Recognition: Midwesterner Jim Leimkuhler found his niche in California
Jim Leimkuhler’s produce career briefly began in Wisconsin potato fields, blossomed in an accounting office in Cincinnati and found its niche in the corner suite of Progressive Produce LLC in Los Angeles. From those different perches he enjoyed a long career in the industry, excelling in many different areas and working with many different commodities. After 35 years in the business, he retired from Progressive on March 31, 2021.
Leimkuhler’s journey began in the Midwest where he first became acquainted with fresh produce on his grandfather’s farm. “My grandfather grew sweet corn and sweet onions on his farm in Des Moines, IA. He used to load up his truck and sell it to produce managers at the local Hy-Vee,” Leimkuhler recalled.
Leimkuhler’s parents were teachers, and he had an uncle who was a newspaperman in Oklahoma, two facts that formed his decision to pursue a journalism degree at the University of Missouri. Upon graduation in 1977, he got a job at a produce newspaper in Kansas City. It was a short-lived career, but it was where he learned about Wisconsin potatoes, knowledge that would serve him well two decades later. “Shortly after I started, they sent me to Wisconsin to report on their potatoes. I was teamed with a guy who saved his per diem for dinner. We ate no breakfast nor lunch. I was constantly hungry.”
Leimkuhler’s boss proposed sending him to the publication’s office in Waco, TX. Instead, Leimkuhler quit and joined a sizable publishing company in Des Moines. This proved to be a wise choice as it unlocked his knack for business. He stayed with the company for seven years, becoming a department head and then a general manager of a division. He discovered he loved the financial aspect of running a business. Along the way, he noted that his career path was being stalled by his lack of an advanced degree.
He returned to college, attending Drake University, earning an MBA in finance and accounting. He and his wife, Marcia, and their newborn son were surviving on student loans by the time he finished his formal education. He secured a job with a public accounting firm in Cincinnati and became reacquainted with the produce industry as Chiquita was headquartered there at the time and was a client of the firm. After working on the account for a couple of years, Chiquita hired Leimkuhler to work in its corporate finance department. “I wasn’t looking for a job, but I jumped at the opportunity,” said Leimkuhler.
He remained with Chiquita for nine years, including a stint with the firm’s Banana Supply Co. subsidiary in Miami as vice president of finance and operations. This further exposed Leimkuhler to the different divisions of a successful company and solidified his desire to run a business at some point in his career. He loved the exposure to sales and marketing — really all aspects of the organization, which he learned under the tutelage of John Thatcher. “John Thatcher taught me so much about humbleness, hard work, integrity and how to be a leader. It was all through an example of how he lived his life. I will always be grateful for that opportunity,” said Leimkuhler.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew upended the operation and sent him back to Cincinnati to work at the home office once again.
In 1995, Ralph Bouchey, who was running Chiquita’s California wholesale operation, Progressive Produce, put together a plan to buy the company back from Chiquita, which had purchased it in 1988. Bouchey had enlisted Leimkuhler to move out to California to be the CFO of the independent company and part of the ownership group. It was a difficult decision, but Leimkuhler wanted to be in an ownership position and so he, his wife and his two sons moved to California to Orange County, not too far from where Bouchey lived. “We cried the whole way out. We loved Cincinnati, but we knew the opportunity was too good to pass up,” said Leimkuhler.
That was in late 1995. Unfortunately, in the spring of the following year, Bouchey died suddenly, and the deal was off.
Chiquita executives quickly turned to Leimkuhler and offered him the company presidency. He took it though he admitted that he was a finance guy and not a knowledgeable produce man. “I had to learn the business from the ground up, but I dug in and we put together a good team,” he said. At that time, Victor Rodarte had already been with the company for a decade and Leimkuhler soon hired Jack Gyben as his sales and marketing guy.
The trio put the company on solid footing and began exploring new programs and new commodities. Progressive was 100 percent potatoes and onions from its founding in 1967 to the mid-2000s. In 2003, after Chiquita had emerged from its 2001 bankruptcy, Leimkuhler, Rodarte and Gyben engineered a buyout from Chiquita by the management team. “It was always my dream and in the back of my mind,” Leimkuhler said. “We mortgaged everything and borrowed even more. There was a lot of blind faith in putting the deal together. We worked our asses off.”
Though they didn’t question their sanity, a prolonged Southern California retail strike beginning in October of that year materially impacted sales and did lead to many sleepless nights. It also caused the new owners to realize that diversification was a must. In 2004, a value-added line of microwavable potatoes was added to the mix. The following year, a number of Hispanic fruits and vegetables came aboard with an asparagus program joining the party in 2006. Organic produce was also offered at some point in the early years of the new partnership. Each of those programs have become an integral part of the Progressive Produce lineup.
Seven years later, the trio was able to pay off the debt they incurred in buying the company and Leimkuhler recalled a nice celebration. He said that validated their decision, as did the people he works with every day. “Progressive was blessed with great people and I am motivated by those people every day when I come into the office,” he said.
Leimkuhler, Gyben and Rodarte sold a majority interest in the company to Total Produce plc in February 2016. One year later, it acquired its longtime sweet onion business partner, Keystone Fruit Marketing of Greencastle, PA, and the company has continued to grow. Leimkuhler said the amount of capital needed to keep a company running and growing motivated the decision to look for an investment partner.
Even though Progressive is now much larger, Leimkuhler said it still maintains a small business mentality. He always emphasized to his team that the way to success was to always get better. Today, that core value is now embedded in the culture as the constant pursuit of excellence.
“Getting better was an easier goal than saying we had to grow a certain amount every year, which is tough in a commodity business. I just boiled it down to getting better. If we got better, we would get bigger. If we got bigger, well we just had to deal with it.”
With this philosophy, Progressive grew from a local Los Angeles potato and onion company into a year-round distributor of many different items.
As Leimkuhler prepares for retirement, he offers some advice to the next generation of leaders and those starting their careers in the industry, “Always look for where you can add value and make a difference. If you love your job, ‘own it’ and grow with it, and don’t forget to take some risks. I started out in a journalism job, became a CPA and ended up in produce. It’s rarely a straight line for anyone. Go out there and follow your dreams.”
He did note that while his formal journalism career was short-lived, he used those college-trained skills throughout his years at Progressive. “I had a hand in writing every press release,” he said.
Marty Kamer, who was previously president of Keystone was named president of the Progressive business in October 2018. Kamer will continue to lead the company with industry veterans, including Leimkuhler’s son, Scott Leimkuhler.
“I didn’t hire Scott. He was hired by Victor, but I was never more proud when came to me and said he was going to be a produce man,” he said, adding that he is equally proud of his other son who took another path and is now an attorney.
A produce man is also an excellent moniker for Leimkuhler, though he said when he was a young man in the Midwest there was probably a greater chance that he would have ended up as an inmate in Leavenworth in Kansas than a produce company owner in California.