In The News

2016 The Packer 25: Tom Church



Tom Church, chairman and a partner at Salinas, Calif.-based Church Brothers Farms, likes to say new ideas have a way of becoming old ideas. That’s probably why he’s continued to generate them through his career.

 “He’s an icon in the industry and one of the most entrepreneurial guys I’ve ever met,” said Dave Peterson, senior vice president of sales at Pro*Act, Monterey, Calif. “He started River Ranch from scratch with his partners, then Church Brothers and, with some Santa Maria grower-shippers, Fresh Kist.”

 Church and four partners launched Fresh Western — the brand for which was River Ranch — in 1981. His brother Steve Church, now CEO at Church Brothers Farms, joined them in 1985. Here began the brothers’ pursuit of vertical integration.

 “We started Fresh Western as brokers,” said Tom Church, 72. “We transitioned to sales agents for growers that had crops to sell. Since then, we have gotten into growing, harvesting, cooling and processing ourselves.”

 “That was during the beginning of the bagged salad days,” he said. “I pushed hard on retail, because that’s really where the business was at the time. Since then the foodservice channel has developed.”

 The brothers’ experience included early stints at Bruce Church Inc., but their businesses were developed independently of their uncle.

 Upon sale to Albert Fisher Group PLC in 1994, Fresh Western was renamed for its label as River Ranch Fresh Foods. After a five-year management contract with the new owner, Tom and Steve Church launched Church Brothers Farms in 1999.

 Its processing arm, True Leaf Farms, formed three years later. True Leaf Farm’s partners include David Gill, owner of Gills Onions, Oxnard, Calif.

 “We’ve grown the processing part of our business from zero to 400,000 cartons of produce a week,” Tom Church said.

 The focus is on foodservice, but as the introduction of organics in May confirms, he kept an eye on retail.

 “We haven’t been much of a player as Church Brothers Farms in the retail business, and that’s really where the organic business is,” Tom Church said. “So it’s a play to probably get into the retail salad business. But I don’t expect growth to be very fast. There are a lot of people in retail, and organic is starting to get crowded as well.”

 Church Brothers was one of six grower-shippers that founded Fresh Kist Produce in 2000, seeking to consolidate selling power by analogy to consolidations in buying power. Its business relationship with Fresh Kist continued until 2011.

 Tom Church has seen a lot change in the industry.

 “I like to think that I still have good ideas,” he said. “However, the thing that has helped me to get to where I’ve gotten is really hard work. I don’t think there’s much of a substitute for that. If this business isn’t your life, you’re going to struggle.”

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