( The Packer )

He may be president and CEO of a major table grape grower-shipper, but it’s not unusual to see Merrill Dibble walking the vineyards conversing with workers.

Dibble speaks fluent Spanish and said he enjoys spending time with workers in the field and the packing facilities at Bakersfield, Calif.-based Sun World International LLC.

“I think that has created some trust between me and them,” he said.

The gesture gives the workers recognition and shows them they are appreciated, Dibble said.

“I think once we feel appreciated and feel like people know what we’re doing and what we’re contributing, we feel motivated to keep going,” he said.

Dibble, who has been at the helm of the 43-year-old company since 2015, has overseen some major changes during his brief tenure.

Just as he was coming on board, leadership at the company, which was growing strawberries, stone fruit, peppers and citrus as well as table grapes, was taking a hard look at the business and came to the conclusion that “our real passion and competitive advantage lies in table grapes,” Dibble said.

Sun World abandoned its growing operations for all of its commodities except grapes.

More recently, the company moved its grape packing operation in-house.

The switch from field packing will provide a nicer, climate-controlled work environment for employees, and new technology will make managing multiple pack styles more efficient and less costly, he said.

The company also redeveloped more than 3,000 acres of grapes into new varieties over a three-year period, he said.

“I think we now have one of the best variety mixes in the industry,” Dibble said.

One thing that makes Sun World unique is its complete vertical integration, he said.

“It takes a lot of real talented people to keep that entire chain moving, and I think we’ve built a really strong team,” Dibble said.

Creating trust is key to maintaining a strong work force, he said, and he is a big believer in work-life balance.

Dibble has earned a number of university degrees, studied for a year in Italy and lived and worked in Mexico for five years, including a marketing stint with PepsiCo.

Jason Fuller, Sun World’s vice president of domestic sales and grower relations, praised Dibble’s leadership abilities.

“Merrill’s leadership promotes collaboration between decision makers and allows for those running the business to run the business,” he said.

“Many CEOs are looked at for all the answers,” he said, “but Merrill promotes the idea that the people running the business have the answers.”

Monica Escoto, director of quality assurance and food safety, is impressed with Dibble’s desire to know more about his employees than their names and job titles.

“It’s those interpersonal relationships he develops that show he truly cares that employees are treated with dignity and respect, which is what sets him apart from other CEOs,” she said.