Imagine the joy of succession planning that happens all on its own. At Frieda’s Specialty Produce, with headquarters in Los Alamitos, CA, founder Dr. Frieda Rapoport Caplan works every day with daughters Karen Caplan, President and CEO, and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, Vice President and COO, and granddaughter Alex Jackson Berkley, Senior Account Manager, Sales. She couldn’t have planned it any better.
The decision to join the family business wasn’t automatic
Karen joined the company right after college, starting at the bottom taking inventory in refrigerated coolers. In college, she had not considered joining Frieda’s until a fortuitous dinner in her sophomore year with the company’s general manager, who said he would be retiring soon and knew Frieda would be looking for someone to take over the company in the future. “A few days later, I recall sitting up in bed in the middle of the night and realizing that I loved produce, I loved selling, and I loved my mom’s business. And that was when I decided I wanted to work there after college,” Karen explains. “No one was more surprised than my mother when I called and told her!”
Jackie never planned to join the family business. “In fact, I vowed that I would NEVER move back to Southern California,” says Jackie. “But as I travelled around the world post-college, I was asked on a regular basis what I was going to do, and why I wasn’t working in the family business. I decided to give it a go, and I loved both the challenge and the fact that no day was ever the same.”
Like her mother, Karen, Alex made her decision to join Frieda’s while in college. Her two internships at other produce companies helped her “fall in love with the industry and realize the value of a family business.” Alex joined the company’s marketing department.
Playing different roles in organic
Karen notes that her mom was far ahead of the organic trend. “Our first organic item was Jerusalem artichokes in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, we started marketing organic grapes and melons grown by Stephen Pavich and Sons. Now organics are more than 15 percent of our total business.”
With Frieda now in a well-deserved advisory role, Karen, Jackie, and Alex each take on a different role in managing the company’s organic items. Karen has served as the forecaster and trend monitor for more than 20 years, keeping Frieda’s ahead of the curve in terms of trends, marketing and product mix. Jackie oversees procurement, operations and compliance. Her teams actively source organic products and look for new growers around the world. From an operations standpoint, she manages compliance with all organic standards for proper storage, handling and repacking.
“My biggest concern is whether production will be able to keep pace as the demand grows for organic fruits and vegetables,” says Jackie. “The three-year transition period from conventionally-grown to certified organic means a delay for growers in getting premium prices for their organic products. Margins are thin so some growers may not be willing to make that investment. Packing both conventional and organic products in the same facility also is challenging because the facility has to be completely sanitized between pack jobs. Finally, growing organically can be more labor intensive. Given our current labor shortage, that could be a roadblock for some of our growers.”
Karen, Jackie, and Alex also bring different perspectives when deciding which new organic items to carry. Karen monitors demand in conventional items and tries to mirror that with organic, as long as items are available. Jackie looks for organic products with flavor, shelf-life to travel across the country and arrive in good condition, and sufficient volume to support customer demands. Alex leads organic category sales and is responsible for coaching the sales team on best-selling organic items.