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Stemilt’s Roger Pepperl retires… after two great careers

By
Tim Linden

Most people are lucky to find one great job, let alone two. Yet that descriptor defines the more than 40 years Roger Pepperl patrolled the produce sector, leaving his mark on both the buying and selling of fresh produce.

His career was split in half between Michigan and Washington and between retailer Meijer and fruit producer Stemilt. The common thread for Pepperl was that both jobs involved marketing, which he said is in the wheelhouse of his skill set. In fact, it was his marketing of cherries at the retail end that led to his position as a supply side marketer.

Though he was born in Chicago, Pepperl was raised in Michigan, which is where his produce journey began. “I grew up in the southwest corner of the state in St. Joes (St. Joseph, MI),” he said. “My dad was an executive with Whirlpool for 35-40 years, which was started in that same small town. It is in the heart of Michigan’s fruit belt.”

That area clearly influenced Pepperl’s education choices. “I went to Michigan State University back in the 1970s and studied horticulture. I graduated with a degree in horticultural science. I have been a Spartan for 42 years,” he added proudly, noting that he also married an MSU grad.

Upon graduation, Pepperl’s wife, Joni, who is a writer, secured a position in her field while he went to work for a nursery in a job that used his horticultural learnings but didn’t pay that well.  It was 1979 and the United States was heading into a recession.  “I needed a better job and Meijer was hiring college graduates,” he said.

Pepperl did work as a produce clerk while in high school and he did have that horticultural degree; he believes those two  résumé builders secured him a job at a Meijer store in Sterling Heights, near Detroit, working in the produce department. He and Joni made the move as she had little trouble securing a new job as an associate editor at an outdoor magazine in the area. “I married up,” Pepperl admitted.

“I stayed in that store for four years,” he said. “Back then, being a produce manager was a career job.”

Bob Summers was his first boss, with Pepperl calling him “the best produce director I ever met.” He taught him the ins and outs of the business and the power of the personal touch. “He was tough, but he really cared about me and my career,” Pepperl said.

Meijer is headquartered in Grand Rapids, but its produce buying office is in Lansing, which borders East Lansing, the home of the Michigan State Spartans. The Pepperls were not disappointed at all when Roger was promoted to the buying office, which is where he spent the next 17 years of his career. The year was 1983 and it was at this point that the young Pepperl began to consider the retail produce industry as his career. “I seemed to like it, they paid well, and it was a secure job.”

When he began buying produce for Meijer they had about 35 stores. When Pepperl left the chain in 2000, the retailer had grown to 175 stores and now they are pushing 260. “I was a buyer and a merchandiser,” he said. “During my career I bought everything at one time or another. They start you off on produce items where there is room for error… where you can do less damage.”

His career transcended that phase and moved to many other items. It was when he was the apple and cherry buyer that he met Tom Mathison, who had founded Stemilt in 1964. “He is an icon in the apple history books,” said Pepperl.

At Meijer, Pepperl had a sweet spot for the merchandising and marketing disciplines in the produce department. “I liked marketing produce and building sales,” he said, adding that he loved getting in new products he could help grow.

He also liked collaborating with suppliers. In this role, he worked with Mathison on a new way to merchandise cherries. “We were the first retailer to sell random weight bagged cherries,” he said. “We ended up tripling our sales.”

Pepperl ended up creating a lasting relationship with the late Mr. Mathison. “He was a friend and a father figure. He really cared about what he was doing, and I was that way also. I think we connected on that level,” Pepperl said.

Pepperl believes that if you work hard enough and care about what you do, you will get job offers. He had turned down some job offers prior to meeting Mathison, but Mathison was a good salesman and appealed to Pepperl’s marketing predilection. “Tom wanted somebody to specifically do marketing. He loved to tell stories and wanted someone to use that marketing technique to tell their story,” Pepperl said.

Stemilt was a leader in varietal development and an innovator in packaging and merchandising. “I was excited to come to Stemilt to market their items and build their sales,” Pepperl said. “I did see myself as a marketer and knew that was part of my skill set.”

Moving across country and taking a new job was a tough family decision. Pepperl loved his career at Meijer. “The last day at Meijer was as good as the first,” he said, noting that a two-job, 40-year career speaks to his nature. “We had a 13-year-old-son who wasn’t excited about the idea. We had to sell a house and buy a house (they still live in it). Everyone said Washington is a beautiful state and it is, but so is Michigan.”

But move they did, with no career regrets. Pepperl said the only thing that has caused him pause over the years is that both he and his wife have moms still back in Michigan, now in their 90s. They do visit a lot but that distance, he noted, would be the only cause for regret.

At Stemilt, Pepperl started with one guy doing everything and has built the marketing department to a staff of seven. They have created a toolbox of collateral material, launched many brands, developed a consistent look and believe they have put together one of the industry’s best website and social media programs.

Pepperl said it was an evolutionary process, but he is proud of being able to incorporate Tom Mathison’s storytelling vision into the company’s marketing strategy. He believes word-of-mouth is the best marketing tool and he leaves Stemilt knowing he has helped communicate to the industry at large what a “delightful and fantastic family” the Mathisons are, with the fruit producer now being led by West Mathison, Tom’s grandson.

Pepperl has been involved in many “cool projects” and it was difficult for him to single out one that stands out above the others. However, he did mention Stemilt’s A Half Mile Closer to the Moon cherry brand, which literally stands out above the others. The marketing pro noted that the company name itself comes from Stemilt Hill, which is where the Mathison family’s homestead of 160 acres was started in 1893. In that area there are quite a few cherry orchards at altitudes of 1,200 to 2,000 feet above sea level. Stemilt pioneered growing cherries at that altitude and marketing them later in the season. Late cherries were still on the market in late July with the Hill Cherries designation being a common moniker. As other growers duplicated Stemilt’s success, Kyle Mathison, one of Tom’s sons, started growing cherries at an even higher altitude — as much as 3,700 feet above sea level — which is more than a half-mile above sea level. Pepperl branded those cherries as A Half Mile Closer to the Moon, with the industry calling them Moon Cherries. Stemilt has created several different marketing aids to sell this fruit, and it has done very well. They are the latest-producing cherries in the industry with Stemilt marketing them typically during the last three weeks of August, which was considered an impossibility years ago.

Pepperl likes the story of the Moon cherries because it clearly and vividly illustrates his marketing strategy. “We de-commoditize everything we grow,” he said, adding that “commoditization is the cancer of our industry.”

In retirement, the Pepperls plan to travel (post COVID-19) as well as hike, volunteer (especially with groups that help animals in need) and become “the best grandparents in the world.”

He noted that the move 20 years ago to Washington was made easier because the three members of the Pepperl family were exceptionally close and relied on each other as they familiarized themselves with a new area and a new community. Today, the family has grown by two as son, Alex, has married and has a new daughter. That faction of the family lives in Seattle, which will keep the Pepperls in the Northwest for the foreseeable future.

 

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