DINUBA, Calif. — Sheri Mierau, president of the Reedley-based California Tree Fruit Agreement, plans to leave the organization at the end of the year to become vice president of sales and marketing effective Jan. 1 for Fruit Patch Sales LLC, Dinuba.
Mierau’s stone fruit marketing expertise and her retail experience proved to be the perfect combination for the position, said Scott Wallace, president and chief executive officer for Fruit Patch.
“We share the vision that we shouldn’t be talking about balancing supply and demand, but rather how to grow the demand,” said Wallace, who joined Fruit Patch July 13. “The addition of Sheri will allow us to take grower returns to the next level in 2010 and for many years to come.”
Mierau was vice president of marketing for the tree fruit agreement for three years before taking over as president in January 2007. The decision to leave the organization was not an easy one, she said, but the opportunity was timely.
“I’m truly excited about getting back into sales and marketing,” Mierau said. “It’s time for me to go back to what I truly love.”
Before joining the Tree Fruit Agreement, Mierau was the director of produce for Ahold USA Inc., Chantilly, Va. Earlier in her career, she worked in sales and buying positions for Safeway, Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., and Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Working for Fruit Patch is not new to Mierau, a Reedley-area native and the daughter of growers. Her relationship with the company dates back to her teenage years when she spent five summers working in the Fruit Patch packing shed, she said.
During the past three years, Mierau has overseen a member-directed restructuring of the tree fruit agreement to concentrate on consumer and category research, trade education and industry resources while abandoning the domestic market development program.
“It was a great experience to work with the whole industry I grew up in,” she said.
The organization’s executive committee is scheduled to meet Dec. 16 to discuss plans for selecting Mierau’s successor. Among the options is to retain an executive search firm, Mierau said. The process of determining her successor could take two to three months, she said.
Fruit Patch on the rebound
Founded by Leo and Rosalie Balakian in 1975, Fruit Patch was for several decades one of California’s fresh fruit marketing heavyweights. The past three years have been a rocky period for the company, however.
American Capital Strategies Ltd., a Bethesda, Md.-based venture capital firm, acquired 80% of Fruit Patch from the Balakian family in 2006. By the end of 2007, most of the marketing staff had left Fruit Patch. Wallace is the company’s third president since the American Capital purchase, and Mierau will be the fourth person to direct the sales and marketing department.
“We will pack and market about 6 million cartons this year,” Wallace said.
In the not too distant past, the company’s annual volume was about 12 million cartons.
“This season, we improved returns to growers over 2008 by $4.3 million, even with the much smaller stone fruit volume,” Wallace said. “If we had gotten those prices in 2008, the increase would have been about $10 million.”
The 2009 packout of peaches, plums and nectarines is 45.5 million cartons as of Dec. 1, according to CTFA data. The 2008 volume was nearly 59 million cartons.
To reinforce the company’s commitment to growers, American Capital has earmarked $12 million in advance grower funds for the 2010 crop, Wallace said.
“Our goal is to be the premier packing and marketing house in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. “We’re here for the growers to help them serve retail and foodservice; the growers’ success is our success.”
Fruit Patch packing and cold storage facilities were upgraded recently and the company has transitioned to 100% totes for field-to-packinghouse operations, he said.
Mierau is the final piece of his Fruit Patch rebuilding puzzle, Wallace said.
“I inherited a good, strong team from field management to quality assurance to packing and storage operations,” he said. “And we have an outstanding marketing staff.”
“We’ve had a great year, and bringing Sheri Mierau on board further cements our commitment to the tree fruit Industry and our growers,” said Wil Garland, Fruit Patch chairman of the board.
The two major challenges facing the stone fruit industry, Wallace said, are increasing consumption and securing higher prices for growers.
“A fundamental issue is that consumption over the last decade or so has been flat to declining,” he said. “But we have made progress on variety management.”
Wallace is pleased with all of the varieties of stone fruit that Fruit Patch now offers, “but there may be opportunities that are even better in some time slots,” he said.
To help find those opportunities, he said, Fruit Patch has retained Fruit Dynamics Inc., Fresno, a firm that has converted years of data into 13 measurable standards for stone fruit taste and consistency.
“The industry has made big gains, but we’re 90% to 95% of where we need to be,” Wallace said.
Improved taste and consistency will help to increase consumption, but the industry also needs to increase the average purchase from individual pieces of fruit to multiple pieces of fruit, he said. That could mean the use of new merchandising tools such as clamshells or mesh bags.
Another industry challenge, Wallace said, is convenience.
“Few people have the time these days to bake peach pies and cobblers,” he said. “The industry needs to develop quick and easy recipes.”
While stone fruit remains a strong player in the company’s inventory, Fruit Patch plans to continue to market other commodities, Wallace said. The sales staff is working on the fall persimmon, kiwifruit and Asian pear crops. In response to its growers, Fruit Patch also is marketing specialty citrus, mandarins and satsumas, he said.
For 2010, the company also plans to expand its table grape grower base.
“We want to partner with growers and to help grow their businesses,” he said. “Now we have to get that fruit into the mouths of consumers.”