Lorri Koster, Mann Packing Co.
Lorri Koster, Mann Packing Co.

Since Lorri Koster became co-chairwoman of Salinas, Calif.-based Mann Packing Co., the former communications consultant has only gotten better at speaking your language.

No matter who you are.

“She can take the viewpoint of a parent, a marketer, grower, processor or consumer and immediately sum up the issues faced by that group,” said Kelly Dietz, director of Eastern sales at Grimmway Farms, who’s known Koster for 15 years.

“She just has a way.”

Part of the family business’ third generation, Koster, 44, spent 10 years with Mann Packing in her first stint there. She left in 2000 and shifted her focus to raising two sons with husband Tom Koster.

But Koster, vice president of marketing at Mann, couldn’t keep away.

“It’s just in your blood,” Koster said. “Even when I wasn’t working here full time, I would constantly e-mail or call my brother (Joe Nucci) and say, ‘What are you doing, why not do this?’”

That prompted Nucci, who was president of Mann Packing, to invite her back as a consultant.

In 2000, she formed Koster Communications and began market consulting for Mann Packing, Gills Onions and Grimmway Farms. In 2002, she bought Coastal Grower magazine and remains the quarterly’s editorial director.

“I’d work a few days a week while my kids were in school,” Koster said. “When I did have to come back to Mann full time, I was pretty much up to speed.”

That transition to co-chairman came suddenly, in 2006 after the death of her father and predecessor, Don Nucci. Just the year before, Joe Nucci died at 40 from a heart attack.

“Lorri made tougher choices than most of us will ever face, and she did it because she wanted to, not because she had to,” said Steffanie Smith, chief executive officer at Hermiston, Ore.-based River Point Farms.

“With her sisters’ support, she continued to grow the company on the path her brother and father had set out,” Dietz said.

Today, that path remains challenging. Like other grower-shippers, Koster deals with the risks and rewards of bid business and the private-label trend, plus varied pressures on margins.

This year, Mann Packing expanded a warehouse to ease shipping of mixed loads. New hires, promotions and staff transitions bolstered foodservice sales, among other efforts.

“I feel like the draft is over and we’re ready to play ball,” said Koster.

In early October, Mann Packing launched a partnership with F&S Produce Co., Rosenhayn, N.J.

“They’re going to be co-packing for us and doing forward distribution, delivered sales in the Northeast,” Koster said.

Koster’s board memberships include the United Fresh Produce Association, where she’s also co-chaired the Nutrition Council; the Produce Marketing Association Foundation for Industry Talent; Monterey, Calif.-based Hospice Foundation; and the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

She mentors students from two universities and serves on the business advisory council for Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas.

Koster’s 2009-2010 chairmanship of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California continued a tradition. Her great-uncle, Art Sbrana, chaired it in 1936. At various times, so did Mann Packing principals Cy Mann, Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci.

“Lorri’s young, but she’s an old soul in produce,” Dietz said. “She remembers the stories of those who started it.”