Trying to see what is coming around the corner is one thing, but Steve Ottum is already seeing three turns down the road.
Ottum, 53, is chief operating officer for Potandon Produce LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
“A lot of people are being reactionary — the market is going to change right now, and they need to get ready for that –— well, Steve is looking two or three steps ahead of that,” said David Wheeler, new product and marketing manager for Potandon Produce, Idaho Falls, Idaho,
Whether looking at issues of sustainability, packaging, convenience, consumer preferences or something else, Wheeler said Ottum pushes his staff to work to that expectation. “You don’t see that very often.”
Ottum’s gift of organization also helps him multitask and keep on track with varied projects, in addition to providing time for giving counsel to other company officers. His relationships with the retailers and others in the industry have paid dividends in expanding the reach of Potandon’s product line, Wheeler said.
“He is a proactive, success-oriented person,” he said.
Ottum, who has previously served on the board of directors with the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and has held leadership roles in several potato organizations in the Northwest, said he is by nature an organized person. However, he also credits a professional background at Minneapolis-based Pillsbury Co., where he spent time working in accounting, finance and marketing before moving into management.
“I do give a lot of credit back to my early days in working with management at Pillsbury where they did a lot of planning — a lot of strategic planning and a lot of annual planning,” he said.
Those disciplines he learned in the corporate environment translated well when Ottum and others formed Potandon in 1995, acquiring the rights to the Green Giant brand for fresh potatoes and onions.
“It is a combination of those experiences at Pillsbury, the disciplines of training and a little of my own nature to stay ahead of the curve and plan for the future. It has suited me very well,” Ottum said.
When undertaking strategic planning, Ottum looks at consumer trends and industry trends both domestically and around the world.
“You do what you can to follow those trends and anticipate where the trends are going and then adapt accordingly, whether with new products, new varieties or trying to help build the entire potato category,” he said.
At the business level, Ottum said he closely evaluates how his company fits into the supply chain and whether he can improve that position through new varieties, new packs, aligning with certain growers, packers or marketers.
Ottum seeks to continually discover where Potandon fits best within the supply chain to meet customers’ needs in the most effective and efficient way,
Looking ahead, Ottum said Potandon will participate with the efforts of produce advocates like United Fresh to proactively address issues important to the industry such as food safety and labor concerns.
Meanwhile, he said the potato category is emerging from some tough times as the demand for the traditional russet potato in the U.S. has leveled off and even declined in the past two decades.
“As an industry we need to work on not only leveling off but increasing demand for traditional potatoes but offer new, exciting, more convenient, different varieties of potatoes for different uses,” he said.
He noted that other western countries, including Canada and European states, typically consume more red and yellow varieties and not as many russets.
While those markets aren’t exactly like the U.S., Ottum does believe U.S. consumers are beginning to recognize there are a lot of other varieties than the traditional russet.