Among the candidates for the newly-created post: a woman with absolutely no experience in fresh produce.
Oregon native Mary Wright-Rana had been director of marketing, promotions and corporate communications for the legendary Laguna Seca Raceway.
For 13 years, Wright-Rana’s universe was populated by speeding race cars and motorcycles, world famous drivers, celebrities and corporate VIPs.
“I buy produce, and I drink wine,” she proclaimed during her Pro*Act interview.
Within hours, the job was hers.
Marketing was old hat to Wright-Rana, but there was a steep learning curve to fresh produce for foodservice.
“I just knew that if you had the passion for the product, you could market it,” she said.
The passion came quickly as Wright-Rana became acquainted with the Pro*Act staff.
“I came into the most unbelievable group of people I’d ever met,” she said.
It was the speed of learning the produce business and the fervor Wright-Rana applied to learning that struck Max Yeater, Pro*Act president, and still does.
“For me, Mary’s willingness to learn all aspects of the industry is just awesome,” he said.
“She jumps into every issue, and she’s built great relationships over the years with everyone in the industry — customers, members, suppliers.
On today’s Pro*Act staffing chart, Wright-Rana is director of marketing in charge of a staff of one — herself. She sees it differently. She counts among her subordinates the company’s 38 members — or distributors — around the country.
“I can pick up the phone at any time and use their staffs to help me, whether it’s Salt Lake City or Denver or Boston or Chicago,” she said.
“I have a very large department. They just don’t get their paychecks from Pro*Act.”
The admiration runs both directions.
“Mary commands the level of respect that most people would reserve for presidents of companies,” said Peter Testa, president of Testa Produce Inc., Chicago.
“She’s always looking to expand our brand, expand our products, expand our own individual companies. She’s been instrumental in helping people grow their businesses.”
While the recession has been a rough patch for foodservice, it forced the industry to be more introspective, Wright-Rana said.
“Foodservice took a better look at how it could improve — from menu items to how they attract a different customer base to how they keep their customer base to how they look at what is out there and how can they make menus more pleasing,” she said.
Fresh produce could be the beneficiary. Wright-Rana predicts greater menu diversity and the moving of produce to the center of the plate.
“Produce is no longer just a side dish,” she said.
“Flavor profiles are changing, and operators are getting away from a lot of salt, using alternatives.”
Younger, more creative chefs are behind many of the changes, she said. So, too, is demand.
“There is a growing population now living in very expensive senior centers,” Wright-Rana said.
“They don’t want Spam from a can. Both young and old are looking into healthier lifestyles.”
The recession also brought out the best among what Wright-Rana calls the Pro*Act membership family.
“They rallied around one another,” she said. “Instead of putting money in IT or more trucks or whatever, they kept money tight and are coming out in great shape.”
When they find the time, Wright-Rana and her husband feed their addiction to travel — especially international travel.
When she retires, Wright-Rana will oversee two households. She and her husband are building a home in New Zealand. They plan to split their retirement time between California and New Zealand.
Retirement is not in the near future for Wright-Rana, however, and other companies need not try to lure her from Pro*Act.
“When you work for the best company, why would you leave?” Wright-Rana said.
“It just feels right to be here.”