(Web Editor’s Note: The following article includes updated coverage, and is a follow-up to a story we posted Jan. 31).

(Feb. 1) Naturipe Farms LLC is bringing in two powerful industry figures in a move designed to transform the berry grower and marketer into a more recognizable consumer brand, expanding sales and volumes.

Robert Verloop, vice president global marketing and licensing for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., will become Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms’ vice president of marketing, and Don Harris, former vice president of produce and floral for Wild Oats Markets Inc., Boulder, Colo., has agreed to join as its director of procurement and wholesale sales.

The moves, announced Jan. 30, were among the first for president and chief executive officer Bruce Peterson, who joined the Naples, Fla.-based company in August. As Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s senior vice president and general merchandise manager of perishables, Peterson is credited with building Wal-Mart’s produce division.

“We have some aggressive growth plans for this year, so this is the kind of talent we will need to execute against those (plans),” Peterson said. “Like anything else, if you’re going to go to the Olympics, you want to take the best possible talent you can take to go there. You don’t want B-players. These are clearly A-players in their specific areas of expertise.”

Peterson declined to elaborate on Naturipe Farms’ expansion plans, but said the addition of the industry heavyweights is a sign that the company has “pretty impressive plans.”

“The team we have assembled is not for the size of the company that we are today, I can assure you of that,” Peterson said.

The change meant the departure of Chris Mayhew, Naturipe Farms’ Salinas, Calif.-based vice president of marketing since 2004. Peterson declined to comment and only said Mayhew — who for 20 years was a marketing director of Salinas-based Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. — had left to pursue other interests.

Mayhew declined to comment.

Harris has 28 years of produce industry experience, working for Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc. in a variety of roles including field buyer, buying manager, warehouse supply manager and in Safeway’s corporate produce headquarters before joining Wild Oats in 2003. He plans to begin his Naturipe work Feb. 4.

Harris said he had been talking with Peterson about the possibility of working with him for years. Harris said it is a big change to switch from working in the buying end to the supply side.

“It’s not like walking into a retail establishment where you know inherently and exactly what you want to do,” Harris said. “I can’t say exactly where Naturipe is headed. But as I know Bruce, he will grow it in a number of ways. Procurement will be a developing deal. It’s a matter of being able to give your customer everything he wants and a level of comfort with everything you’re doing and offer him things that he’s not able to get from anyone else on a consistent basis.”

Harris, who lives in Colorado, said he wasn’t sure where he would move.

In the produce industry for more than 25 years, Verloop was scheduled to leave Sunkist Feb. 29 and start with Naturipe Farms March 4. Verloop said he plans to initially work out of his home office in Tustin, Calif.

Though Sunkist in the past had a small, short-lived strawberry program, Verloop said he wasn’t closely involved in it. Verloop said he looks forward to helping Peterson develop a strong strategic direction for Naturipe.

“It’s a continuation of the work I’ve been doing at Sunkist, where we have a healthy and on-message lineup of products,” he said. “The opportunity to get involved with a new category such as berries is professionally very challenging and gives me the chance to grow my knowledge base and to be able to take a company that’s in its infancy and help design its growth over the next five to10 years.”

Verloop joined Sunkist in 2001 as its director of sales promotion and advanced to vice president. For nearly a decade before that, he was vice president of merchandising for the California Avocado Commission, Santa Ana. He also managed California citrus and avocado groves and was as a grape, mango and lime production consultant with Pandol Bros. in Brazil.

Verloop will be responsible for Naturipe Farms’ marketing, public relations and government relations, consumer intelligence and licensing.

The additions are the latest changes at the company, formerly Global Berry Farms LLC.

In August, Naturipe Farms announced the departure of 31-year berry industry veteran John Shelford, who had been Global Berry’s president since 2000 but who had worked for one of the company’s partner organizations since 1976.

Harris and Verloop have served on many industry boards and groups. Verloop is on the board of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Harris has served on the Produce Marketing Association’s retail board and board of directors and was the chairman for the PMA’s Fresh Summit 2006.

Peterson downplays his influence in attracting people to Naturipe.

“I don’t think my name means that much at all,” he said. “But over the years, I have met a lot of talented people, and I think Naturipe Farms’ future growth plans are as attractive to those types of people as it was for me. So it’s really more about the business than it is about me.”

Naturipe Farms is owned by Hortifrut SA, Santiago, Chile; MBG Marketing, Grand Junction, Mich.; and Naturipe Berry Growers, Salinas, Calif.

Naturipe Farms also added Joao Felix, who began his information technology career at Dole in 1989, as senior information technology director and Rob Callahan, who previously worked for GMAC ResCap, as senior director of human resources.

Naturipe taps leaders from Sunkist, Wild Oats
Robert Verloop (left) and Don Harris have joined Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms LLC.