Member Profile – Robert Thompson
Produce Career Has a Destiny Feel to It
When Robert F. Thompson was growing up in San Jose, CA, being raised by his single mother in the 1970s, an agricultural career would never have seemed to be on the horizon.
In the first place, he is African-American in an industry not known for a lot of diversity. He had no family roots in the produce business and little idea the industry even existed. When he graduated from high school, his plan was to go to San Diego State University and embark on a path in an unknown direction.
Yet today, he is a fixture at Fresh Produce & Floral Council events and if a day by day movie of his life existed, there would be some foretelling snapshots of this career path. “I went to the same high school (Milpitas High School) as Marvin Quebec. He was a couple of years ahead of me but we were both on the football team together,” Thompson said.
Quebec, of course, did have agricultural roots, joined the industry, started his own produce company and as a former FPFC chairman of the board, he and Thompson are often at the council’s events together.
But Thompson did not head to either SDSU or the produce industry upon high school graduation. He was soon married, had a son and was working at McDonald’s. His wife fortuitously took job in a hair-cutting salon in the Bay Area. The next foretelling scene in his life’s movie reel shows his wife, Clarissa, cutting the hair of Bay Area Green Grocer, Tony Tantillo. At the time, Mr. Tantillo was running the family’s wholesale produce business in South San Francisco and Clarissa convinced him to give Robert an interview. “He’s a great salesman,” Clarissa reported.
Thompson got the job and began distinguishing himself as a produce professional. His film has one more foretelling scene that took place a year or so after joining Tantillo’s firm. In this scene, a guy a bit older also came to work for Tantillo with no produce industry background. By now, Thompson was somewhat of a veteran, albeit, in his early 20s. But Tantillo asked Thompson to take Mike Casazza under his wings and give him some produce industry knowledge.
Casazza, of course, has gone on to have his own distinguished career in the produce industry, with long term stops at Del Monte and Apio. At both places, he hired Thompson. Thompson has continued their relationship as Casazza is now president of one of the FreshSource divisions.
Thompson’s own career included a stint at another San Francisco wholesaler operation for a couple of years before following Casazza to Del Monte. That position required a move to Southern California, which has become the Thompsons’ home base for the past 25 years. He became one of the youngest people at Del Monte to reach the director level. Thompson stayed with Del Monte for about a decade.
In the early 2000s, he followed Casazza to Apio, but only a year as he had another thing in mind for his own career. He started RFT Farm Sales as a firm representing mostly Mexican growers on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. Thompson also began working with The Nunes Company and its Foxy brand as a regional brand representative.
RFT Farm Sales experienced solid growth representing a number of tropical items including bananas, pineapples, papayas, mangos and avocados. But at the same time, Thompson was growing his sales support and merchandising firm in Southern California.
Eventually, FreshSource LLC became his main business focal point. The company has been growing ever since. It started out working the Los Angeles market but expanded to the Bay Area. It has since expanded to other western markets with Denver being the newest market to which it is offering support.
Today FreshSource represents 52 companies, with more than 50 employees, including 28 in-store merchandisers. The firm handles many of the top brands in the value-added sector but also offers representation for branded commodities.
Thompson said produce department real estate is so tight that a company needs to make sure its products are merchandised properly and achieving sales success. He noted that eliminating labor is still the number one strategy employed by retailers when they need to boost their bottom line. That means less help at retail and less experience for those in the produce department. Thompson said it is very expensive for a single brand to be able to afford having in-store merchandising help, which is why companies like FreshSource have flourished as they are able to spread the cost of hands-on help across many brands.
Proving his ability to multitask, Thompson grew both his agricultural connections and his family over the past several decades. On the business side, he launched Thompson Family Farms in the Eastern Washington Tri-Cities area. He started about a decade ago with 130 acres and the company now grows almost 1400 acres of processing potatoes with Burger King and Frito Lay being his major customers. The organization is a partnership with growers and Thompson said it was the first (and maybe only) minority-owned potato grower-shipper to achieve that minority-owned status preference.
He acknowledges that his minority status is a point of differentiation in the produce industry. Thompson believes that the major reason for this is that the produce industry is “very generational” with participation passed from one generation to the next. Consequently, it is the sons and daughters of earlier agriculturalists that are populating the business. “We are starting to see this change as executive search firms go outside the business to fill key positions.”
The Thompson family is following that generational pull to the fresh produce industry as two of his three children work for FreshSource. The Thompson clan includes his wife of 32 years, Clarissa, as well as son Stewart, daughter Arielle and his youngest daughter, Athena. Both Stewart and Athena work in the FreshSource marketing department. “We have 120,000 Instagram followers,” the elder Thomspon boasts, speaking of the efforts of the younger Thompsons. Arielle has not joined the family business as she is pursuing a career as a singer on the East Coast.