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Recognition: Salinas veteran Mark McBride calling it a career

Tim Linden

Make no mistake about it, Mark McBride is old school.

He is proudly going to take that characterization into retirement with him when he steps down from his sales position at Coastline Family Farms, where he has spent the final two decades of his notable career.

Mark McBride

Tami Guitierrez, vice president of marketing and sales for Salinas, CA-based Coastline, said the company’s vegetable sales expert will be sorely missed. “Mark is very dedicated to the produce industry. He is brilliant, quick-witted, very funny and has always been very committed to his work,” she said. “He always has a positive attitude with a love for life and his wife, Holly, who is at the center of it.

“We have replaced him with a veteran in the industry so we are not going to miss a beat from a business standpoint, but we are going to miss his presence and his wealth of knowledge,” Guitierrez said. “You can’t replace that.”

McBride grew up in the Salinas Valley and has spent his entire career selling Iceberg lettuce and other vegetables from the nation’s Salad Bowl. He has watched the industry change over the years and certainly has adapted and accepted those changes, but he still pines for the good ol’ days.

For many good reasons, contract sales have come to dominate the commodity vegetable business, but McBride misses the roller coaster ride of an ever-changing market. That allowed for the more experienced salespeople to use their market knowledge and gain an advantage in the timing of their sales on a rising or falling FOB price.

Mark McBride with Rick Horn (retired from Bonipak), Laura Burdick-Kirchmann of the San Benito Ag Land Trust and Denny Donovan of Fresh Kist.
Mark McBride with Rick Horn (retired from Bonipak), Laura Burdick-
Kirchmann of the San Benito Ag Land Trust and Denny Donovan of
Fresh Kist.

“I miss that terribly,” he said, explaining how it used to work, picking cauliflower as an example. “Every season you would have to figure out when was the right time to switch from fresh cauliflower to the freezer,” he recalled, noting that timing was critical. “If you could time the boom-and-bust cycle correctly, you could do really well.”

He noted that switching too late could leave a cooler full of fresh cauliflower on a declining market. Switching too early would leave money on that table. “If you hit it exactly right, you’d look pretty smart. I didn’t hit it right all the time, but I did most of the time,” he said, sounding more pleased at those memories than boastful.

McBride had a leg up in developing his extensive knowledge of the Salinas Valley vegetable game. “My father, Bill McBride, was sales manager for D’Arrigo Bros. (in Salinas) from 1948 to 1970,” he said, noting that health issues caused him to retire. “Growing up in the produce environment didn’t give me an instant love for the business. I actually wasn’t interested or attracted to the business as a kid.”

After high school, McBride went to California State University at Chico in the early 1970s with no overarching plan. “I was a free spirit, with no career in mind. In fact, I was always suspicious of kids who knew exactly what they wanted to do from a young age.”

However, he did start taking ag classes and realized that he liked the subject matter and found himself a major. In fact, during his senior year, McBride ventured down the highway to the University of California at Davis to tap into the knowledge of that well-known ag school for his senior project. McBride recalled that the research involved the Salinas Valley and its main fresh produce crops. He met with UC Cooperative Extension expert Robert Kasmire and his team and received mountains of data and slides to use in his presentation. “They were so helpful and gave me access to some great information,” he said, remembering how brash it was of him to even ask. By then he was hooked on the subject and wanted to learn as much as he could.

Rick Horn (retired from Bonipak), Mark McBride and Denny Donovan of Fresh Kist. The wives of these three produce industry veterans are sisters.
Rick Horn (retired from Bonipak), Mark McBride and Denny
Donovan of Fresh Kist. The wives of these three produce
industry veterans are sisters.

In 1976, McBride graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural marketing and was named valedictorian for the ag school that year, which is clear testament to how four years of college altered his perception of himself and the ag industry. Soon after he headed back to Salinas to start his career and his real education. He started as a birddog (crop inspector/scout) and buyer for Super Valu’s Salinas office. He traveled all over Northern California, where there was a thriving farming community, and got to know the vegetable industry from the ground up. He looked at cauliflower in Fremont, sweet corn and vegetables in Brentwood and visited virtually every farm in the Salinas Valley. “I spent a lot of time in my car,” he quipped. “You learn a lot, but it gets old fast.”

With that experience, McBride was able to land a spot on the sales desk of Sears-Schuman, a Salinas Valley grower-shipper that specialized in Iceberg lettuce from the spring to the fall. Those were the days when a company could thrive with a regional deal.

While McBride changed companies several more times in his lengthy career, those two years at Sears-Schuman sent him down the same basic path that he will be exiting on June 28, after close to a half century of sales. “I think because my dad was in sales for his entire career, I keyed into that from the very beginning.”

It’s been a worthwhile career. McBride is a noted expert on the vegetable market and is often quoted in industry publications (The Produce News included) forecasting market trends, analyzing supply expectations and relating how weather all across the country will impact both supply and demand.

He spent two years at Sears-Schuman before getting an offer from Mutual Vegetable Sales, a Salinas company representing five different growers, and having close to a year-round deal. “I went from selling 1.5 to 2 million cartons of lettuce to selling 8-10 million cartons. When I started, there were four of us on the desk. I went from low man to sales manager during my three years there.”

The increased volume led to hectic days, but McBride loved the action. He reminded that it was the late 70s and early 80s, all sales were tied to the landline. “There were no emails or texts or even faxes yet — and there were no contracts. There was very little value-added product at the time. Bud Antle (the precursor to Tanimura & Antle) had a small shredding plant but most everything else was sold on a bulk basis.”

In 1982, McBride moved over to the Salinas Marketing Co-op, which had a much wider range of product. “When I started, we had cauliflower, celery and lettuce and soon we morphed into a full line with broccoli, Romaine, greed leaf, red leaf… and we also had Salinas Valley asparagus for many years.”

McBride said in those years Iceberg lettuce was still the driving force of the Salinas Valley. Romaine and the leaf lettuces were being grown on far fewer acres. “Of course, most of the other lettuces have grown enormously over the past 25 years. In fact, Romaine is now No. 1. That was made possible by two words: Caesar Salad — that’s been the difference maker,” he said.

In the 1990s, the Salinas Marketing Co-op merged with the Salinas Lettuce Farmers Co-op under the newly named River Valley Marketing sales office, with McBride continuing to be the sales manager. The result was a more seasonal deal from the Salinas Valley. McBride stayed with the group through the decade before landing with Sun Ridge Farms, which eventually changed its name to the current Coastline Family Farms. It has been home for the final 23 years of his career.

Coastline has been a commodity shipper for the most part, which fit well with McBride’s preference and skill set. The industry has continued to evolve and though McBride is old school, he has evolved with it. He called Coastline a mid-size company with a full-line of year-round vegetables from several growing regions, as he said that is a necessity in today’s grower-shipper environment.

“It’s just so much different today than it used to be,” he lamented. “Contract pricing and the consistency of supply is the norm, and it is a requirement. Over the years, contracts have become a necessity.”

He said the buying community needs a reliable supply source at a pre-arranged price or they will shop elsewhere.  While McBride understands the concept, he argues that the contract price is often at a rate that almost guarantees long periods of very little or no profit. Escalator clauses allow the grower-shipper to up the price in a hot market, but not to the extent that it once was. “I miss the excitement of the roller coaster ride. It was scary, but you had some great moments.”

He remembered one late fall deal he had with the Salinas Marketing Co-op that brought a smile to his face. “We had a grower that always planted in the Carr Lake area. That year he planted 100 extra acres for a late harvest. Everyone asked, ‘What the hell are you going to do with that?’” McBride recalled. “That was a very wet fall with heavy rainstorms rendering many fields unable to be harvested. So, the market took off. We found an outside crew to pick that field and this little marketing co-op was able to dominate the lettuce supplies for several weeks. That was great.”

McBride revealed that the relationship between buyer and seller was also more complicated and more important in those days, indicating it required some special skills to thrive. “In general, the relationship was more adversarial than it is today, but if you had a good rapport with a buyer that could serve you well. They could pull your ass out of the fire if you needed it at some point.

“It’s just not the same anymore,” continued McBride. “There was much more satisfaction doing business back then with the people you knew and liked. It was more of a people business than it is today.”

It is not the evolution of the business that has led McBride to hand in his retirement notice. “I’ll be 70 years old on June 26 and my last day is two days later. It’s time. I can’t count the number of barbecues and family events that were interrupted because of the nature of the produce business.”

He said today’s business environment in the industry is much better but it is still a hands-on job. “I remember when we had the Salinas asparagus deal, you were on the clock seven days a week for five months.”

In retirement, he quipped, “I’d like to see what it’s like to be bored.”

McBride still found time to raise a family and live what he called “a great life.” He and his wife, Holly, met in high school, went to CSU Chico together and got married in 1976. While he was pursuing his ag degree, she received a bachelor’s of science in nursing, specializing in surgery. He quipped she clearly had the brains in the family.

The couple raised two great kids, according to McBride, noting that he was clearly blessed from a family standpoint.

He looked back on his career with no regrets. “I have known some great people in this industry and I have had some great relationships that have lasted for decades,” he said.

He also recalled that there are some bad actors as well. “I had some people who I didn’t get along with. In fact, one thing that stands out is that I witnessed a lot of women in sales departments over the years who were thrown into a hostile environment and had to put up with a lot of bull. I always made it a point to embrace everyone and appreciate what those women had to go through.”

McBride said in retirement, “my wife is going to take me to Europe. She went once and wants to go back. We’re talking about it right now. We will probably go to Italy, Switzerland and France and other parts of Central Europe.  That area has a lot of history that I want to explore.”

Tim Linden

Tim Linden

About Tim Linden  |  email

Tim Linden grew up in a produce family as both his father and grandfather spent their business careers on the wholesale terminal markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tim graduated from San Diego State University in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter he began his career at The Packer where he stayed for eight years, leaving in 1983 to join Western Growers as editor of its monthly magazine. In 1986, Tim launched Champ Publishing as an agricultural publishing specialty company.

Today he is a contract publisher for several trade associations and writes extensively on all aspects of the produce business. He began writing for The Produce News in 1997, and currently wears the title of Editor at Large.

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