In 2003, when Mark Zirkle took the reins of his family’s business, Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co., the company was battling some of its worst return times in 25 or 30 years.
“We were kind of going around in circles,” said Zirkle, who became president of Rainier, one of the country’s largest grower-shippers of apples and pears, following his father Bill’s 22-year tenure at the helm of the company he founded.
The solution was to go on what Mark Zirkle called a “planting spree,” growing more of its own fruit — and more of the apple varieties consumers wanted.
After that fast start, Zirkle hasn’t looked back. His first decade as Rainier’s president has also featured a major expansion of its cherry program and the addition of blueberries, organic fruit and wine grapes.
Along the way, Zirkle found time in 2008 to join Dalton Thomas, owner of Wenatchee-based Oneonta Trading Corp. and a fellow Washington Apple Commission board member, in spearheading the search for a new leader for the commission.
Rainier’s evolution likely won’t slow down anytime soon, which Zirkle says is fine with him.
“Change is kind of the norm in our industry, which makes it fun. We try to identify trends and then get ahead of them.”
Zirkle is the fourth generation of his family to grow apples in Washington. His grandfather, Lester Zirkle, started a packing business. Bill Zirkle launched the sales arm of the family business in 1971.
Zirkle said he always knew he wanted to join in his forefathers’ footsteps, even as a teen working in the warehouse.
“I started out doing all the manual odd jobs, which was good, but my dad always brought me into the big picture. He let me know why we were doing what we were doing, and it got me excited about coming back after college.”
After earning a business degree from Washington State University, Zirkle took a job managing the field staff and packing lines. Later he went into sales. Before becoming president, he worked for four years as Rainier’s vice president and operations manager.
Zirkle may have “president” next to his name, but he said he feels funny drawing attention to himself when it comes to pinpointing what makes Rainier tick.
“I’m just one of many. We have a big, very talented team.”
One of those team members is Suzanne Wolter, Rainier’s marketing director. Wolter said that while it can’t be easy succeeding someone as successful and well-regarded in the industry as Bill Zirkle, Mark Zirkle has shown he’s up to the task.
“He has big shoes to fill and is holding his own,” Wolter said. “He listens well to the people in place around the company and goes to his top management for input before finalizing company investment decisions.”
Chris Schlect, president of the Yakima, Wash.-based Northwest Horticultural Council, described Zirkle as a quiet leader who is highly respected by his fellow fruit grower-shippers.
Zirkle recently completed a two-year term as the council’s chairman, and he still serves on its governing board — one of many state and regional boards he sits on.
“He runs one of the largest fruit companies in the nation, yet still takes the time to work cooperatively with his colleagues from other tree fruit firms to resolve mutual problems and achieve beneficial results,” Schlect said. “Mark Zirkle is a good person to work for and extremely effective in matters of importance.”
Zirkle said he learned his leadership style from his dad, who has scaled back his duties in recent years but still keeps a close eye on Rainier.
“Hire the very best people, step back and let them do their jobs. People are amazed when they ask my dad or me some specific question and we say, ‘I don’t know, but I know we’ve got a guy who’s doing a very good job at it.’”
Let people do their jobs, Zirkle said — and make sure they’re enjoying it.
“Just keep them interested,” he said. “We have some of the most talented people in the industry. A lot of them could have gone to other companies, but they’ve chosen to stay.”