Mann Packing: A firm built on innovation and overcoming challenges
Lorri Koster, the current chief executive officer and co-chairman of the board of Mann Packing Co., believes the Salinas, CA-based company’s 75 years as a successful shipper can be attributed to its ability to adapt to change. But perhaps even more important, the firm has found a niche by going left when everyone else goes right.
In fact, the company was founded on that principle.
Eighty-one-year-old Bill Ramsey was born a few years before Mann Packing got started 75 years ago, but he spent his entire produce career with the firm, rising from fieldman to the chairman emeritus title he holds today. Along the way he and the late Don Nucci bought the firm, and today their children own it and run it. Bill Ramsey knows the history well.
H.W. (Cy) Mann was raised in Southern California, the son of a car dealer who served several stints as the mayor of Anaheim. Cy Mann graduated from Stanford University in 1930 and came south to Salinas looking for work. It was the height of the Great Depression and there were not a lot of jobs to be found.
However, production agriculture was surviving, if not thriving, and Cy Mann saw an opportunity to become a grower-shipper. He served an apprenticeship with a lettuce firm and in the mid-1930s started a company with his brother, Art.
That firm didn’t take hold, but Cy started again in 1939 by launching the H.W. Mann Co. on his own. He started with carrots and green onions, but soon saw the potential in broccoli and switched to that crop.
D’Arrigo Bros. had introduced broccoli to the Salinas Valley in the 1920s, but Iceberg lettuce was king. Mann apparently figured that if everyone was growing lettuce, he would have less competition being in the broccoli business.
For the next 40 years or so, Mann was primarily a broccoli shipper and did very well. In the early years, at least two-thirds of the firm’s business was with frozen food companies. Green Giant was its biggest client.
Ramsey recalled that it was around 1950 when Cy Mann hooked up with the owners of the Liquid Ice Co. to use that technology to pack fresh broccoli. Liquid ice was being used for lettuce, but Mann believed it would be great for broccoli and help extend the shelf life of that product. He had been slowly developing the fresh market for broccoli and this innovation led to greater sales and faster development.
It was just about this time that Ramsey was graduating from high school and didn’t quite know what he was going to do. The Korean conflict was in full bloom, so Bill joined the U.S. Navy and served for four years. During that time he got married and had a son, so when he returned to Salinas in 1955, he was looking for work.
It just so happened that his father-in-law was one of the owners of the Liquid Ice Co. and was good friends with Cy Mann.
“Mr. Mann told my father-in-law he was looking for a fieldman and I interviewed for the job,” said Ramsey.
Fifty-nine years later, Bill Ramsey sits in the conference room of Mann Packing and proudly talks about the only company he ever really worked for.
When he began with Mann as a part-time fieldman, Ramsey had every intention to go back to college.
“After a while, Mr. Mann came to me — we all called him Mr. Mann — and said that as a Stanford graduate, he greatly appreciates and understands the value of education,” said Ramsey. “But he told me I had a knack for the business. He said if I came to work for him full time, we could grow the business and he said I would get my fair share of that success.”
The rest is history.
“Mr. Mann had great ideas about equipment. He was very innovative,” Ramsey said.
Mann Packing pioneered a harvester in the field as well as other equipment that made for the efficient harvesting and packing of broccoli. Ramsey recalls that many scoffed at the idea that a particular harvester was efficient.
“People said it was only as good as your slowest packer,” he said. “We had a professor from UC-Davis come out and he did a time and motion study and found that the harvester was very efficient. It ended up working very well for us.”
During this time, another young man was launching his career in the vegetable business. Don Nucci had gone to college at Santa Clara University and received a graduate degree from UC-Berkeley. He first worked for the Ford Motor Co., but didn’t want to move to the headquarters in Michigan so he switched jobs and worked at the Firestone plant in Salinas. They wanted to transfer him back east, so he again changed jobs and soon was working as an insurance agent.
Nucci was married to a cousin of Bill Ramsey’s, so the two became acquainted at family gatherings.
“In 1967, we were looking for an office manager and I recommended Don,” said Ramsey. “Mr. Mann interviewed him and he was hired.”
Soon thereafter, the first of many challenges fell upon Mann Packing.
Cy Mann’s wife became very ill and he ended up spending a lot of time taking care of her.
“He basically turned over the operations to Don and me,” said Ramsey. “Don ran the office and I ran the field.”
And thus began an enduring partnership.
Ten years later, it was formalized when Cy Mann, Don Nucci and Bill Ramsey each put up $20,000 and started Mann Farms. Eventually Mann Farms bought Mann Packing Co. with each of the three men being equal partners. A couple of decades later, upon the death of Cy Mann in the 1990s, his ownership was bought out with a 10-year note that led to many company changes.
In the late 1970s, Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci were thriving at the helm of Mann Packing, with broccoli being the company’s only crop. “We had 40 growers and about 14,000 acres of broccoli,” said Ramsey.
It was around this time that a decision was made that would be a game changer for the firm.
“Sometime in the 1970s, my in-laws decided to sell the Liquid Ice Company,” said Ramsey. “We could have gone to one of the other ice companies in town but instead we decided to buy 11 adjacent acres that were owned by Don’s family and build our own plant.”
A state-of-the-art broccoli packing plant was completed in 1982. The only problem was that same year packing broccoli in the field became viable. For a much lower cost, growers could pack and ice the product in the field, making the packingshed obsolete almost before it was ever opened.
Although building that plant seemed to be a gigantic blunder, Ramsey believes Mann Packing would not be around today if it didn’t make that mistake.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he quipped.
At the time, Mann Packing had an old advertising man as head of its marketing department. Dave Stidolph had been an innovator in several businesses and was a marketer extraordinaire.
“He was something special,” Ramsey said. “Dave came up with the idea of selling broccoli florets.”
Mann began to use the plant to pioneer value-added broccoli products, which soon expanded to other commodities and packs.
It was around this same time that Mann Packing forged a partnership with longtime grower Tony Costa. The Costa family had long grown broccoli for Mann Packing, but it marketed its green onions and mixed leaf items with another marketer throughout the 1970s.
By 1982, Costa had his own label, “Mr. C’s Finest,” and needed in help in selling the production. Mann Packing stepped in and expanded its product line. That began the diversification of the firm’s product line that has guided it for the past 30 years, and helped Mann Packing thrive into the new millennium.
The Costa family continues to be Mann’s most important and largest grower. They have been the innovators in the field as Mann Packing has diversified and added to its portfolio of products.
The ensuing generations make their mark
It was at about the same time that the next generation of Ramseys and Nuccis began to make their mark within the company. Over the past 30 years, this group has grown in number and today they are running the company and own its stock. They have positions in many different areas and are fostering the development of the next generation as well.
Bill Ramsey looks at this group, and the following generation, with both pride and trepidation.
“We are entering unchartered territory,” he said, noting that third-generation shippers are few and far between. “I look back at all the big companies that were around when I started and there are only about four of us left.”
In the business school world, it has long been the curse of family firms that the first generation builds a company, the second dismantles it and by the third generation it’s gone. Ramsey has seen that happen over and over again in the vegetable shipping industry.
However, that does not appear to be the blueprint Mann Packing has followed. In fact, the second generation has built a stronger and better company to pass on to its heirs.
Dick Ramsey was the first of the second generation to come aboard. He is the oldest son of Bill, born while Bill was in the Navy in the early 1950s. He became the first in a long line of Ramseys and Nuccis to graduate from Cal State University-Chico, earning his degree in 1974. He really didn’t know what he was going to do when he got out of college, but did interview with a couple of local produce firms with his degree in hand.
“They told me that if they hired me they knew what would happen,” he said. “They’d train me and then I’d go to work for my dad.”
With that knowledge he did go to work driving a tractor for Mann Packing. He then moved up to irrigator before landing in the sales office under Don Nucci. He worked there for many years before transferring to the field operations department to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Today, Dick Ramsey is vice president of field operations for broccoli and broccolini, and he is also co-chairman of the board with Lorri Koster, representing the Ramsey half of the ownership.
His brother, Jeff, followed him into the family business and runs the company’s sweet potato and butternut squash value-added packing facility in the San Joaquin Valley.
On the Nucci side, the late Joe Nucci was the first to join the firm followed by his three sisters — two of whom are still involved on a day-to-day basis: Lorri and Gina.
Joe Nucci became CEO in 2001 and helped guide the firm through some very difficult financial times before tragically dying in 2005 at the young age of 40.
Bill Ramsey noted very candidly that in the late 1990s, he and Don Nucci made some mistakes, including planting more broccolini acreage than could be sold profitably. The company went from harvesting seven acres per week to 35 acres per week almost overnight.
“That was a big mistake,” he said.
It was around this time that Don and Bill began looking to the next generation for more leadership. Joe Nucci, who had already been instrumental in launching some new and successful items such as broccoli coleslaw, was named to the top executive position and guided the firm to develop many good product lines and weathered the financial crisis.
Both Don Nucci and Bill Ramsey stepped back in following Joe’s death and led the search for a new CEO, which resulted in the promotion of longtime employee Mike Jarrard to that slot.
Jarrard joined the firm in the early 1990s and served in several different positions. When Joe Nucci took over as CEO, Jarrard was named vice president of business development, which was a senior management position. He was positioned well to serve as CEO when tragedy led to that need.
Jarrard describes the 1990s as period of tremendous growth with some great innovations in the value-added sector, as well as growth in the commodity business. That growth, he said, resulted in the needs of the firm outpacing the talent it had to manage that growth.
Jarrard said that the Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci understood this and did look to the next generation to guide that growth.
“Joe [Nucci] did a tremendous job building a great team,” he said.
When Jarrard stepped in as CEO, he said Mann had a very good team in place and the company had done very well in this millennium, building itself into a very diversified organization with both commodity and value-added products, and retail and foodservice business.
Product development is the key to staying ahead of the curve. According to Jarrard, each year, the firm has the goal of introducing three new products on the retail side and two new items in the foodservice arena, as well as tweaking existing SKUs if needed.
Lorri Koster also took a more active role in the company in the early 2000s, and again after her brother Joe and father Don died a handful of years later.
“I was born and raised in this company as my father came to work for Mann Packing the year I was born,” Koster recalled. “I remember visiting my dad in his office when I was kid and I first started working for him in our garage when I was in 8th grade.”
Koster’s younger sister, Gina, tells the same story. “We sat in the garage with an old radio, listening to music and packaging up information,” she said.
At that time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mann Packing was ahead of its time as far as produce marketing was concerned. Don Nucci would send out mailers that had a postcard to mail back for more information. Lorri, Gina and sister DeeDee were the workers and the Nucci garage served as the fulfillment house for those requests.
“At night and on weekends, we’d package up the information and dad would take them to work the next day and mail them out,” said Gina.
Lorri formally started working for the company on a part-time basis in the mid 1980s, working quite a bit with Dave Stidolph in the marketing department. After she received a degree in public relations, she did go to work in the marketing department on a full-time basis, and in fact launched the company’s first newsletter.
But in the latter part of the 1990s, Lorri began to raise a family with husband and Mann Packing salesman Tom Koster, and decided to step away from the firm.
She worked with an online produce company for a while and also for an industry publication. She then purchased a regional agricultural publication and began working for Mann Packing on consulting basis; she considered raising her family to be her full-time job.
She says coming back into the business on a consulting basis was at Joe Nucci’s request and was designed to help the company overcome some of the financial issues that were rampant in the vegetable industry in those days of low markets and margins.
“After Joe died in 2005, I stepped up my hours and then when my dad passed away in 2006, I needed to step in and represent the Nucci Family.”
At that point, Jarrard had been hired as president and CEO, and soon Lorri Koster and Dick Ramsey were named co-chairmen of the board.
Gina Nucci’s transformation from college to the company took a different route, but the same thought of helping the family business succeed was what brought her back to the business on full-time basis.
She graduated from the University of Arizona in the mid-1990s with a degree in nutritional science but no real desire to come back to Salinas to work. Instead she went to London, worked for an Internet marketing firm and traveled for the next several years.
She did come back to Salinas and work for Mann, largely to replenish her bank account.
“That was when we were launching broccolini and I traveled all over the place marketing this new item and became ‘Gina Broccolini,’“ she said. “My plan was to work three years and then go back and get my master’s with five years of work experience.”
But she said Mann was experiencing some financial troubles and “as my sister says, it was time to circle the wagons.”
She embraced the challenge as her new career and became what she calls a “road warrior” for the firm. She traveled extensively and settled into developing the foodservice side of the business with other talented people on the Mann team.
In the foodservice arena, Mann has launched many innovative products over the last decade, including its “Simply Singles” line of leaf items. Though broccoli and broccoli florets were the pioneers in the company’s foodservice business, they do not top the foodservice list of items anymore, which now numbers more than three dozen value-added items as well as many field-packed commodities.
Though foodservice sales are typically of less volume, it is a very important segment of Mann Packing. Gina said the firm is constantly working in product development on new items with several items scheduled to be introduced this year.
As the company has moved into the 21st century, the next generation of the Ramseys has started to surface.
The third generation of Nuccis is still a bit young, but there are more than a handful of them so it is not a stretch to expect that some will also gravitate into the family firm.
It is as they move into the next generation that the lines will begin to blur.
Dick’s two oldest sons, Bixby and Cody, are working for Mann Packing, but they are only a few years younger than the younger members of the second generation of Nuccis. And there are some fourth-generation Ramseys that are older than third-generation Nuccis.
Bixby Ramsey went to a trade school and studied refrigeration repair. He didn’t plan a career with Mann but joined the firm in that capacity and worked his way into dispatch and then sales, which he calls the two most intense positions at the firm. He stayed in sales for more than eight years before switching to field operations last year, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father.
“I liked sales a lot and I think I was good at it, but I don’t have the gift of gab like my brother does,” said Bixby. “I think field operations is a good fit for me; I made the switch because it made sense looking at the big picture.”
Brother Cody followed a much different path to the company. He traveled on the wake board circuit for several years before coming back to Salinas about a decade ago and getting his real estate license. He worked in that industry until real estate prices crashed in 2007, which coincidentally was about the same time that a job opening occurred in the Mann Packing sales office. He was familiar with sales and the firm’s product line, having worked many summers at the facility. He took the job and says he has become hooked on the industry.
“The biggest challenge is having a desk job for 10 hours a day,” Cody quipped.
To a person, each of the Nuccis and Ramseys interviewed from the first generation to the third sang the same tune. The relationship between the two families has been stellar. Each member has found a role over the years that seems to fit their style, with no overt competition for specific positions or authority.
Just as Bill and Don were happy being the “field guy” and the “office guy,” current co-chairs Lorri Koster and Dick Ramsey possess similar roles and seem to have similar dispositions.
Gina Nucci is very happy in her foodservice position and expressed only gratitude that her sister was able to step up and be a strong executive when tragedy struck.
Others expressed the same feeling and noted that as the next generation settles in, they expect similar very good working relationships.
The board consists of its co-chairs as well as representatives of each family and non-family member participation. Koster said there are just no issues with everyone being on the same page virtually all the time.
One thing made clear was that no family member is pushed into the industry nor are jobs created for them. Any member wanting to come into the business must take a position that is open.
Gina Nucci said it is an interesting dynamic being both an employee at Mann Packing and an owner. Her business card gives her foodservice department title as well as the owner designation.
“Of course, we put that on the cards because customers love dealing with owners,” she said.
Like everyone else at the company, Gina said she has a pay rank commensurate with her job title and she expects no different treatment than anyone else. “I have performance evaluations just like everyone else.”
But Cody acknowledged that there is something different about being a descendant of the families that helped build this company.
“It is a family-owned business and you are part of that family,” he said. “You want to put your best foot forward, work hard and do everything you can to make the company succeed.”
The future looks bright
Several years ago, Mann Packing changed its corporate structure to qualify as a woman-owned-and-run certified company. The second generation of Ramseys and Nuccis qualified for the ownership, but Koster needed to take the CEO role. Jarrard retained the president’s title and moved to chief operating officer.
Koster said it is not an empty boast. To be woman-owned-and-operated has to be certified. Women have to be in lead position and materially involved in the decision-making process.
Jarrard said Koster has added an extra dimension to the leadership team.
“She is especially focused on the customer service side and marketing,” he said. “She excels at customer service, and it shows.”
He added that as Mann looks toward the future, it is focused on selling the products that typify the desires of a new generation of consumers. “They are looking for convenience, and we are focused on that.”
Koster explained that the woman-owned firm is perfectly positioned, as many in leadership positions mirror the firm’s target customers.
“We are moms selling to moms,” she said.