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Recognition: John Chamberlain retires after stellar marketing career

By
Tim Linden

To John Chamberlain, who recently retired after serving as vice president of global marketing for the Santa Paula, CA-based Limoneira Company, a good story is the key to an effective marketing campaign.

His life and career are clearly worthy of that ideology.

John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain

Chamberlain’s story begins in Michigan, travels to many corners of the United States, includes a significant stint in Switzerland, and Italy is poised to be his first retirement location.

“My father worked for the General Electric Corp. in Michigan when I was born but General Electric had the philosophy of moving its executive around every three years. We moved a lot including to Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco,” he recalled in mid-January, two weeks after his retirement became official.

Chamberlain received his undergraduate degree in marketing from the University of Georgia and his graduate degree in finance from Western Michigan University. Before joining the produce industry with Limoneira in 2005, he hopscotched around the country and worked for a handful of big companies including a major computer firm (Burroughs Corp.) and a large insurance brokerage (Fred S. James & Company).

In 1986, his life and career seemingly took a turn for the better when Chamberlain accepted a marketing position with The NutraSweet Company in San Francisco. Soon he was transferred to Chicago and then in the late 1980s became NutraSweet’s Northern Europe marketing manager, based in Zug, Switzerland. It was there that he met his life partner, Miguel Bermudez, which, in a roundabout way, led to Chamberlain’s produce career.

John Chamberlain, enjoying an apple in London.
John Chamberlain, enjoying an apple in London. 

Chamberlain worked for NutraSweet and the global engineering company Asea Brown Bovari during his eight years in Switzerland. In the early 1990s, Bermudez worked for another corporate giant, Phillip Morris, and was about to be transferred to Kazakhstan. Though the world was becoming more enlightened at the time, Chamberlain said it was still not an option to ask for a transfer to Kazakhstan to be with his partner.

Instead, the pair, who recently celebrated their 32nd anniversary together, decided that entrepreneurship was their best path toward working and living in the same place. After extensive research, they were convinced that opening up a bakery in the United States using European baking techniques was the key to the future. Chamberlain and Bermudez, a Guatemala-born Fulbright Scholar with a degree in chemical engineering from George Washington University, combined their individual talents and their shared love of the culinary arts to open a relatively small bakery in Santa Barbara, CA, after considering many other U.S. locations. Aficionado European Bakery was soon producing a shopping list of bakery goods from artisan breads to bread sticks to gourmet bakery snacks. The retail shop was doing great and the wholesale business was also thriving as the products were being sold throughout the West at retail establishments, including Trader Joe’s, Costco, Gelson’s and many other mainline retailers, niche markets and specialty stores. They were doing so well they opened up a sister location in the Los Angeles area community of Westwood. “Miguel handled all the production, and I was the sales schmuck,” said Chamberlain.

After seven years of building the business, they sold it in 2002.

In the meantime, Chamberlain was involved in residential real estate development in Santa Barbara and nearby communities. He also worked on international trade and economic development projects through his own company, Trade Trajectories. In fact, in retirement he will continue to help companies develop global strategies through that company.

The opening of the NutraSweet café in Sophia, Bulgaria.
The opening of the NutraSweet café in Sophia, Bulgaria.

It was while involved in many local projects in coastal California that Chamberlain met Harold Edwards, who became president and CEO of Limoneira in 2004. Edwards offered him a position as director of marketing and Chamberlain took it in 2005. It became the longest gig in his career.

He said it was the company’s story that intrigued him and modestly noted that it is that story that made his tenure at Limoneira a success. “It’s a 127-year-old company that grows and sells healthy products. Any idiot could make this company look good.”

During the past 15 years, Chamberlain and his team have focused on the company’s roots, its integrity and its sustainability efforts. They established a brand presence for the company globally and enhanced the firm’s reputation. “We created better packaging and emphasized the story,” he said. “Limoneira is the story of family farming in America.”

Limoneira, which means lemon land in Portuguese, was founded in 1893 in Ventura County by two growers and today is one of the largest lemon producers in North America. It markets its many varieties of lemons and other citrus products around the world. It is also one of California’s largest avocado growers with more than 900 acres. It has grown to become one of the premier integrated agribusinesses in the world, with almost 16,000 acres of rich agricultural lands, real estate properties, and water rights in California, Arizona, Chile and Argentina.

The street in Turin, Italy, via Garibaldi, where Chamberlain owns a home.
The street in Turin, Italy, via Garibaldi, where
Chamberlain owns a home.

Chamberlain, with his experience of marketing and selling consumer brands such as NutraSweet, brought a level of marketing maturity to Limoneira that he believes was relatively rare in the produce industry 15 years ago, but not so today. “I didn’t see it much in produce 15 years ago. But the industry has stepped up. It is more sophisticated in a good way,” he said. “There are many companies that are doing things in marketing that grab your attention at retail. Graphics are much better than they were.”

He believes produce marketers should continue to look outside the industry for ideas. “Look at what others are doing that is working. Look at the main-line products and what’s working for them. There are many companies in the produce industry now doing that,” he said. “The Wonderful Company is doing a wonderful job.”

While at Limoneira, Chamberlain was also involved in many real estate ventures — utilizing his earlier expertise — as the company developed some of its land into residential housing with the Santa Paula area becoming more urbanized. Ventura County has long been a leader in managing its growth as it began passing initiatives to save its farming heritage 25 years ago. Today the SOAR initiatives (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) require a public vote on every large project that proposes to develop rural land. Chamberlain said that turns every real estate development project into a marketing campaign with a great deal of public education necessary to win the approval of the voters.  With its many sustainability projects, including six solar installation across its property as well as recycling and water conservation developments, the company has a good reputation among Ventura County residents, which, no doubt, has been fostered by the work of Chamberlain’s team over the years.

Several years ago, Chamberlain and Bermudez bought a house in Turin, Italy, in anticipation of retirement. It is where they will be moving within a few months. He described Turin as a great city with more of a middle-class vibe, great architecture and perfectly located to visit much of Europe. It is in northern Italy, only about 200 kilometers from both Switzerland and France as the crow flies. “We love Europe. The distance between great places is so small,” he said, noting that his retirement life will be full of good travel and good food.

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