Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Rick Antle of Tanimura & Antle.
Originally printed in the September 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Leader. Larger than life. Legend. These are a few of the ways family, friends and fellow fresh produce industry professionals describe Rick Antle, who was the founder and chief executive officer at Tanimura & Antle (T&A) when he passed away in 2018. And his legacy can be seen in a line from his obituary, “through hard work, perseverance and leadership, Rick is the epitome of a true industry icon.”
Antle was born in Salinas, CA, with the hereditary seeds of agriculture in his veins. His family migrated to the Golden State from Oklahoma during the early 20th century Dust Bowl era. Once there, the family gained employment in the packing sheds of central California. Antle grew up working weekends and summers, moving sprinkler pipes and doing other entry-level jobs in the Salinas Valley lettuce fields under the watchful eyes of his grandfather, Bud Antle, his father Bob, and the Tanimura brothers. The harder he worked, the more Antle’s love for agriculture and responsibility grew.
After high school, he enrolled in the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, where he graduated in 1979 with a crop science major. By this time, Antle’s father sold the family business (Bud Antle Inc.), and Antle went to work for the new owners, Castle & Cooke Inc., known today as Dole Fresh Vegetables. This put Antle at what turned out to be a life-changing crossroads.
“The story my dad always told me is that Castle & Cooke wanted to send him to Nicaragua to oversee a banana operation. It was the same time my mom was pregnant with me and about to give birth,” says Brian Antle, Rick’s son and the company’s executive vice president of sales. “The idea of moving to Nicaragua and having his first child there made my dad realize that, as he said, he would rather ‘drive the bus than ride on it’ and T&A was quickly conceptualized and created.”
The two families had worked together since the end of World War II. In 1982, partnering Antle’s packing proficiency and the Tanimuras’ farming expertise, that lifelong friendship was formalized by the formation of T&A. On Nov. 10, 1982, in Yuma, AZ, 10,000 cases of lettuce were packed on a $10 market and marked T&A’s official start. Antle was president and principal of T&A since its inception and chief executive officer since 2003.
“Rick was a born leader who brought the best out in his team,” says Tonya Antle, Antle’s wife of 17 years and Vanguard herself. “He knew every employee’s name, from the irrigator to the CFO, and everyone was treated with the same respect and attention. With over 2,700 employees, he took the responsibility of being the chief motivator very seriously. He wanted everyone in the company to take ownership and have an empowered sense of responsibility.”
Before his death, Antle spearheaded the transition to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Two years prior to that, he built employee housing, Spreckels Crossing, which assured 800 of the company’s workers had clean, safe, affordable housing. It was a project Antle was especially proud of because competitors followed suit by constructing similar developments, thus creating an even bigger impact on the industry.
“Rick Antle was a visionary, always miles ahead of the industry,” says Scott Grabau, president and chief executive officer at T&A. “He would travel the world, especially Europe, and see what trends were out there and then apply them to our marketplace. He was among the first to try packaged salads, protein-based salad solutions, see the importance of organics and conventional products together, of mechanization, and controlled environment agriculture.
“Rick knew that first to the market paid the price to lead because others could simply copy after the idea is proven viable, but this did not stop his ambition to be a true market maker and market leader.”
Outside of diversifying for business purposes, Antle always had a vision for the farm of the future, which is illustrated in other companies he started. In 2003, owning 3 Star Seed, a seed breeding and genetics company, enabled T&A to quickly respond to consumers’ desires for new and innovative products. In 2007, he built a hydroponic operation in Tennessee, allowing T&A to service customers who wanted a local option. In 2014, he started PlantTape, an automated transplanting system now commercially deployed in 13 countries.
Finally, coming to fruition a year after Antle died, Stout Industrial Technologies designs, builds and deploys new age farm equipment equipped with vision systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate some of the farm functions traditionally done by hand, such as weeding fields. Stout founders include Rick’s son Jeff.
Antle not only served in many leadership positions within the T&A family of companies and the Antle family of companies but also in charities, community organizations and especially in the farming and fresh produce industries.
Not surprisingly, Antle received many honors and awards. Among these were the United Fresh Produce Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award, the Cal Poly 1994 Department of Agriculture Distinguished Alumnus and the Cal Poly 1992 Crop Sciences Distinguished Agriculturalist. He was also recognized by the Salinas Chamber of Commerce as its outstanding young farmer and served in many volunteer roles throughout his career.
Family and friends are quick to describe Antle as a fun-loving, work-hard-and-play-harder kind of guy. He loved to fly, and had a jet rating, but was just as comfortable in an acrobatic plane doing loops over the Salinas Valley on a Saturday afternoon. He was an expert snow skier and enjoyed his annual heliskiing trips to Canada with his close friends. He captained his own yacht, on which he and Tonya cruised the entire Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Maine over three years, as well as the Southern California Pacific Ocean.
If Antle was still with us, his eyes would be focused firmly on the future, says Brian Antle. “He knew if you’re not innovating, you’re dying in this industry, and that is something Rick instilled in everyone at T&A. That light still burns bright within T&A, and I’m proud to say some of his last projects are still being worked on and should have a large impact on the industry.”