shifts, the world is becoming a smaller place, and so you have to adapt and make sure that you have all products available in all locations. So that’s an opportunity, and at the same time it’s a challenge. I think consumer tastes are changing towards tastier and more convenient products. And hopefully it will boost consumption. That’s the really exciting part of this industry — we provide great, fresh, healthy products to the world.

Vineyards in California’s San Joaquin Valley where Oppy is growing traditional and new grape varieties for the Ocean Spray brand

What do you think needs to be done to really move the needle on consumption?

The industry needs to come together and help put some dollars behind promotion. We’re fighting against some major industries like potato chips and snacks — they have massive dollars. There’s a perception that produce is expensive, but in actual fact it’s not. It’s actually one of the cheapest things on your table. We need to effectively communicate the value, taste and health benefits of produce. Just highlighting the health aspect isn’t enough. People always say they want to eat healthily, but they don’t necessarily follow through. Our focus should be on reshaping people’s perceptions, emphasizing both the value and health benefits of produce.

Given the close geographical and trade ties between the U.S. and Canada, how do you envision the evolving dynamics of produce trade between these countries over the coming years?

I honestly think that the next elections in both the United States and Canada could have an influence on that. The borders have been open for many years — it’s probably one of the best trade relationships globally. Around 50% of exports from the United States go to Canada, so there’s a great relationship between the two. As mentioned earlier, Oppy is now 165 years old, older than Canada itself. During this timeframe, we have come to rely on a great relationship between our two countries. I think that will continue, but the current geopolitical developments worry me.

For instance, in Canada they’re talking about limiting nitrogen in fertilizer to only 30% by 2030, and that’s going to have a big impact on our ability to grow our products. There are also discussions about eliminating plastic packaging for produce by 2026.
How are we expected to get our products to people? Those regulations could greatly influence consumption trends and cross-border trade. Through organizations like the IFPA and CPMA, we advocate for changes that benefit the industry. We need to be cautious about the ones we think are going to damage not just the industry but the general public.

What regions or countries do you think will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the North American produce market?

Peru is emerging as a significant player, as are some previously overlooked Central American countries, as well as Colombia with its avocado exports. And South Africa, which is traditionally not a significant supplier of grapes, plums and citrus for North America, is now gaining prominence in this market. Interestingly, China has nearly replaced Japan in the mandarin orange market; we see about 90% of our imports now coming from China.

Mexico’s going to continue to be a major supplier to North America due to the increasing costs of growing produce in California. It’s also getting more expensive to grow in Mexico, but they are still more cost-effective compared to California, though domestic growers remain critically important for year-round supply. Aside from costs, global weather patterns are shifting, and this is influencing where it’s most optimal to grow certain produce. You have to look at regions where you think you can grow better now than you could before, because that’s shifting too.

What worries and excites you most about the future?

The worry is that the world is a pretty crazy and unpredictable place right now. One growing concern is the increased involvement of governments in our day-to-day lives across many parts of the world. Often these governments might not fully grasp the complexities of our industry, leading them to enact regulations that could disrupt our product flow. Such disruptions aren’t just detrimental for our industry but also for the general public. Environmental shifts are also a concern.

But, I’m excited about the fact that we have great-tasting products which make people’s lives healthier. Even though we’ve had a lot of challenges getting there, it’s still exciting that we’re in a position where we can make that happen.