( Photo courtesy Ciruli Bros. LLC; graphic by Amelia Freidline )

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Dive in, ask a lot of questions, and keep learning.”

That is the advice that Sandra Aguilar would give women entering the produce business.

With 18 years worth of experience, that advice has been well-earned by Aguilar, who is marketing manager at Ciruli Bros. LLC and also plays a leadership role for sister companies Amex Distributing Co., Grow Farms Texas LLC and PennRose Farms LLC.

“In my current capacity, I work with senior leadership in marketing and organizational development initiatives,” she said. 

“I have had the honor of being a member of the executive team since 2017, which is invaluable experience that I’m very thankful for.”

Through the years, Aguilar said she has functioned in different areas, including sales, marketing, purchasing, accounting, and compliance. 

“Those experiences were instrumental in shaping my understanding of our customers’ needs, our supply base and infrastructure,” she said.

Tommy Wilkins, director of sales and business development for Grow Farms Texas, Donna, said that Aguilar brings an impressive set of tools to the family of companies.

“We rely on her to help us in many ways,” he said, noting her effort at developing trade show messaging for the booth and beyond.

“She is so creative in taking my ideas and coming up with an efficient way to communicate,” he said.

In addition, Aguilar has been instrumental in Wilkins’ hiring process, he said, and developing a plan to grow each employee.

“She keeps a pulse on industry and how it relates to us, and she has been a lead on packaging and marketing across our families of companies.”

Beyond her professional abilities, Aguilar cares about people she works with, he said.

“One characteristic I love about Sandra is the many times she just calls and ask if I am OK,” he said.

Aguilar advises women who are interested in another area of the business to seek ways to participate and add value in their organization or with a trade group. 

“It is a very fun and fast-paced industry, and a very rewarding one.”

She also suggests women join a company whose culture and values are a good match. 

“There is a great sense of camaraderie within our group that I think is testament of our work culture. Many of us are friends outside of work. Our leaders are also very involved with the trade and community, and they encourage us to be as well. There is much to be said for teamwork and leadership that is readily accessible.”

Aguilar, who holds a degree in business administration from the University of Arizona, took her first step toward her start in the industry when her economics professor forwarded her resume to Ciruli Bros.

“He told me after the fact, and I am glad he did,” she said. “Fast-forward almost 18 years and I am still learning and fascinated by what we do.” 

Aguilar said her path to the industry was something she could have never predicted.

“So it is by happenstance that I stumbled into produce but I enjoy my work very much and hope my experience inspires other women to join the industry.”

Aguilar studied international business in college and wanted to work somewhere that dealt in international trade. 

“It wasn’t until I was hired and understood how complex the supply chain can be that I came to appreciate the industry and the hard work it takes to get fresh, healthy food to our families,” she said. 

Aguilar said the work behind the supply chain is unknown to many.

“When consumers see produce on display they are not always privy to the story behind its trajectory,” Aguilar said. 

“There is a lot of planning, technology, labor, logistics, etc. that make it happen, and that is if weather conditions allow it. I always find these stories fascinating. Fresh produce, agriculture — it is one of the oldest industries and over time the industry has evolved and continues to evolve. It is full of surprises; every product, every grower has a story.”

Looking at her career, Aguilar said she has appreciated several professions.
“I have been blessed with many great mentors, most notably Chuck and Chris Ciruli, and their dad, now retired,” she said. 

“These men live their mission statement through a strong work ethic and drive to go the extra mile for their customers and their team. Even now with recent events, they have been leading the team steadfast and focused, communicating with empathy and a sense of urgency so fresh produce can get to consumers as quickly as possible.”

Others who have made an impact, Aguilar said, include Susan Banzhof of Ciruli Bros., professor Alan Malter from the University of Illinois, and Donna and Tomas McIntosh-Fletcher from the McFletcher Corp. 

One of the most challenging parts of Aguilar’s job, she said, is constantly assessing and adapting to the needs of the business. Some of the challenges of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging, she said.

“There is more pressure to engage and communicate when you’re remote,” she said. 

“There are, however, certain opportunities that come with this challenge. For one, I find myself interacting with colleagues differently and more often. I also have the opportunity to work with different team members across our offices on a wide range of projects, so I am always learning something new.”

As far as the rewards from nearly two decades in the industry, Aguilar said that fruits and vegetables make her job something that all consumers can feel good about.

“Knowing we are providing consumers with products that they can feel good about; that are wholesome and great tasting, is very rewarding,” she said. 

“When I am shopping and see people put our mangoes or veg items in their baskets I also feel very grateful because customers are supporting our growers and our team members’ efforts to get those goods to them.”