2023 Produce Business 40 Under Forty Award Winner: Austin Kirtley

Age: 35

Co-Founder/Managing Partner
KESI Management
Indianapolis, IN

Hometown: Indianapolis, IN
Hobbies: Golfing, Hiking, Fishing, Hunting, Cooking, Grilling
Family/Community: Married, 2 children, Harvest Church, Gigi’s Playhouse, Midwest Food Bank
Motto in life: Be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people.

Kirtley started his career after college in 2012, working in the greenhouse industry for Heartland Growers. During his time at Heartland, he spearheaded the business’ diversification into hydroponic herbs and lettuce. From there, he transitioned to become director of operations and director of supply chain at Caito Foods in 2015. During his time at Caito, he helped grow the company’s value-add produce processing business from $120 million to almost $200 million within five years. He was recognized by Caito, and selected to participate in the Executive Leadership Program in Produce at Cornell University in 2017. He was also selected in 2019 as one of 15 out of 15,000 Spartan Nash employees to participate in the Executive Leadership Program at the Center of Creative Leadership.

In 2020, he made the decision to start KESI Management. The company specializes in the food and beverage industry, providing some of the largest companies operational, supply chain and engineering consulting work. As KESI has grown six-fold over the past three years, Kirtley has continued to manage and run the produce category within the business. He was selected for the 2021 IFPA Leadership Program and also recognized in Top 100 Innovators & Entrepreneurs magazine. He is currently serving on the IFPA’s Supply Chain Council.

Q: What aspect of the business challenged you the most early on?
Delving into the produce/perishable goods industry at an early age, I realized that the pace and degree of change/variability in our industry was EXTREME. The moment you think you have something figured out, the seasonality changes, the varieties change, the market trends shift to focus on different areas. It took me awhile to be able to train my mind to be moving that fast and take into account that amount of information. But, now that I have been living in it, I know that I would not be able to move into an environment unless it had this type of pace.

Q: How has the industry changed during your tenure?
Automation and robotics is something that many more companies are having to adopt to manage the demands of a 24/7/365 industry. I see the availability of labor continuing to be a problem in the produce industry, and will fully expect to see the adoption rate of automation to only increase.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
Starting KESI Management with my business partner, Mehrdad Erfan, has definitely been one of my proudest career accomplishments. As we started this business in the middle of COVID, we knew we were taking a risk, but believed in each other and what we had to offer. I am extremely proud to look at the team, clients, and cultures that we get the opportunity to experience on a daily basis.

Q: What advice would you give someone new to the produce industry?
Embrace every minute of it and immerse yourself. This industry is impacting the lives of millions on a daily basis. There are very few industries that give you that type of reach.

I had a great mentor early on in my career who challenged me to learn as much as I could about the industry. I dove headfirst into understanding the markets, the people and the industry. It has paid dividends for me as my career continues to grow, but that advice has never changed in my mind. I believe that the earlier you embrace that mentality, the greater success you will have.