Rob Wedin Recognition: Living the avocado dream for 50 years
It might be too dramatic to say that the avocado has had a rags to riches career over the last few decades, but it’s not an exaggeration to note its meteoric and unprecedented volume growth in that time frame.
Virtually everyone agrees that the current cult status of the avocado and its ever-increasing popularity was impossible to predict and a very pleasant surprise. At least almost everyone.
“I can’t say that it was surprise,” said Rob Wedin, who retired from Calavo Growers Inc. in early November after a 50-year career that saw the avocado-centric company be his only professional employer. “When you are dealing with avocados every day, it’s hard to be surprised by the results. I’m not shocked; I lived it.”
He also noted that he has long been a devotee of avocados, which also colors his perception as he thought it was only going to be a matter of time before the world caught on to the secret he always knew: The avocado is a superfood that tastes great.
Wedin was born in northern Wisconsin about 30 miles from Green Bay, which explains his life-long love affair with the Green Bay Packers. He grew up in Des Moines, IA, where his father worked for Iowa State University. In fact, most of his family — including two sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins — went to school there and they were always part of the Iowa State family.
“Everyone but me,” he said. “I went to Iowa.”
The decision process that produced that outcome also guided Wedin through his career and life. He calls it “think a second time,” which he said is an ode to determining that “sometimes the obvious isn’t the answer.”
He said that philosophy has taken him through many decisions regarding the fresh produce industry and his long career, which spans many different job functions within the grower-shipper realm of moving avocados from field-to-fork. “Produce is deeper than it looks,” he said. “It operates on so many different levels of possibility and can get pretty tricky. It’s often wise to think a second time.”
Wedin revealed that he is guided by many different sayings and witticisms. He noted that during his retirement dinner from Calavo on Nov. 2, his many sayings joined him on center stage as his colleagues reminded him of his many truisms. “Hope is not a strategy,” is one of his favorites. Also on the list were: “You can’t manage what you don’t organize,” “Clean white piece of paper” and “Edit to three lines.”
His “think a second time” philosophy had him abandon ISU and head 115 miles east to the University of Iowa. He majored in sociology, which he says has served him well in his career. “My background is sociology which means I understand society,” he quipped.
What he didn’t know was how he was going to fit into society after graduation. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he admitted.
While he was in college, Wedin hitchhiked to California and liked the Golden State. After graduation, he did indeed move to the West, picking Santa Barbra as his destination.
It was February of 1973 and Calavo was headquartered in downtown Santa Barbara. Wedin got a job in the packingshed as a forklift driver. Soon he was elevated to shipping clerk. Just a couple years later, he was promoted to be the packinghouse foreman in the Santa Paula packing facility.
That was a seminal moment in Wedin’s life and career. “I was 26 years old and managing 75 people. It was a good job. It hit me pretty early that this is what I wanted. The people part of the job was great. I got married and we started our family.”
Wedin stayed in that position for a decade until 1985. At that point he was promoted into the headquarters office, where he got into the sales side of the business. Calavo has moved its headquarters over the years several times, requiring Wedin to move first to Thousand Oaks in Los Angeles County, then to Laguna Niguel in Orange County, and finally back to the Santa Paula area and Ojai when Calavo resettled in Santa Paula in 2005.
When he first moved into the corporate office, Wedin was involved in crop planning and estimates. He later got involved in sales and marketing. He noted that he first became a sales vice president in 1993 and is retiring with a loftier title and more responsibility, but in a similar position. Wedin said it wasn’t a long continuum of upward mobility. “I was demoted at least two times,” he quipped. “But I am a survivor. I learned a lot along the way.”
He noted that for all those years he loved the job and the commodity he was selling. “I grew to love the business I was in,” he said. “It fits my personality well. I like the action and being on top of what’s going on.”
At Calavo he served on the California Avocado Commission as well as on the Hass Avocado Board. He was also chairman of the California Avocado Inspection Program for many years. “That was a very exciting part of the job. I got involved in the industry and was in the middle of what was going on. I was the first person from Calavo to go to Chile and the first one to go to Mexico,” he said, speaking of the times that those two points of origin became factors.
Toward the future he sees no reason why the avocado won’t continue to increase in volume and demand. He does note that there could be bumps as it is always important to keep the retail price at a level that will encourage growth. “Growth will slow if price and volume are not in balance,” he cautioned.
He does expect continued volume increases especially from Mexico and Colombia in the foreseeable future. He also expects California to continue to be a solid player, even as volume is shifting from the more populated southern districts to the northern districts where there is more room for expansion.
Though he had opportunities to change the trajectory of his career and try other challenges with other companies, he never was presented with an opportunity that served him better. In the first place, he noted that “Calavo was super fair with me throughout my career. I was treated with a lot of respect throughout my career, and I appreciate that.”
Wedin also noted he loved the places he lived. Moving to California was another action that fit his personality. “Once I left Iowa, I didn’t go back (to live). California is more to my liking. I was very satisfied with my job and where I lived.”
He said even the moves were great. He started in Santa Barbara then when he was moved to the Santa Paula operation, he moved to Ojai. where he stayed for a decade. When Calavo moved its headquarters to the Los Angeles area, Wedin and his young family moved to Thousand Oaks. A few years later, the cooperative, which it was at the time, moved its offices to Orange County and the Wedins followed suit changing their address to Laguna Niguel in south Orange County. “It’s where my kids grew up,” Wedin said. “It was fantastic and a great place to raise kids. It worked out great for us.”
In 2005, the head office moved back north, this time to Santa Paula. Wedin moved back to Ojai, a half a block away from his original Ojai residence. It is the house in which he is retiring.
His retirement plans are fairly simple. “I’m not that into traveling except to go to concerts. I’m a music buff and a sports buff.”
He’s been into music since growing up in the 1960s and admits to going to at least one concert a month, plus many concerts being played at local venues. “Lately I’ve been into modern blue grass stuff that you might call alternate country,” he said.
Over the years, Wedin has enjoyed lots of different genres and has traveled quite a bit to see groups of his liking. He remembers going to San Francisco quite often in the early days, following the Grateful Dead and other known groups. Today, he visits the venue in Mountain View, above San Jose, quite a bit and in the not-so-distant past has attended concerts in Philadelphia, Dallas and Austin. “I guess it started in college,” he said. “I’d study during the early part of the night and then I’d go to the local establishments and listen to whoever was playing. I believe music plays an underrated role in making our world get better.”
Sports are another passion. “I’ve always been a Packer fan and I’ve been a huge Laker and Dodger fan since moving to California,” he said.
Wedin also mentioned that retirement will allow him to spend more time with his two kids, each of whom is married with two kids of their own. Wedin’s wife passed away several years ago.
Before exiting center stage, Wedin wanted to thank some of the people who have been great mentors over the years, including former Calavo CEOs Al Vangelos and Lee Cole. He also noted that current CEO Brian Kocher has been fantastic as has his entire sales and marketing time.
That led him to talk about another of his catch phrases, “Listen and Learn.” He revealed that he presented information to the Calavo brain trust at more than 300 board meetings. That gave him great confidence speaking in public, but it also gave him a great opportunity to listen and learn. “I’ve been super fortunate and had a great career,” he said.