Celebrating 35 Years — Vanguards Who Made a Difference: Steve Barnard

Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Steve Barnard of Mission Produce.

Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Two important lessons have paved the professional life of Steve Barnard, president and chief executive officer of Oxnard, CA-headquartered Mission Produce. First, “When you experience challenges and they knock you down, get back up and try again”, and secondly, “Always think bigger.”

These working pearls of wisdom were imparted to Barnard by J.R. Simplot of potato fame, whom Barnard knew personally and looked up to due to Simplot’s business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit. It’s no wonder that with this grounding guidance, Barnard forged his own path, spearheading and revolutionizing the avocado industry, and fruit industry, with his devotion to innovation and growth. In just 35 years, Barnard has created one of the largest avocado providers in the world with long-term, year-round retail and foodservice relationships throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

Growing up in Filmore, CA, Barnard’s father was a citrus and avocado farmer. Knowing he wanted a career in agriculture, Barnard took summer jobs at agriculture companies, while attending Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, to learn and explore the industry. He realized he wanted something faster-paced, so he convinced a fresh produce company about to start its harvest season to hire him even though the company had no positions open. Thus, Barnard launched his career.

Due to his drive and willingness to try new things, he worked his way up through the company and by age 24 was overseeing the company’s vegetable harvesting crews. Then in 1983, Barnard saw the potential for avocados early and started building the groundwork for what is now one of the most advanced global avocado networks, Mission Produce.

“One thing that always stood out to me was Steve’s work ethic,” says Jim Donovan, senior vice president of sales and marketing who went to work for Mission straight out of college and nine months after the company was founded. “It drove all of us to achieve greater accomplishments. We were not afraid to take risks, because that drove innovation.”

In the 1980s, the U.S. avocado industry was small. Barnard knew that Hass avocados were a great product, with great potential given the fruit’s cravable flavor and superfood qualities. However, the category’s reach at that time was tight because of sourcing constraints (i.e., California was the only U.S. supplier). Barnard was confident that once other sourcing regions opened up, specifically Mexico, the category would take off. Indeed, Mexico gained access to the U.S. and other global markets in the late 1990s, and consumers began enjoying a year-round supply of quality Hass avocados.

“One of the biggest major industry influences that ran against the grain of common practice at the time was the creation of the forward ripening/distribution centers specifically for avocados,” says Donovan. “Other commodities had done it; bananas for instance, but avocados were a typical FOB-type business, with shipments from California packing houses. That changed the industry. Today everyone has some sort of regional distribution.”

By fine-tuning this ripening technology and marketing it to retailers and foodservice distributors, Barnard was able to increase Mission’s sales by 300 percent.

“He was so convinced it would work that it did,” says Reggie Griffin, who worked 40-plus years for the Cincinnati, OH-based Kroger Co. “We started at the corporate level, and Steve put in a handful of ripening centers around Ohio. It turned out to be a success because he made it one.”

Barnard has always seen opportunities in life that others would overlook. Plus, he has had a knack for identifying trends on the horizon and where things or people are going. For example, Barnard created consumer demand and increased value for fringe avocado sizes and grades with ‘Emeralds in the Rough’ and ‘Small, but Mighty’ avocados.

“The introduction of bags has led to major growth in the category with the ability to sell all sizes on the tree. Another milestone was the development of a marketing team that could focus on solutions for increased sales for retail and foodservice. By providing facts and new ideas, our customers were able to grow the category unseen in the industry,” says Ross Wileman, Mission’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, who like Barnard was raised in Fillmore, and roomed with Barnard at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Over the years, Barnard has opened international markets for avocados, expanding across Asia, Europe, Canada, Latin America and the U.S. To meet the heightened global demand, the company has helped build and expand avocado sourcing in the U.S., Mexico, Chile, Peru, Guatemala, and Colombia.

Back at home, Barnard is particularly passionate about fostering the development of the next generation. The company supports local colleges to build learning centers and groves, having done so with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Ventura City College, to teach students how to farm and purchase avocados to provide a revenue stream back to the school. Also, Mission Produce has an extensive internship program that brings in 10 to 20 students from around the world to the company’s headquarters in Oxnard, to work with the company and learn the business. On average, 25 to 50 percent of the interns receive offers of employment upon completion of their internship, providing them a full-circle experience to launch their careers.

“Steve has been a big influence on my career in the produce industry, as well as the careers of my colleagues, in numerous ways,” says Nolan York, one of these interns, who for the past six years since graduation has worked in export sales at Mission Produce. “His dedication has proven that committing to 35+ years of hard work can motivate an entire organization and develop loyal global partners.”

By sticking to his values of honesty, respect, and loyalty, Barnard has proudly fostered a close-knit, family-business-like culture within a global company.