With 11 years and counting at Wenatchee, Wash.-based tree fruit marketer Stemilt Growers, it is hard to imagine that Brianna Shales once didn’t know much about agriculture at all.
Shales, communications manager for Stemilt, recalls a pivotal time in her life when that door opened for her.
With her last semester at Washington State University set up to coast through with minimal hours, an academic advisor suggested she consider an internship.
She took that advice and ended up interning in the news services department for the College of Agriculture.
“To this day, that’s the one thing I preach to young people, that you have to do an internship,” Shales said.
Beyond giving her new contacts and skills, she said it helped her resume look more attractive, especially since the 2008 recession was about to hit.
“Doing that internship allowed me to make some connections here in Wenatchee,” she said.
With Stemilt looking to add to its marketing staff in 2008, Shales was hired and was elevated to communications manager in 2010.
What she described as a “huge learning curve” began after she was hired. Roger Pepperl, director of marketing for Stemilt, took her to an apple packing line her first day on the job. Shales says she’s still learning something new every day.
Brianna has the ability to learn from many people and has put those skills to work. She has become very creative but yet has learned how to link creativity to return on investment; this is a unique skill on its own.
“That’s what I love so much about (my job),” she said. “But it’s also kind of one of the things that you get frustrated with, because (you think) ‘If I just knew what that person who has been here for 30 years knew, I would be unstoppable now.’”
Shales said ongoing revelations about the business makes her job interesting and fun.
“In my role, you have to know a little bit about everything, so it’s a constant learning experience.”
Shales said she is passionate about promoting healthy fresh fruit grown by the family-owned company. “I love the team that I work with.”
Shales said one of the biggest challenges is being able to adapt to the changing environment, whether that applies to the technology of growing or the constant changes in fruit supply and demand scenarios.
“Especially in the marketing world, where things are moving really fast, we never rest on our laurels,” she said.
Understanding the role of economics in the business is also another acquired skill, Shales said.
“Whether it is working on a promotion with the retailer and having to understand their pricing and different dynamics, to understanding supply and demand ... if I could go back in time, I would be an economics expert,” she said.
Shales said Pepperl has been “the best” as her mentor and teacher.
Pepperl said Shales has learned to collaborate with many departments within the company, and is as comfortable working with top executives as she is talking with new employees.
One of the biggest things that has been a benefit to me to have those relationships with women that are kind of walking in my same shoes.
She has the confidence and professionalism that make every relationship effective, he said.
“Brianna has the ability to learn from many people and has put those skills to work,” he said, noting that Shales has gleaned data, technology, retail and agriculture knowledge from cohorts at the company.
“She has become very creative but yet has learned how to link creativity to return on investment; this is a unique skill on its own.”
Shales also has worked to position Stemilt’s offerings as much more than just commodities, he said.
Pepperl said Shales has one of the strongest work ethics he has seen in his experience.
“She is respectful of history yet still modern in her thinking,” Pepperl said. “My favorite is that she wants to win. Trying hard is always our action, but winning is special at Stemilt.”
Shales is part of United Fresh Produce Association’s Leadership Class 24, announced in 2018.
“I know a lot of people apply for that, so to be selected was a huge honor,” she said.
The produce industry is relationship-oriented, and Shales said she has learned from other women on a similar career path. Women who have careers and a personal life, perhaps including roles as wifes and mothers, can give perspective, Shales said.
“One of the biggest things that has been a benefit to me to have those relationships with women that are kind of walking in my same shoes,” she said.
“Someone told me last week there’s no balance — there is only balancing,” she said.
“That’s certainly true — it is really one day at a time. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
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