John Anderson: Planning helps wholesaler weather unexpected hurdles

John Anderson helps buffer Vancouver-based produce empire The Oppenheimer Group against closed borders and crop failures

John Anderson, president, chairman and CEO, The Oppenheimer Group | Chung Chow

When you're in charge of marketing and distributing 40 million cases of fresh fruit and vegetables each year, it helps to know your company from the roots up.

John Anderson, now president, chairman and CEO of The Oppenheimer Group, a.k.a. Oppy, started out 40 years ago as a warehouseman, then worked his way up through sales and operations.

“I learned what it takes at every level to be successful,” Anderson said. “I think because I have hands-on experience with virtually every aspect of our business, I can offer practical guidance in every area. I can see how all the pieces fit together and understand the realities, which strengthens my strategic approach.”

With Oppy making $700 million or more in annual sales – and aiming to reach $1 billion by 2019 – you wouldn’t think anything could be left to chance. Yet building chance into Oppy’s “disciplined strategic planning process” is key to success when dealing with crops, explained Anderson, the first Canadian to be named The Packer’s Produce Marketer of the Year (2012).

“We leave room for strategic opportunities and the flexibility to modify our course a bit should Mother Nature or other circumstances we can’t control require us to,” he said. “Also, we have become adept at looking into the future and anticipating changes and trends before they happen, enabling us not only to mitigate risk, but also to bring products to market that fill a demand as it unfolds.”

For example, Russia recently banned produce grown in the European Union, Canada, the U.S. and other countries. Without missing a beat, Oppy swung its gaze to South America. Growers there, Anderson said, “have an even better opportunity than ever to ship into this vast market. We are secure in our South American berry, grape, stone fruit, cherry and other supplies for the coming winter and spring, but there is less fruit to go around, so we’re grateful for our strong partnerships with growers in Chile, Argentina, Peru and other South American countries.”

With his canny forecasts, Anderson, who’s led Oppy since 1993, is following company tradition. In 1858, gauging the gold rush to be a ripe business setting, the Oppenheimer brothers started up a food-and-supply store in Victoria. In 1891, with more stores in place, and Vancouver’s first wholesale provision warehouse, the company started bringing Japanese mandarin oranges to Western Canada as a seasonal treat. Now, no stocking is properly stuffed without one.

Then as now, the company “promotes good health and a better quality of life for the end consumer,” Anderson said. “To make that happen, every aspect of our organization must perform at a very high level, 24-7. And we need the right systems in place for our products to flow seamlessly from grower to retailer. My goal is to make working with Oppy simple and virtually effortless for our customers, even though the process in the background is very complex.”

Since Anderson became CEO in 1993, Oppy has experienced 600% growth, achieved “through new supply sources, new customer relationships and the development of a sophisticated supply chain that now touches over 25 countries.”

Nevertheless, even with offices throughout the Americas, and 264 employees, the company has the same feeling it did when it consisted of just four brothers.

“We have managed to maintain a strong sense of family,” Anderson said. “Our culture is founded in respect for one another and a shared belief in our ‘expect the world from us’ promise. People are given the training and the tools to succeed. While I expect other companies may offer a similar environment, I think what we have at Oppy is quite special.”

Doug Grant, executive vice-president and chief operations officer, describes Anderson as “a true entrepreneur, who over the last 20 years has built Oppenheimer into the industry powerhouse it is today.”

“John envisioned the right strategy and culture, developed the right team, partnered with the right growers around the world and invested in systems and technology, in all creating the optimal framework for company success,” Grant said. “John is passionate about our company growth and very focused on ensuring operational areas execute the plan.”

Anderson admits to being also focused on enjoying his favourite fruit, new to Oppy: the Envy apple. “It’s kind of tart-sweet, very crisp, very juicy, and when you bite into it, you get a ‘wow.’” 


What sort of character traits or leadership styles do CEOs have to cultivate in the 21st century? 

Successful CEOs need to be inclusive, collaborative, visionary and fair, and be able to communicate their vision into an executable strategy.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Oppy has been around for over 155 years, and we have a lot of success to show for it. But I think my most important contribution ... has been to develop and maintain a culture of respect and high performance, not just here in Vancouver but throughout our global offices. Oppy people are the same everywhere – in Chile, Peru, Miami, Toronto … any of our locations. We share a very strong desire to deliver good results and work as a team. I am very proud of our people and the way we operate.  We’ve been able to maintain and build upon the culture we had when we were just a small organization. Not an easy feat considering the multiple locations around the world.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced?

Most of our grower partners rely on us for financing in one form or another. These days, banking requirements are extremely stringent, so a great deal of due diligence is required to manage risk.

What career decisions would you make differently were you starting out today?

Nothing! I am very blessed to have had the opportunity to contribute at all levels at Oppy and shape the company into the remarkable organization it is today.

What’s one business lesson that you’d like to pass on to others?

Do something you are passionate about. There are always obstacles ahead, and without a passion for your business and the drive to succeed, they will be even more difficult to overcome. 

Celebrate exceptional leadership at Business in Vancouver's 2014 BC CEO Awards.