Then a soon-to-be graduate of California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, Wolter was one of more than a half a dozen applicants Small interviewed in 1987 for a position in the Salinas, Calif., office of Springfield, Ill.-based Tom Lange Co. Inc.
“She was by far the most serious, sharpest and on top of things,” said Small, now owner of Patrick Small Co., Salinas.
“She was going to be successful at whatever she was doing.”
Moving forward nearly 25 years, Wolter, marketing director for Rainier Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash., remembers fondly Small and the job with Tom Lange Co.
“That was a great learning ground talking to wholesalers from around the country, retailers around the country, marketing people, just extremely good exposure to businesses,” she said.
“Pat was a great mentor and trainer.”
Wolter was not born to marketing fresh produce. Her father was in the Army Corps of Engineers, which meant the family relocated every few years.
It was a magazine article on opportunities for women in agriculture that proved to be the catalyst for her attending Cal Poly, she said.
“My passion for ag probably came through my studies at Cal Poly,” Wolter said.
“The excitement of the produce business came from my early development at Lange and then at Dole.”
The move to Dole Fresh Fruit Co., however, had nothing to do with agriculture.
“Truth be told, I met a guy,” Wolter said.
As she had been doing all of her life, she said, she picked up and moved to Chicago to be closer to that guy, Greg Wolter, who became her husband.
Wolter subsequently joined the citrus division of Dole’s Chicago staff in 1989 and over the years developed friendships that endure to this day. Among them was Kevin Fiori, who she described as a great boss and mentor.
“In my opinion her character and dedication are the foundations of her personal and professional success,” said Fiori, now vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif.
“She promotes her company and its products, but never herself.”
In 2000, Wolter transferred to Wenatchee, Wash., to oversee sales and marketing for Dole’s apple division. Within nine months of her arrival, Dole made the decision to get out of the apple business.
“I look at my Wenatchee time as my character building year,” Wolter said.
“I moved in, learned a completely new commodity, formed new relationships as a supervisor and that helped develop some of my management skills.”
It was also a year during which she established a solid reputation in the apple industry.
“Bill Zirkle wanted to hire me,” Wolter said. “They didn’t really have a position.”
Zirkle, patriarch of family owned Zirkle Fruit Co., the growing arm of Rainer Fruit Co., solved the dilemma by creating a new position, director of business development.
“I’d be hard pressed to say I could have landed any better when I look at the company, the quality of product, the passion that the people I work with have for the industry and the products that we produce,” Wolter said.
“I have a great position and great respect for the individuals I work for at Rainier and Zirkle Fruit.”
More than a decade after joining Rainier, there is nothing routine about Wolter’s duties.
“Our industry is constantly changing, and it’s rapid change when one looks at consumer trends, changing taste preferences, how you need to meet their current wants and needs,” she said.
That is a challenging task when dealing with a state industry that has been hitting annual volumes of 100 million cartons.
“When you start losing money, that’s when you realize you need to change,” Wolter said. “The trick is recognizing that ahead of time — trying to move before that happens.”
Then there’s the hurdle of trees that take as long as five years to produce a commercial crop, Wolter said.
“More so than ever, we need to be looking at what we’re doing in the future to increase and/or maintain our category share as we look at all the new commodities that are introduced into the produce department as we become more global,” she said.
The challenge is amplified by the trend to promote locally grown fruit.
“We (the Washington apple industry) are competing more than before with New York, Michigan and other apple growing parts of the country,” Wolter said.
Still, Wolter is optimistic.
“As we continue to develop the newer varieties and the new managed varieties such as Lady Alice and Jazz — as those new varieties come in and we’re able to offer new flavors to consumers and then change our product mix so that we’re actually growing what consumers want, I think we’re OK,” she said.
It helps that her employer is something of a visionary.
“Zirkle Fruit has been ahead of the trend when it comes to planting newer varieties,” Wolter said.
“When you look at our overall production, we’re ahead of the industry by probably 5% to 10% in pulling out old and putting in new.”
Wolter’s contributions to the fresh fruit industry extend beyond Rainier Fruit. She currently serves on the boards of directors of the U.S. Apple Committee and the Produce for Better Health Foundation as well as sitting on numerous industry association committees.
In Wolter’s view, her efforts are akin to family obligations.
“I love this industry,” she said. “I think the fact that most of our business is a conglomeration of family owned companies creates a whole sense of family in the industry.”
To this day, Small thinks of Wolter as a member of his family.
“I would say I am as proud of her as I am of my own daughter,” he said.