Joe Pezzini steps down after long Ocean Mist relationship
Joe Pezzini likes to say his family were small family farmers before it was in vogue.
He grew up in the Salinas Valley, which is where his grandfather, Giuseppe Pezzini, and his father, Angelo Pezzini, landed after immigrating from Italy in the 1930s. His grandfather started farming and growing artichokes in the Carmel Valley, near Highway 1, where the crop was a recipient of the cool ocean breezes.
Angelo was just a teenager when he arrived in the United States, but six years later he was back in Europe, representing the United States as a U.S. soldier during World War II. It was in the late 1940s and ‘50s that the Castroville area was building its reputation as the “Artichoke Capital of the World.”
Pezzini said there was available land in the area and many Italian immigrants, who were familiar with the artichoke from their home land, settled in the area and grew the perennial crop. The Pezzinis were among them as Giuseppe and Angelo moved their farming operation from the Carvel Valley to Castroville after WWII.
It was in this environment that Joe Pezzini was born in 1959. The family lived in Salinas and grew artichokes in Castroville. “I loved being a farm kid. I saw it was a lot of hard work but that’s what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I saw a vibrant future in agriculture.”
After graduating from high school, he went to Hartnell College in Salinas for two years before transferring to U.C. Davis, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Management. But Pezzini was not done with his schooling. He believed he still needed more formal education for his chosen career. He spent the next 18 months at the University of Santa Clara earning an MBA in Agricultural Business Management.
Today Santa Clara is in the heart of what is called Silicon Valley, with technology as its main crop. But in much of the century before this one, it was in the heart of what was just called Santa Clara Valley, with a rich agricultural history. As such, the university had an on-site farm and a solid ag curriculum.
By the time he graduated in 1983, Joe’s father had sold the farming operation to Guido Pezzini, a cousin of his. “That family still runs the farm stand on Highway 1 (near Castroville),” he said.
Joe, whose given name is also Giuseppe, went to work for Ed Boutonnet of Boutonnet Farms, which was part of the Ocean Mist Farms Family (called the California Artichoke and Vegetable Growers Corporation at that time). Boutonnet, in fact, served as chairman of the board and CEO of Ocean Mist for many years and was Pezzini’s predecessor as CEO. The company started doing business under the Ocean Mist Farms name, which was its label, about 25 years ago.
After four years with Boutonnet Farms, Pezzini and Troy Boutonnet launched a custom harvesting business to essentially provide the farm labor to harvest the crops for Boutonnet[TL1] Farms and other Ocean Mist growers. Today, Valley Pride Inc. continues as a custom harvesting company and Pezzini is still a partner in that business.
Technically, Pezzini did not work for Ocean Mist during those years, though he said he might as well have been an employee as he was running the harvesting operations for many of its farms through the Valley Pride affiliation. In 2000, Pezzini did officially join Ocean Mist as vice president of operations. “It was a perfect fit for me,” he said, as he basically moved from running the harvesting operation for growers to running the post-harvesting operation for the company. Ten years later, he was named chief operating officer and, in 2015, was named CEO when Boutonnet stepped down. “I had big shoes to fill,” he quipped.
Pezzini’s tenure with Ocean Mist was officially a 21-year run, but unofficially it dates back to the mid-‘80s and is closer to a 35-year relationship. During that time, he said the organization went from a seasonal shipper of artichokes, broccoli and fennel to a year-round grower-packer-shipper of dozens of vegetable crops with a solid line-up of both conventional and organic production. He remembers the winter deal was started in the late 1980s, with crops added on a continuous basis over the last 30 years. The company grew organic artichokes for a couple of decades before building the robust organic department while Pezzini was COO and Ed Boutonnet was still wearing the CEO moniker.
“When I was named CEO in 2015, the goal was to transition from a long-time, venerable, 100-year-old family run organization to one run by a non-family member,” Pezzini said.
He added: “I think my biggest accomplishment was to modernize the business aspect of it.”
For example, he said truck loading was always accomplished on a first come, first loaded basis. “We instituted a warehouse management system with loading by appointment.”
The modernization also included leading the company’s marketing effort in a new direction. During his tenure as CEO, Ocean Mist developed its social media presence — marketing directly to consumers. “This has become the focal point of our digital marketing efforts. Most importantly, giving us the channel to interact directly with artichoke consumers,” he said.
He also oversaw a $20 million upgrade to the firm’s Coachella Valley facility and established a tracing and labeling program that utilized GTIN numbers. “We have now taken it a step further and are integrating blockchain technology.”
Pezzini is also proud of the team he has assembled at Ocean Mist. “We’ve brought in a lot of new talent and a new leadership team,” he said.
The outgoing CEO pointed to the modernization of Ocean Mist’s food-safety procedures as another important achievement that occurred while he was a members of the organization’s senior leadership team. Indeed, the produce industry, and even the world at large, became well acquainted with Pezzini during the spinach crisis of 2006. In the fall of that year, an E.coli outbreak connected to eating fresh spinach occurred that infected about 200 people with three deaths. Spinach was pulled off the shelves, sales collapsed, and it took many years for a complete rebound. At the time, Pezzini was the chairman of the Salinas, CA-based Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.
“It was a defining moment of my career,” he said.
He explained that in those days, the normal reaction of produce companies when the press came calling “was to lock our doors and pull down our curtains.” Talking to the press typically fell on the shoulders of the produce associations. “I had to step forward and represent the industry,” he remembered.
Ocean Mist was a spinach grower, so Pezzini did have subject matter expertise but talking to the press was another thing altogether. “I had to learn on the job,” he said.
He did, and he conducted countless interviews with reporters explaining how the produce industry operates. “We were in a tough situation with the mentality that we had to get through it,” he said.
Pezzini also was materially involved in the creation of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement that the industry designed to improve its food-safety procedures and create some trust in the products that it once again would put on the produce department shelf. He received very high praise from the produce industry for his efforts and became chairman of the LGMA board for the first three years of its existence and stayed on the board for a decade.
Pezzini said the announcement that he was relinquishing his post as CEO of Ocean Mist came after much thought and discussion with the board. “It was a very hard decision,” he said, noting that the process he was hired to carry out is basically completed. There is a new team in place, and he is very proud of the current positioning of Ocean Mist Farms.
“With the accomplishments of our internal realignment, creation of Ocean Mist Foods and a new strategic plan for the future, I feel the time is right to hand the next chapter of Ocean Mist Farms to new leadership,” he said. “Given the changes in the marketplace, this new direction is understandably different from the past and will require different skills and resources.”
He just as quickly dispelled any thought that he is riding off into the sunset. “I’m not retiring. I still have much to give. I am going to take some time off and use up some of that deferred vacation time, but I plan to look for new opportunities,” he said.