I am honored to call Rick Estess my friend – even though he picks on my Florida Gators!
I have known Rick for many years, he is a big guy with big ideas and big goals but most of all he has an enormous heart! His willingness to give 100% of his time and efforts to help anyone, especially SEPC compares to none!
I caught up with Rick for a little Q&A.
You were born in Monroe, LA and attended Northeast Louisiana University where you studied Communication and marketing, then went on to Louisiana State University. You were at Apio for a long time before joining RPE. Tell me about the transition from communication and marketing to the produce world.
I was very lucky. My first real job after college was with Eastman Kodak. I worked in a special division of the company that did the marketing and sales strategies for all new items. There I had the opportunity to work on various new items and programs from the [Kodak] Disk camera, color printers, lithium batteries, and the disposable camera. One of Kodak’s main policies in developing a marketing plan was following the program to retail, which had to be part of our overall strategy.
When I got into produce back in the late 80’s following the program to retail was not something that was done most often in this industry. With the emergence of value-added produce items, this was an opportunity to bring following the program to retail to our accounts and produce buyers. Back in the early 90’s there were less than 150 SKUs in the total produce department. Today the total number exceeds 500 items with most of them new specialty and value-added items.
Through your years in the produce world, what do you feel are the most significant changes that have truly been beneficial?
I think the biggest change is retailers saw the overall value and potential of produce departments. All the new items has led to a larger department – more needed refrigeration, and dry space for better overall merchandising. This welcomed change led to additional overall produce sales and profits.
Someone once said, “We love this business because it is really a people business. We just happen to sell produce along the way.” That statement is very true for Rick Estess. Although I always found Rick to be a man of integrity and someone I could count on to “get the job done”, what I believe he is remembered for most is how he cared for people and the relationships he developed over the years.
Rick and I have done a lot of produce business together, but a particular deal or promotion doesn’t really stand out in my mind. When I think of Rick, I think of a gentleman… passionate about his family, passionate about his friends, and of course passionate about his football.
What changes do you feel still need to be implemented that are a long overdue?
I believe there is always room for improvement such as in cross merchandising opportunities. The retailers that are currently cross merchandising in their stores are the ones showing higher increases in sales with both produce and non-produce item.
What do you enjoy most about the produce industry?
I enjoy the person-to-person contact from working with buyers. Having discussions, developing ideas, and seeing it all come together never gets old. The produce department is one of the last in the grocery industry that still relies on personal contact and building working relationships along with partnerships.
I have people I consider as my mentors and go-to’s. Who do you feel has been yours through the years?
When I first got into the produce industry, I was at a disadvantage for not having the firsthand experience working directly in produce. I have always tried to ask a lot of questions to gain more knowledge and put that information into my plan. I consider my mentors to be (these are in no certain order) Randy Shell, Mark Hilton, Jim Cunningham, David Sherrod, Garry Bergstrom, Joe Watson, Mike Tipton, and Dave Stornetta.
Over the years they each have taken time to answer my questions and expand my knowledge of the produce industry. For their contribution to me, I am very grateful. I was very fortunate to be on the ground floor of Apio Value Added back in 1993, when Dave Stornetta was the lead that helped put the original team of five together. From day one, Dave always challenged each of us to step outside the box and bring discussions back that made a difference. I still approach my day-to-day business with that same philosophy.
Rick Estess has been a mentor and friend for many years. He is a teacher and encourager. Rick has an uncanny talent for recognizing talent in others. He has a deep-rooted passion in building up others and doing so in an incredibly humble manner.
Mentoring is someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see if yourself and then helps bring it out of you. Rick is that visionary mentor to so many. He makes you feel valued and that is everlasting.
You received the well-deserved top award with Southeast Produce Council in 2020 in Tampa, FL during Southern Exposure – The Lifetime Achievement Award! You have been instrumental since day one with the council. I am grateful for your vision of the Step Upp program. Many years ago,Terry Vorhees told me to get involved and I have tried to stick my nose in as many committees as possible, but I don’t think I could ever do as much for the council as you have. Where do you see the council in 5 years?
I think it is safe to say that early 1999, when the original three – Tom, Terry and Ken – began discussions about starting a Produce Council; they had no idea that the SEPC would be where we are today. However, it is their solid groundwork that we still operate by today that has given us the infrastructure to grow year after year.
SEPC was, has, and will always be driven by it’s membership. SEPC’s strong leadership programs STEP-UPP, STARS, Southern Roots & our new Next Generation Leadership Academy are laying the groundwork for new leaders not only for SEPC, but for our industry. I am proud to say that today 100% of the SEPC Executive Board of Directors has graduated from or has come up working with one of these leadership programs, and that’s a first. With these types of programs that are investments in the people leading us today, I feel that in the next five years SEPC will be the leading resource for the produce industry.
I know that Julia and your family are your top priority, and you love spending time with them. But, what hobbies do you have?
Julia and I have 4 granddaughters (for now) and we look forward to spending more time with them and watching them grow and develop into young ladies. Cooking, grilling and entertaining friends, family and neighbors will always be one of my favorite hobbies. I also plan on attending more LSU events in person.
Retirement is not far away, but full retirement is not part of my plan. I think I still have something to give. I hope to still be active with SEPC and work with our leadership programs. This next generation of Produce Leaders will be the ones to carry us into tomorrow.
I remember Rick and I were walking one of our stores and I was sharing some of my merchandising philosophies with him. Rick was intrigued and asked how he could learn more on the retail side of the business. I teamed him up with Steve Eng, my director of retail operations to work in one of our produce departments for a few days. I believe Rick gained some new and valuable insights from this experience. Rick has always had a passion for Produce and this demonstrates his personal commitment to being an ongoing student of our industry.
Of course, I have to ask you since you are without a doubt the biggest LSU fan I know, what do you see in their future, how close are they to winning the National Championship?
I’m guessing your talking about football and not referring to the National Championships we currently hold in men’s baseball and women’s basketball. There is only one answer Faye, “We will be back there in the hunt a lot sooner than Florida! 😊”