Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Roger Pepperl of Stemilt Growers
Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.
In an era of American consumerism ruled by “bigger is better,” Roger Pepperl, now-retired marketing director at Wenatchee, WA-headquartered Stemilt Growers LLC, proved small can be successful, too — especially when it comes to rings at the register.
In fact, colleagues call Pepperl’s most valuable contribution to moving the fresh produce industry forward is his dedication to helping grower-shippers develop a voice of their own through branded products. One of the most noteworthy examples is Pepperl’s development of the Lil Snappers kid-size fruit brand.
“From the design of the package to be convenient and stand up in the refrigerator to the characters who adorn the branding, this solution-oriented package was among the best-executed ideas in produce and, like so much of Pepperl’s work, benefited the grower, retailer and the consumer,” says Katie Harmon, Stemilt’s communication manager.
Pepperl graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 1997. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a 20-year career as a produce buyer and merchandiser at Meijer, a 253-store chain of supercenters based in Grand Rapids, MI.
In 2000, he flipped the coin on his career by moving from retail to the grower side. Tom Mathison, Stemilt’s founder, brought Pepperl on board to turn a then-nonexistent marketing department into the full force machine it is today.
Pepperl’s retail and buying experience was key to his success building this department. Specifically, he understood the power behind branded items and how purchasing commodities can take the joy out of shopping for consumers. He believed, too, when a company behind a branded product can offer transparency, a story and a memorable experience, the consumer will go back for more.
To date, Pepperl has been the brains behind many brands and initiatives that carry the Stemilt name, including the company’s popular A Half Mile Closer to the Moon cherries, Stemilt’s Artisan Organics program, Kyle’s Pick cherries, Piñata apples, Apple Lover five-pound packs, 5 River Islands cherries, Rushing Rivers pears, Stemilt’s sustainability program, Responsible Choice, and Stemilt’s latest internal branding campaign called Famous First, a program dedicated to improving the supply chain.
Beyond branding, Pepperl’s enthusiasm for the industry is apparent through his passion for his staff. He encouraged his colleagues to build their strengths, to seek out new challenges, and to better themselves, both personally and professionally, by attending webinars, conferences and educational sessions.
“What makes Roger different from the pack, and a worthy recipient of a high-caliber award like this, is his drive to break commoditization in produce and tell the brand stories that make our industry so unique,” says Brianna Shales, Pepperl’s longtime co-worker and Stemilt’s current marketing director. “He spends every day dreaming up ways to share our story, seeing brands as the building block toward achieving higher produce consumption to benefit the entire industry.”
“Roger was one of the first people in my career who told me that the kind of work I did was valuable and unique and that I was an asset to our industry,” says Julie DeWolf, Sunkist’s director of retail marketing. “He truly cares about making the world a healthier place through the consumption of produce.”
Pepperl is involved in the produce industry overall, and sits on multiple apple variety boards including the Next Big Thing (NBT) Cooperative. He is also part of the IFORED group (International Fruit Obention), developing new consumer-centric red-fleshed apple varieties to market on a global scale.
“Roger is a consistent and thoughtful contributor in all parts of our business,” says Jennifer Parkhill, executive director of the NBT Cooperative. “His industry knowledge and vision have been invaluable in directing the co-op to open new and emerging markets.”
Pepperl has also served as co-chair of the marketing and communications for the Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation, headquartered in Brentwood, MO, where he played a crucial role in helping the organization develop the Have A Plant campaign from the ground up.
“Roger is an industry icon, innovator, and visionary,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RDN, PBH’s president and chief executive. “His candor, willingness to push boundaries and collaborative spirit are among the many attributes I love about him. His experience and breadth of knowledge became an irreplaceable asset to me as I navigated a new industry and built new relationships. I am and will be forever grateful to Roger for his mentorship and friendship.”
Pepperl has served on the boards of the Washington, DC-based United Fresh Produce Association as chairman and executive board member and the Center for Global Produce Sustainability Board. He served on the board of the Newark, DE-headquartered Produce Marketing Association’s Exhibitor Advisory Committee, and has earned United Fresh’s FreshMKT Achievement Award and PBH’s Excellence in Leadership Award.
He hasn’t stopped sharing his knowledge even though he retired at the end of 2020. For example, Pepperl still stays connected to PBH and offers advice when needed. Yet looking ahead, his focus is on family. Pepperl and his wife are both retired now with a new granddaughter to spoil.