From retail to marketing and growing, Bob Mast’s passage from buyer to supplier brought him ever closer to the source of Washington apples, cherries and pears.

“It’s hard to move from the retail side to the vendor side,” said Bill Sage, vice president of Papa John’s Salads & Produce, Tolleson, Ariz. “Bob was with Fry’s for many years. To change that and go over to CMI, he picked that up and excelled at it. Not a lot of guys can do it. I would put Bob in the top two or three guys I’ve worked with in the industry in the past 35 years.”

Bob Mast, Columbia Marketing International Corp.Because he represents hundreds of tree fruit growers, Mast — vice president of marketing at Wenatchee, Wash.-based Columbia Marketing International Corp. — thought he should become one himself. About six years ago he started farming apples and cherries in a partnership venture.

“If growers across the state are entrusting me to go out and market their products and get the most I can for their marketing money, I need to understand every side of the operation,” he said. “It’s important to know what growers face on a daily basis — the challenge of operating an orchard and getting product to the warehouse in pristine condition so you can maximize returns and get a good product to the retailers.”

Mast, 46, came to Columbia Marketing International in 2003 from Fry’s Food Stores in Phoenix, where he was assistant director of produce, floral and nutrition for 107 stores.

Fred Bohanna, director of corporate global sourcing at Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co., which owns Fry’s, met Mast in 1997 when both worked at Fry’s.

“He was a produce manager, and we were opening up a new store,” Bohanna said. “You could see his talent in the quality of his work and that he really knew the business. I promoted Bob into a produce supervisor with responsibility for a group of stores, and then made a buyer out of him.”

A career of more than 20 years at Fry’s — a division of the Kroger Co. — brought him up through many roles, from produce manager to buyer and lead category manager.

“I tried to take those skill sets, ideas and what’s important to the retailer to this side of the business,” Mast said. “I remembered how my vendor community assisted me in driving sales and educating consumers and retail clerks. The advantage I gained is knowing which processes won’t work or are tough to execute on the retail side and which are more feasible.”

Mast started out with the worldwide distributor of tree fruits as director of marketing before taking his current role in 2007. He credits Mike Hambleton, his predecessor as vice president, for initiating him into the world of the grower-shipper.

“He did a great job of acclimating me to the supply side of the business and mentoring me in marketing,” Mast said. “Being in a support position and then transitioning taught me the importance of what a team could assist me with as a leader.”

The strength of CMI’s management and staff was challenged by the deaths of two founding partners — Glady Bellamy and Bob McDougall — in the past two years, and the retirement of a third, Nick Buak, in August.

“Glady was someone the whole industry looked up to,” Mast said. “Our resolve was sorely tested when that happened. The team just responded outstandingly. These were two of our best years at CMI.”

Apples total about 75% of CMI produce and the company has a substantial presence in pears and cherries. It accounts for more tha 10% of all Northwest cherries — red, rainier and organic. CMI also exports California-grown citrus, grapes and stone fruits to international clients. It imports cherries and apples from Chile-based Unifrutti, and pears under the Gaucho label from Argentina.

Other global alliances contributed to CMI’s deepening involvement with managed apple varieties in the past six years or so. Ambrosia was the first, followed by Kiku and Kanzi.

“We were able to get a bit of a head start on the managed varieties,” Mast said. “Ambrosia is just starting to get to where we’re able to do nationwide distribution, and it’s been exciting and fun to educate consumers and retailers. It’s difficult to put a new variety out in a sea of what is typically 700 to 1,000 items in a produce department.”

The goal was to make those apples stand out, and CMI did so initially with shipper units that brought the fruit off a shelf and into the middle of the department. A unified look — logos, point-of-sale material — was crafted for each variety to make it recognizable anywhere in the world.