"Expect the World from Us" - Leading a Business Transformation in the Food Industry

Bio: A teenager at the time, John Anderson joined The Oppenheimer Group in 1975 as a warehouse worker.  He soon advanced into sales and sales management roles.  In 1988, John was promoted to Chief Operating Officer and in 1993 he took over as Oppenheimer’s president and chief executive officer. He became the majority owner and in Chairman of the company in 2001.  John is also an avid aviation buff who holds a commercial pilot’s license and he has owned and operated the Vancouver-based corporate airline, Anderson Air since 1980.

Outside of the company, John established himself an influential leader within the produce industry.  He has held various director-level positions at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, including serving as its chairman in 2000 and currently sitting on the board as its past chair.  He has provided leadership in various committees within the U.S. Produce Marketing Association (PMA) including sitting on its Board of Directors.  John has held the position of Chairman of the PMA’s International Advisory Council, and has served as a Director of the PMA Retail Board.  John has also held the position of Chairman of the North American Trade Committee and Chairman of the PMA Foundation for Industry Talent.

John’s contribution to the produce industry has resulted in several professional awards.  He was named The Packer's “Canadian Produce Man of the Year” for 2000, and was chosen as Ernst and Young's “Entrepreneur of the Year” for Canada's Pacific Region in 2002.  In 2012, John became the only person to have been awarded “Produce Man of the Year” in both Canada and the United States.

Organization: Based in Vancouver, B.C., The Oppenheimer Group has been in the fresh produce business for over 150 years.  In 1975, when John joined the company, it was a single-office produce sales operation which earned just a few million dollars in annual revenue.  In the 37 years that John has been with the company it has become an international marketer which moved approximately 40 million boxes of produce in 2012 and generated a half billion dollars in sales each year.  The company has made significant and widely recognized advances in technology, food safety and security, and category management.  It has also pioneered new fresh produce varieties, nurtured direct relationships between the world's leading growers and North American retailers, cultivated sophisticated delivery networks and set standards for food safety and quality.

As one of North America's top fresh produce companies, the Oppenheimer Group now delivers over 100 varieties of produce from more than 25 different countries.  The Oppenheimer Group markets its own branded products as well as those of its partners.   The business is managed by a team of professionals who oversee 250 people located in more than a dozen offices throughout North and South America.  Since December of 2001, The Oppenheimer Group has been designated as one of Canada’s “50 Best Managed Companies,” as determined by Deloitte & Touche, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Queens School of Business, and the National Post and is recognized as one of the elite members of the 50 Best Platinum Club.

Starting State Consolidation in the retail marketplace was occurring as John took the helm in 1993. In the late 80s the Oppenheimer culture was that of a trading company and by the middle 90s it had become more of a brokerage firm brokering fruit between growers and retailers. John strongly believed that the company could no longer be a broker simply buying and selling fruit. With the changing industry landscape John believed that Oppenheimer could no longer be perceived as a middleman.
John also observed that the company had not historically shown sufficient concern for growers and that it needed to develop a strong relationship with growers based on trust, respect and consideration if it were to continue to be successful.

John also points to what he saw as an entitlement mentality during the mid-90s.  Much like the company positioned itself in the industry, employees positioned themselves as being out for themselves and sought to get everything they could from the company.  John observed that many sales people at the time were self-centered and individual players who did not believe that teamwork was necessary.  John observed that people worked on the belief that it was all “about them ... all about me and my needs”.

Beliefs Defining the Perceived Need John wanted to move away from this sense of individualism and entitlement that he believed would make the company inefficient, ineffective, and unable to perform competitively in a changing marketplace. In John’s words, “we were a company of golfers that needed baseball players”.  While others seemed unsure of this, John believed strongly that employees needed to understand that the company and the job must come first and “me” must come second.  He believed that the company had to be made stronger or jobs would be at risk and families might well suffer.  He spoke to how, in the end, every person wins by putting the company first.  He made it clear that people had to work hard at their jobs and could no longer assume those jobs would always be there given the changes taking place in the market.  He wanted to entrench these beliefs in the company culture. He believed strongly that a new culture of teamwork was necessary.

Beliefs Defining the Target State In the target state employees would believe in a new culture of teamwork internally and externally wherein all are treated with respect.  They would believe that the grower is critical, is a true customer, and should not be taken advantage of.  They would believe that the company comes first and that this is in the interest of everyone.  People would believe that they had to work hard and that they should not feel entitled to their job.  They would also believe that the industry was changing and that the company needed to make significant changes. Within this context they would believe that John was a capable and credible leader who was steering the company in the right direction.

Growers would believe that the company was there for them. They would believe that Oppenheimer existed for their benefit and not just to serve retailers. They would believe the people at Oppenheimer cared about produce and that the company was capable of meeting their needs. The growers would believe that the company’s systems were efficient, cost-effective, and could provide them with the best return.

Retailers would believe the company supplies high quality produce at a competitive price.   They would believe that Oppenheimer understands their problems, has innovative solutions and products, and can help them promote their products.  They would believe that the company could and would consistently provide the best quality produce, would stand behind its products, and could add significant value in marketing those products.

In John’s words, “We needed to believe that the grower is critical and we needed them to believe that we felt that way. We needed to have retailers believe that we added value to them and to do this we had to diversify, provide full-service, and offer year-round supply.  We had to take more control of the process and to set up systems, and we had to build a team-oriented organization that could deliver on this. In short, we had to ensure that all of Oppenheimer’s customers and business partners could “expect the world from us” if we were to realize our vision, reach our potential, and fulfill our mandate”

Beliefs about the Change Process: Although it was developed early on, John was not quick to go public with the slogan or the promise that all could “expect the world from us”.  He strove to first change the culture and second to build a cohesive organization that had the capacity to deliver on that promise.  In order to make this happen, John brought in outside consultants who were experts in key areas.  The senior management team developed core competencies that supported the new culture and designed a 360 instrument under John’s words “if our customers are to be able to expect the world from us, we must be able to expect the world from each other”.   John made office tours in order to reach every person in the company.  He also oversaw the development of IT, administrative, and reporting systems that would enhance efficiency and effectiveness and would support the change initiative.

In order to drive the change that was needed, John undertook a highly participative strategic planning process, developed a staff-driven “strategic planning advisory forum”, and created a staff-based “champions of change” program. Through involvement of front line staff John was able to reach the grass roots of the company and move around some of the less productive and strongly entrenched management philosophies held by members of the middle management group. Some middle managers left the company to work in organizations that were a better fit with their beliefs and John set about replacing them with people who understood the need to change, fit the new culture, and shared the beliefs that John wanted to see prevail within the company.

Emergent beliefs John notes that, in the beginning, many people in the company did not buy his vision and believed that he did not know what he was talking about. Scepticism and doubt prevailed.  Even the shareholders of the company were not fully on board with his vision and beliefs had to be managed both up and down within the company in order for John to be able to execute his vision.  John shows a sense of amusement about this now.  In his words, “at first they thought I was out in left field”.  They didn’t think we needed to make these changes. They were not aligned with the vision.  Some believed it was a consultant’s idea or whim.”  As all great leaders know, or perhaps come to understand, John believed that “The only way to address this doubt was with results” and that is what we delivered”. He knew that the requirement was to stay the course. In his words, “We had to be consistent in our drive and leadership around these issues. We had to keep the course and keep the message consistent and I had to be the driving force.”

Beliefs about the Current State: Upon reflection, John notes that “There will always be some confusion about what “expect the world from us” really means and that it does not mean that we do everything for everyone all the time.  Having said this, the new culture has been pretty much in place since 2009 and the company’s track record of success has been outstanding.  Many of the company’s people have only worked in Oppenheimer and because of this they do not always fully appreciate the success we have had or why.  They do not completely appreciate the risks in the marketplace or the reasons for our success.  We have been so successful now for such a long time that people have begun to believe that our success is a given. But it is not. We have to keep changing. Things are changing so fast out there that people have to believe that it is not done and that it is a moving target. We still have to continuously set priorities and develop the skills to be able continue to deliver the world on those priorities.”

John Anderson
President, Chairman, and CEO
The Oppenheimer Group

Dr. Robert Alan Morton
Psychologist, Leadership Coach