Under Anderson, the company now know as Oppy has been rewarded for raising its profile among retail buyers
With help from new offerings and rising prices, Oppy chair and CEO John Anderson led the venerable fruit and vegetable distributor to bumper results last year
When I reach John Anderson at the Coquitlam offices of the Oppenheimer Group—also known, after a recent rebranding, simply as Oppy—he’s been back in the country for less than a day. “Apparently we haven’t had a lot of sunshine around here,” he remarks on the Lower Mainland’s gloomy spring weather. “I wouldn’t know: I haven’t been around a lot.”
Anderson—CEO of the billion-dollar produce distributor for the past 25 years, and an employee of B.C.’s oldest company for 42 of his 60 years (he turns 61 in August)—is on the road constantly. That tends to happen when most of your sales are outside Canada: Oppy, which incorporated in 1858 to supply provisions to gold-rush miners in B.C., now imports and exports produce from and to 27 countries. “I was down in New Zealand meeting with Zespri [Oppy’s kiwi fruit supplier] at Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, then in Vegas for a meeting with some U.S. growers, then here. That’s why I have an airline business,” Anderson says with a laugh, referring to Anderson Air Ltd., the executive charter outfit he founded in 1980.
Last year was a record one for Oppy, with 20-plus per cent revenue growth. While volume rose 10 per cent, prices climbed more than 20 per cent, Anderson says—making it a banner year for profits, too. The Vancouver native attributes the double-digit growth to the success of new products, including a new kiwi fruit varietal from Zespri, their Jazz and Envy apples, and a major investment in the berry category in California. Another reason for Oppy’s long-term success, Anderson argues, is ongoing efforts to maintain visibility among retail buyers—especially in an age where many buyers don’t have deep experience in produce. Oppy has a brand development team that works on merchandising programs with retailers, as well as conducting consumer research on their behalf. The company even brings in farmers to talk about how their lettuce is grown or the provenance of their apple trees. “Whole Foods is a prime example of that, but we do it with a lot of retail customers,” says Anderson, who became chair in 2001.
On March 31, arguably the biggest change to hit Oppy in decades occurred when Anderson sold 30 per cent of the company to Irish food giant Total Produce PLC (which already owned 35 per cent), leaving him with a 35 per cent stake. “I’m still CEO, still chairman, and in an indefinite long-term contract,” he explains. “The way this partnership is structured, no changes can be made without a 75 per cent shareholder vote. So right now, they only have 65 per cent. I still have control.”
Still, he does see himself loosening the grip and bowing out of day-to-day management, perhaps as early as four years from now (“They’d like me to hang around until I’m 85”). And then, maybe, he can put that airline to some more entertaining use. “I have a home in Palm Springs; I have a home in Whistler; I have a home on Lasqueti Island; I have a timeshare in Maui; I have a yacht,” Anderson says. “I plan on bouncing around a fair bit among those locations and taking my time doing that.”