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Kevin Donovan retires from solo act at Phillips

On March 31, Kevin Donovan is retiring from Phillips Mushroom Farms after spending the past 35 years as the sole salesman involved in selling the company’s entire production each day.

He told The Produce News that it has been a great ride and lived up to the expectations of the career he hoped for growing up in southeast Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 60s. Donovan, who was born in 1949, lived in urban Philadelphia and watched the many businessmen and laborers shuffle off to work in the early morning each day and come home late at night. “I decided in high school, I didn’t want to live in the city and have that kind of job,” he said.

Instead, he went to Delaware Valley College, which is located about 40 miles north of Philadelphia and had a long history as an agriculture school. It has since become Delaware Valley University and is still one of the leading agribusiness schools in the Northeast. “I studied agronomy and was looking at turf management and golf course management when I graduated in 1971,” Donovan recalled.

Fate stepped in and his first position was as a trainee grower of mushrooms in the Kennett Square town where mushrooms proliferated, located about 40 miles east of Philadelphia. In fact, his future wife, Patricia, who had also gone to DelVal, as it is called, first got a job in the mushroom business before Donovan followed suit. The two were married in 1973 with Patricia eventually exiting the mushroom business, having two children and establishing a long career as a teacher.

In the meantime, Donovan joined another mushroom company as an associate grower specializing in canned mushrooms. By the early 1980s, he was a plant manager at a mushroom operation when he thought a sales position might best suit his skill set. He soon took a job for a supplier co-op selling technical sales products to the mushroom industry. It was here that he did find his niche, discovering he had an aptitude and a passion for the sales process.

“In 1987, I approached Phillips about selling the 4,000 pounds of shiitake mushrooms they were producing every week.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Phillips Mushroom Farms was a pioneer in the Kennett Square region. The company’s legacy dates to the late 1920s when William Phillips launched a small farm in the area. His two sons, Donald and Marshall, expanded the business greatly in the 1960s and 70s to become one of the larger white mushroom growers in the country, producing about 12 million pounds per year. In 1979, the company began experimenting with shiitake mushrooms.

Donovan said Phillips became the largest grower of shiitake mushrooms in the country, but in the early years it was a specialty item that was sold in relatively small lots. “I sold 20-30 boxes at a time,” he said.

He recalled one of his early customers was Kevin Murphy, who would load up his van and deliver these specialty mushrooms to high-end restaurants in New York. It was that same Kevin Murphy who established Baldor as an independent company in 1991 in Long Island City. Phillips would sell the shiitake mushroom all over the country, often shipping the specialty product by air. “Amazingly, we were selling into the L.A. market,” he said.

By 1993, Phillips had divested the white mushroom business and concentrated all its resources on specialty mushrooms. “Our niche was oysters, crimini, the portabella, sliced portabella, baby bellas. We were doing up to 40 million pounds of specialty mushrooms each year,” Donovan said.

By 2007, Phillips Mushroom Farms was back in the white mushroom business utilizing state-of-the-art mushroom technology to provide superior mushrooms to compete in that market. But the specialty mushrooms, then and now, remain a big part of the company’s portfolio.

All the while, Donovan remained the sole salesman. While it seems like a Herculean task, and it surely was, he gives credit to the Phillips production team. He said they produced consistent supplies of top-quality product that made his job easier. “The people I work for are the best in the business,” he said. “I always felt I was working with them, not for them.”

Of course, he also credited the many long-term customers he has maintained over the years: “Many of these customers have become very close friends.”

He said it is the relationships that he will miss the most. Donovan was very active in the industry, always attending trade shows and industry events and served on the board of both the Produce Marketing Association and the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

He noted that he has had the good fortune to sell a product that has seen exponential growth in the past couple of decades. He credited The Mushroom Council and the marketers of mushrooms for pushing the health benefits of the category and enticing consumers to increase their consumption. He added that during the last two years, the pandemic has caused another surge in sales. Donovan said he is leaving the mushroom industry in good shape and the company in good hands. Several years ago, he began thinking about retirement and grooming the next salesman for Phillips. He has been working with Sean Steller, who comes from a fourth-generation mushroom farming family, for the past 18 months and is ready to turn over the reins.

Donovan does allow that the mushroom business has changed over the years, and it is no longer feasible for one person to carry the entire sales load. “Today, it is a seven-days-a-week business,” adding that the sales team at Phillips probably needs to expand.

In retirement, Donovan and Patricia want to spend more time with the four grandkids their two sons, Fran and David, have given them. He said any opportunity to move to a warmer climate was scuttled by his wife 15 years ago. “I was using my ancient snowblower to clean off the driveway and I started talking about getting a new job and moving to Florida. She told me to get a new snowblower,” he quipped, adding that the grandkids live nearby so moving is out of the question.

Major travel isn’t on the bucket list either. “Some people ask me if I’m going to travel,” he said. “I’m sure we will take some trips, but I’ve been traveling for the past 35 years. There are not too many places in the United States that I haven’t been.”

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