They are ubiquitous today, those bag-salad kits you find in the produce section of most grocery stores. But they are a recent innovation, one that truly disrupted a category. Since 1995, Taylor Farms has been doing just that: disrupting the produce department with bagged salads, salad kits, fresh-cut vegetables and other healthy foods.
Bruce Taylor serves as chairman and CEO of Taylor Farms, headquartered in America’s lettuce bowl, Salinas, Calif. Taylor Farms has 14 facilities in North America. I had the opportunity to talk with Taylor about human capital, innovation, leadership and entrepreneurialism. I found his answers both insightful and profound. I hope you enjoy the interview.
What keeps you up at night?
“Trying to figure out how to generate the human capital to keep growing at a fairly rapid rate. We have a very complicated business, and it has been difficult to find transferable industries where we can just re-pot someone. So, we tend to be homegrown leaders.
“When you’re growing at 10%, 12% a year off a large base, you need a lot of new leaders, and that’s the challenge we’re finding right now. The people we have are great people and we’re particular in terms of who we bring on. So, in a way, it’s a problem that we’ve created ourselves.”
What are some of the steps that you’ve taken to try to address it or overcome it?
“As an industry effort, the Produce Marketing Association has a center for growing industry talent. They’re going out to colleges around the country, getting people interested in the produce business. The message really for those college graduates is what used to be the produce business is now the food business. It’s a very sophisticated, high-tech business.
“People, as they become exposed to our business, suddenly get very interested. People love the thought of growing and producing food for fellow Americans. They understand the challenges and the opportunities from a career perspective. What we try to do is spread our story so people understand that, at Taylor Farms, there are software jobs, there are engineering jobs, there are marketing jobs, there are social media jobs.”
Who do you think with?
“I tend to be very curious, and so I’m always asking people questions, always trying to understand how people do things, how businesses do things. It doesn’t need to be in our industry, it can be in the computer industry or the car industry or whatever else. You can learn from every industry.”
“Every day, I try to discover something new that I can then use in our business. I’ve got a board of directors who I think are great financially and strategically. I really enjoy the strategy part of it. I set a clear vision for what we’re trying to do, what products we produce, who our customers are, who we want our partners to be and drive the business that way. Hopefully, people feel that if they think we’re headed in the wrong direction they’ve got permission to say, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t working.’”
How do you foster innovation?
“I create an expectation of innovation. In other words, I expect that everyone in our organization is thinking about that every day, even down to the accounts-payable person. What I keep telling them is if you’re doing the same thing next year that you’re doing today, we probably just fell behind. Innovation really is the lifeblood of our success.”
“We celebrate successes, obviously, and have permission to fail. You don’t get beat up for failure because obviously, that will discourage innovation.”
“We don’t have a department of innovation, if you will. Yes, we’ve got a deli engineering group and a retail engineering group, but they’re only one part of the solution. There are amazing opportunities for innovation throughout our organization and throughout our partner base with products and processes to improve what we do every day. People are really tuned into that. All I really ask is that, when you fail, and you will fail occasionally, you learn from it and communicate that learning to everybody else.”
What have you learned about connecting with and motivating people?
“From a leadership perspective, it’s finding what people are passionate about. Because, as you know, when you work on something you love, you don’t feel like you’re working. If we can get 20,000 people doing what they love, then we’re going to be successful.”
What advice would you give aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs?
“The food business as a career is a terrific opportunity for people, and particularly the fresh-food industry. Because you’ve got just a groundswell movement towards healthier fresh food. You’ve got a groundswell towards convenience. People don’t want to spend as much time in the kitchen. We’re really at the confluence of those two major mega-trends. The business opportunity then creates the personal opportunity for growth. It’s just a wonderful place to be. I think that people are going to jump on board.
“I remember Sheryl Sandburg talked at one of our kids’ graduations back east, and she said that if you’re trying to get a position on a rocket ship, don’t argue about what seat you’re going to get, just take a seat, take a seat and you’ll find the right spot.”
He ended by adding, “If it’s right for you, you chase it until you catch it. If it’s not right for you, figure out what is right for you and go chase that.”
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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow and become sustainable and investable. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.
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