Chelan Fresh president Tom Riggan learned early in his career about the sort of people who make up the produce industry.

At 23 years old, in his first year in marketing, Riggan made a big mistake.

He put together a bid for a government contract, detailing the varieties, grades and sizes that would be provided, but forgot to include the charge for freight. Not surprisingly, his company won the job.

“I remember for two weeks I literally felt sick every day going to work,” Riggan said. “But what was interesting, I called around in the industry and was able to buy all different varieties, grades and sizes, and most of the industry really helped me through it and understood that I had made a mistake, and I came out OK.

“It really gave me a lot of confidence that we’re in a tight-knit industry,” Riggan said. “A lot of the senior marketing guys kind of took me under their wing and really helped me, and I’ll never forget that.”

Now Riggan is one of those industry veterans, and he recently spearheaded mergers with Yakima, Wash.-based Borton Fruit and Union Gap, Wash.-based Columbia Valley Fruit.

“Tom has been bold in seeking growth and in serving large customers better through that growth,” said Welcome Sauer, executive vice president of business development for Brewster, Wash.-based Gebbers Farms, whose fruit is marketed by Chelan Fresh.

The merger process was a familiar one for Riggan since the Chelan, Wash.-based company was formed through an earlier merger.

“You kind of go through the phases, like dating, where at first you fall in love with the idea of coming together, that things are going to be great, blah blah blah. So you date for a while, then you get married,” Riggan said. “And then after the merger, you realize, ‘Oh, we didn’t think about that, we didn’t think about this,’ and obviously there’s some conflict on occasion, but you’re committed to one another and you work through it.

“We were very intentional about what needed to take place, so for the most part the implementation went very smoothly,” Riggan said.

Sauer described Riggan as a leader with great vision who cares for his people and gives them the freedom to do their work. It has been a joy to see the progress of the company with him at the helm, Sauer said.

He recalled that during the early years of Chelan Fresh, when the office was in Brewster, Riggan would pick up Sauer and others at 5:45 a.m. to carpool more than an hour to work, and it was often 6 p.m. before they all got back home.

“He put a lot of heart and soul into that startup, and to see how much he’s made that company grow is very rewarding to all of us," Sauer said.