It’s difficult for Dawn Gray to sit still.
The Oppenheimer Group’s senior vice president of sales, marketing and categories has an entrepreneurial passion that is seemingly hard to contain.
Her career in produce started with Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist, although she worked for the company in Canada. But her career as a working woman began before that, when she was a welder on an assembly line, a job she had taken to help the family out after graduating early at 16.
“I was a nerd, and I didn’t have any real marketable skills,” Gray said. “But since I was so comfortable around all the equipment and action at the terminals, I would do the inspections.”
By 1982, six years after she joined Sunkist, Gray was running the Vancouver sales office. In 1984, she caused the company to rethink the name of its Man of the Year award, because she was the first female winner. The award was renamed President’s Award for Marketing Excellence.
“At that time, they never had considered a woman running a sales office,” Gray said.
Sunkist brought Gray to the U.S. a few years later to run the national accounts office. She left the company in 1989.
Gray’s next move was to Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s, where she was director of sales. She was only there a year before she left to take on launching her own company.
“She was working for me and my mom, and we kind of had a mutual admiration,” said Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s.
“She has a lot of foresight, she knows a lot about the industry, she’s very well connected, and not afraid to speak the truth, whether or not you want to hear it.”
Gray co-founded Autenrieth and Gray, a part of The Autenrieth Co., Agoura Hills, Calif. Her nine years of frequent and extensive international travel with that company prepared her for the global scope her career would take.
Her next position was with Issaquah, Wash.-based Vanguard International, where she handled exports to Japan and Korea, as well as the company’s import business.
It was at this point Gray started to realize her core competency was bringing new ideas to a company, helping set up a client base and getting it moving.
“We realized bringing in someone who had as much experience as I had and was entrepreneurial was not the best fit,” Gray said. “Stepping back into a formulaic role — it just doesn’t fit.”
Gray spent almost four years as executive vice president of sales and marketing for BC Hot House Foods, Langley, British Columbia, before embarking on the most recent legs of her career.
In 2007, she moved to New Zealand to become general manager for Enza International.
“It was a great, unbelievable experience,” Gray said.
Just as her global network of produce colleagues had brought her to Enza, Gray’s relationships also brought her back to Canada in 2009 to fill her current role.
Enza’s parent company, Turners and Growers, is a shareholder of Oppenheimer, so there was already a relationship between the New Zealand produce company and its North American marketing partner.
John Anderson, Oppenheimer’s president and chief executive officer, said Gray is a natural fit for Oppenheimer.
“We’re an entrepreneurial company for sure,” Anderson said. “We need people at a high level who think entrepreneurially. I think that
excites her to think of new, innovative ways of doing things, and she always wants to improve.
“I don’t think Dawn wants to sit back and rest on the way things always want to be done, and I think that’s the environment we’re going to be in forever. While a lot of people don’t like change, she helps facilitate change.”
Even in Canada, Gray’s taken a little bit from what she’s learned all over the world with her.
“Living in Los Angeles, you get inoculated in the entertainment industry,” Gray said. “I’ve been working on a screen play about the produce industry for about 10 years now. Of course I’m incredibly biased, but there are just so many great characters in our business.”