John Anderson: Flying High

It’s a hot Friday afternoon in July when I arrive at the Coquitlam head office of the Oppenheimer Group. After pinning a security pass onto my shirt pocket, I’m ushered into a formal boardroom where I expect to meet the buttoned-down president and CEO of this half-billion-dollar multinational produce distributor. My expectations are burst when John Anderson strides into the room. With a deep tan and sporting a fuzzy-caterpillar moustache, the 51-year-old Anderson is clad in jeans and a work shirt emblazoned with the Oppenheimer logo. It soon becomes clear that Anderson has bushwhacked his own path to the top. When he got a job hauling sacks of carrots and potatoes on the warehouse floor after graduating from high school in 1975, Anderson had no designs on the corner office. He already had his commercial pilot’s licence and made it clear to his new employer that fruit and vegetables were just a stopover on his path to a career in flying. He was partly right: Anderson never abandoned his dream of a career in aviation. But he never left Oppenheimer either. Following a number of promotions at Oppenheimer, in 1979 Anderson decided to keep his options open by launching the company that would become Anderson Air Ltd. Today the private charter airline has four jets and 16 employees, and Anderson continues to hold down two careers, serving as president and CEO of Anderson Air, where he is the majority owner. His brother Dave Anderson, a co-owner, serves as vice-president. His sister, Jody McLean, serves as executive assistant. But it’s his role as chair, president and CEO of the Oppenheimer Group that demands Anderson’s attention full time. He says he spends close to 40 per cent of the year on the road, mainly meeting with fruit and vegetable growers around the globe. (While Anderson Air is the company’s airline of choice, Anderson leaves the flying to its staff pilots.) The Oppenheimer Group started out in 1858 as a supplier of provisions to gold-rush miners and got into produce when it introduced mandarin oranges to North America in the late 1880s. Today, in addition to its Vancouver facility, the company has offices in 16 U.S. states and major distribution centres in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and it sells more than $550-million worth of fresh produce – sourced from all corners of the globe – to wholesalers and retailers a year. As our interview proceeds, it becomes clear that, for Anderson, enjoying life has always had at least equal billing with climbing the corporate ladder. “You’ve got to balance it out,” he explains. “When you’re away 50 per cent of the weekends in a year, you’ve got to make it back to your family – and also for your health.” He describes a cabin at Whistler, a time-share in Hawaii, a boat and a cabin on remote Lasqueti Island where he and his wife spend at least three weeks a year. (His 26-year-old son, Ryan, works at Oppenheimer and plans to fly part-time for Anderson Air; 24-year-old daughter Kerri runs Eden Fashion Boutique Ltd. in Yaletown.) As our interview draws to a close, there’s no formal exchanging of business cards or promises to do lunch. “Have a great weekend, eh,” Anderson says, a broad smile breaking out as he heads off to his boat and some private time on the island.