James Milne says he always has been “a little bit of an ideas guy.”
In the early 1990s, as Asia Pacific marketing manager for New Zealand-based Enza, he was able to persuade customers to take on the royal gala apple, even though the marketplace was dominated by the red delicious variety.
In 1993, he was transferred to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his cohorts came up with ideas to enhance the penetration of the braeburn variety in North America.
In 1994, he came up with the novel idea of marketing apples during the summer.
“Everyone was creating obstacles for us because apples were a fall crop,” he said. “You didn’t sell apples during the summer.”
That didn’t intimidate Milne.
“We just kept persisting,” he said.
His persistence paid off.
When he took on the project, the company was selling about 1.3 million boxes of apples from New Zealand and Chile during the summer. Five years later, sales topped 4 million boxes.
“That was pretty satisfying, and it was a lot of fun getting there,” he said. “It was all about galvanizing the team and aligning them.”
In 2017, Milne was named vice president of marketing for Vancouver-based The Oppenheimer Group, where he continues to come up with ideas to influence the company’s direction and “galvanize the team.”
“I’ve always had a philosophy that it’s not what it is, it’s what could it be,” he said.
He is into brainstorming, sharing ideas and educating the marketing team, the sales staff, growers and even customers.
“I love facilitating meetings,” he said, but not your typical hour-long staff gatherings.
His “meetings” can range from several hours to two or three days during which members of his business development team mingle with growers while they enjoy a tasty barbecue, often in an orchard or packinghouse, then settle down in a meeting room to devise a new approach to the business.
The meetings establish an important connection between the business team and the growers, he said, and they are educational for both sides.
“(Growers) get to see the challenges we face in the marketplace and vice versa,” Milne said.
David Smith, Oppy’s president and chief marketing officer, has worked with Milne for 25 years and is quick to sing his praises.
“He’s probably the best produce marketer in North America,” he said.
And he’s a “bold leader.”
“He definitely has a very strong opinion, but he looks for feedback and evaluates that feedback and helps his group come to the right decision,” Smith said.
And when it comes to presentations and communicating with various groups, “there is probably nobody better in the industry,” he said.
Milne said he has enjoyed helping Oppenheimer grow from “the little company that could” to a major player.
In 2017, when the firm reached $1 billion dollars in annual sales for the first time in its 160-year history, he came up with one of his biggest ideas yet: “I want to hit $2 billion in 10 years,” he said.