Originally published Feb. 23, 1997
Rod and Bob Grimm didn’t come to the southern San Joaquin Valley 16 years ago to start a quiet socioeconomic revolution. They came to make money.
And by all indications they have succeeded admirably.
Their $300 million company, Grimmway Farms, is the biggest carrot producer in the world. With about 3,600 workers, they provide more jobs than any other employer in Kern County.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank.
Grimmway Farms, perhaps more than any other company in the region, has provided the economic and social impetus for a gradual but dramatic metamorphosis. A new farm-labor working class has emerged in the communities of Lamont and Arvin, and the 365-day, 16-hour nature of Grimmway’s operations has played a role. Grimmway workers have reliable jobs, and their children have the stability of one classroom and one teacher for an entire school year.
“People’s lives have been changed,” said Salvador Chipres, a contractor who has been building and selling houses in the $60,000 to $80,000 range in Lamont since 1992, the same year Grimmway opened its 450,000-square-foot carrot processing facility on Malaga Road. “...thanks to big companies like Grimmway, things in the Arvin and Lamont areas are different.”
The Brothers Grimm would never try to take credit for that kind of fundamental change. Other factors — the influx of undocumented workers throughout the Central Valley and the use of increasingly efficient mechanical harvesters, to name two — have altered the face of farm labor in many valley farming communities. But the fact is, workers who never thought they could purchase a home in the United States are doing just that.
Impressed that Grimmway might have had that kind of impact? The Grimms aren’t. “Rest assured,” Bob Grimm said, “If we weren’t here somebody else would be.”
The Grimms’ cup runneth over with modesty. They are reluctant to take credit for the success of their own company, let alone their positive impact on local economies. But somebody has been doing something right at Grimmway Farms, embracing new technology at crucial times and pushing new carrot products with admirable relentlessness. Grimmway processes 9 million carrots a day, packages its product in 30 different labels and sells on a near worldwide scale, from New Hampshire to New Zealand. If the company lined up all the trucks it uses to transport its daily haul of freshly harvested carrots, the procession would stretch 21 -1⁄2 miles.
Most observers will tell you that the somebodies primarily responsible for creating that world-conquering profile are Grimmway’s hands-on owners: Rod Grimm, the 50-year-old president of the privately held company, and Bob Grimm, the 45-year-old vice president. The brothers, who both hold business management degrees from California State University, Fullerton, have worked hard to create a corporate culture of values and straight talk without appearing strident or self righteous.
Fit and trim from jogging and weight lifting, they are men of few words and fewer extravagances.
Until about four years ago, Bob’s primary office was a tiny, cramped loft inside the company’s cold, noisy DiGiorgio Road packing plant. Every day, Grimm walked past the carrot sorters, climbed a narrow flight of metal stairs, ducked his head under an I-beam and slid through a doorway into an office not much bigger than the bed of a one-ton truck.
These days Grimm has a warmer, quieter office a couple of miles down the road, an 8-by-10-foot workspace better suited for a bookkeeper or high-school guidance counselor than an international player in commerce. Brother Rod is in the next room of Grimmway’s leased, 75-year-old administrative building, the austere former Lamont county courthouse. Aside from family portraits and the deer, elk and moose heads hanging from the walls of Rod’s office, their work areas are sparsely decorated and generally unremarkable.
The Brothers Grimm aren’t much for opulence. They drive matching, late-model sport utility vehicles — Rod has a white 1993 GMC Yukon, Bob a black ’94 — and they own stunning Bakersfield homes near the golf course at Stockdale Country Club. Every Sunday after church, their families have brunch together at the country club, where Rod and Barbi’s three children enjoy the company of Bob and Kari’s five. Beyond that, their tastes are decidedly pedestrian. The brothers eat lunch at the same Lamont coffee shop several times a week, occasionally splitting a tunafish sandwich, and they prefer golf and slow-pitch softball to horse racing or polo. They pump their own gas and answer the phones when their shared secretary, Mandy, goes off to use the photocopier or send a fax. Bob only recently started wearing creased slacks to the office, most days at least, in place of his standard Wranglers.
THE GRIMMS’ LOW-KEY, just-folks, straight-arrow approach to life and work seems to have filtered down through the company ranks. Ties, profanity, “martini” lunches and over-reliance on hair-gel are almost totally absent from this work environment, not because they are forbidden, per se, but because the Brothers Grimm personally steer clear of those things. The Grimms are hands-on managers, and their active roles have an impact on the workforce that no motivational speech could ever duplicate.
“I suppose employees watch us,” Bob said. “We’re here every day working alongside them. If we were playing golf three or four days a week, things might not be the way they are around here. Of course I wouldn’t be shooting 120, either.”
The Grimms’ aversion to profanity, overindulgence and sloth are products of strong Christian faith. These are not holier-than-thou men, just humble, self-effacing brothers with a singular source of guidance.
“When you start talking about God, it starts to take on a feel like you’re different from other people, like you’re putting yourself on a pedestal,” said Rod, his faith strengthened five years ago following a bout with a cancerous kidney. “We believe that we’ve been blessed by him but not because of what we have done, not because we’ve deserved it or led some kind of better life. It isn’t what you’ve done. It’s what he’s done.”
As befits their style, the Grimms have boiled down their workplace philosophy to two very simple guidelines: “Do what you say you’re going to do,” said Rod, “and treat people the way you want to be treated.”
But the brothers, partners in farming for 30 years, prefer deeds to words. The company is an active participant in Lamont’s annual economic summit conference and has helped pay for community projects. (Most recently, Grimmway gave $50,000 to the Arvin and Lamont libraries and donated a pickup to the Lamont Citizen Patrol Unit.)
The Grimms give to their church, St. John’s Lutheran of Bakersfield, and to Irvine-based Concordia University, a Lutheran college. In the past 18 months the Grimms, staunch Republicans, have hosted backyard fund-raisers for top GOP candidates for state and national office, including Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and Dan Lungren. Rod’s wife, Barbi, was a delegate to the GOP national convention last August.
Less obvious, but perhaps more telling, is the Grimms’ approach to business disputes. Grimmway’s monetary muscle could easily turn the company into a litigious bully, but the Grimms’ style is less confrontational. Grimmway goes to court much less often that one might expect of a company with so many contractual relationships, according to Jeff Green, the company attorney since 1989.
“It’s never a matter of black and white, as in, 'Is this our legal right or isn’t it?’” said Green, a former fraud specialist in the Kern County district attorney’s office. “It’s more like, 'Is this the right thing to do?’ We could sue a lot more than we do.”
“When people go to court, neither side wins,” said Bob, whose company has been known to spend money “just to make things right,” even after winning a judgment. “Reasonable people sometimes differ. It does not all boil down to money.”
THEY MAY AVOID courtrooms like Christmas fruitcake, but the Grimms have never been averse to getting a little dirt under their fingernails. Raised on a chicken ranch in Anaheim, they’ve been gathering eggs since they could tie their own shoelaces. A Little League coach once asked whether young Bob could take mornings off from his chores, since he always seemed exhausted by the third inning. The Grimms’ father, Herb, didn’t budge. “Dad kind of comes from the school of 'Too bad. We have our work to do,’” said Bob, who is now senior vice chairman (and chairman-elect) of the 3,000-member Western Growers Association.
Between the chicken ranch and their father’s orange-tree farm in Riverside County, the boys often worked seven days a week, but they didn’t seem to mind: After chores were finished they could go swimming in the family pool or drive go-carts. Besides, work was kind of fun.
“I don’t want to act like I’m bragging,” said Herb Grimm, 82, who drives up from Orange County every Thursday to work in his sons’ office, “but they were good boys.”
The Grimm boys got their start in farming in the mid-1960s with five acres of sweet corn on their grandfather’s Anaheim farm. Rod was in college, Bob in the eighth grade. They hired their cousins and two sisters to sell the corn in roadside produce stands. “People liked seeing the corn in the background,” Rod said. “They associated it with being fresh.”
Eventually they outgrew the roadside stands and began selling to dealers, eventually leasing land at the Irvine Ranch. But corn was very much a seasonal summer crop. The writing soon appeared on the wall, in bright orange letters: The future was carrots. But not in Southern California.
Their father’s Anaheim ranch was snatched up through eminent domain for construction of the Route 91 freeway, forcing him to relocate to the city of Orange. Urbanization was ruining Southland farming.
By the late 1970s, after 10 years of farming, the Grimm brothers were $750,000 in the hole. Their 120-acre cauliflower crop had been devastated by a severe freeze just 10 days from harvest, and other crops were seriously damaged. Herb Grimm and his sons sat down and discussed their options.
They decided to continue planting at the same ambitious pace, and the next year was a good one. The road out of that river of red ink led north, over the Tehachapis, and in May 1981, the Grimms took it. The Grimms, who had been growing carrots since 1971, discovered the potential abundance of Kern County carrot farming in 1976, when they, like farmers before them, found that the sandy loam soil and low precipitation levels of the southern valley were perfect for the hearty root crop.
The clincher, of course, was that carrots could be harvested in Kern County twice a year, from May to July, and then again from November to February. “For seven months, you could grow carrots within 15 miles of a hauling facility, instead of shipping them from Orange County,” Bob said.
With slightly different growing seasons in other parts of Southern California, they realized, a carrot packer with enough resources could actually be planting and harvesting every day of the year. Grimmway eventually achieved that goal, gradually starting up operations in the Imperial Valley, Cuyama, Lancaster, Paso Robles, Stockton, Tehachapi, Colorado and Nevada.
Bolthouse Farms and Mike Yurosek & Son, the two dominant carrot players in 1981, already operated packing sheds when Grimmway literally dismantled its Irvine operations and moved to Kern County. The Grimms were relatively minor players then. But in the mid-’80s the dynamic began to change as growers brought in huge commercial harvesters that could dig up 75 tons of carrots an hour, roughly the same amount 100 field workers harvested in eight hours 30 years earlier.
In March 1985, Grimmway completed its frozen-carrot plant, and by 1990, the investment had clearly proven worthwhile.
“Other companies ... virtually went bankrupt at the same time they (the Grimms) were growing phenomenally,” said Ronald Lehr, one of 75 growers associated with Grimmway. The Grimms made money early on, Lehr said, and then “they were gutsy enough to keep investing in it, and kept getting bigger and bigger.”
In January 1991, Grimmway bought Belridge Farms, the nation’s No. 4 carrot packer, to leapfrog into the No. 3 position. And in June 1995, Grimmway bought No. 2 Mike Yurosek & Son to bolt past Bakersfield-based William Bolthouse Farms as the industry leader with 50 to 55 percent of the California carrot market. At present Grimmway or its contract growers harvest from 40,000 acres over the course of a year, about 60 percent of it in Kern County.
The brothers appear to relish the competition of the carrot industry, and not because they are salivating at the thought of a worldwide carrot monopoly. Bolthouse Farms, their closest competition with 35 to 40 percent of the California carrot market, is a huge, well-run empire in its own right, and jousting over market share only serves to hone the marketing and management skills of each company.
“Competition is healthy,” said Rod, who, until his workforce outgrew the event, coached against his brother in Grimmway’s annual “fresh” vs. “freezer” softball showdown between rival packing plants. “It’s good competition that keeps you on your toes. It’s called free enterprise, and no other system in the world works as well.”
That doesn’t mean the Grimms are happy about the sudden appearance of their newest competitor, Golden Valley Farms. There is much dismay among Kern County carrot packers over the new company’s $725,000 government-granted break on its property taxes, an advantage like nothing ever handed down before in the local carrot industry. Grimmway attorney Green suggests that the Kern Economic Development Corp. knew full well that Golden Valley was primarily a carrot-packer, but that that key detail was kept from the Board of Supervisors until the deal was OK’d.
The task at hand for Grimmway, Bolthouse and the others, then, is protecting their slices of the carrot cake from a company that’s been fortified with former managers from Bolthouse, Yurosek and Grimmway and kick-started with public money. Between the two of them, Grimmway and Bolthouse process 90 percent of the carrots in California. Whether that is still the case after Golden Valley gets up and running — the company’s production start-up is tentatively set for December — remains to be seen.
YUROSEK & SON invented the “baby carrot,” a variety that is cut and peeled to a uniform, “snack-ready” size, but Grimmway has pioneered a wide array of packaging gimmicks designed to intrigue the vegetable-buying public. Baby carrots alone are packaged at least nine ways, from a one-ounce bag to a band-wrapped, lunchbox-ready four-pack of three-ounce bags. If consumers aren’t already sold on the health angle — carrots are rich in beta-carotene — Grimmway aims to win them over on the portability angle.
The company sells carrots (and its cousin, the parsnip) in 20 countries under at least 30 different labels, including Bunny Luv, Bunny Munch, Snoboy and Golden Crown. That’s in addition to canned goods and other packaging manifestations, including frozen microwave dinners.
“My goal,” said John Sanchez, who deals in international sales, “is to be able to say that the sun never sets on where we sell carrots. We want every time zone, every hemisphere. I think we can do it, too.”
U.S. carrot consumption, No. 1 in the world, continues to rise as raw “snack” packaging becomes more available. Since 1990, Americans have been eating about 111½ pounds apiece each year, up from about 10 pounds in the ’80s and 91½ in the ’70s, according to the USDA. Industry marketers want people to eat more carrots, and they’re making headway.
Flight attendants have more in their goodie arsenal than just peanuts these days, now that Grimmway and its distributors are supplying United, Northwest, Delta and other commercial airlines with 1-, 1½- and 2-ounce packets of peeled baby carrots. School cafeterias are next on Grimmway’s must-conquer list.
Carrots are among the ingredients in skin-care products and baked goods, and Grimmway may one day market a carrot flour. Others have created products such as carrot soap; maybe carrot shampoo, carrot paperand carrot candy are possibilities as well. “We still have carrot culls going out as cattle feed,” Bob said. “If we can get a better use out of those culls, we’re that much better off.”
GRIMMWAY'S MALAGA Road plant, which sits on 160 acres east of Lamont, is Grimmway’s stainless-steel pride and joy. Plant executives, including the Grimms, often lead tours through the gleaming facility, starting at the carrot off-loading area. It is here that trucks pull into an open bay, with the driver’s side of the vehicle rolling onto a steep, sloped curb that tilts the load at about a 15 degree angle. A hard, thick jet of water knocks the carrots through a gate on the side of each huge bed, and the mud-splattered product is swept onto a conveyor.
These carrots will be washed, soaked, de-topped, brushed, size sorted, cut, size sorted again, electronically color sorted, hydro-cooled, stored, retrieved, peeled, polished, size sorted yet again, hand-sorted, hydro-cooled again, electronically scanned, packaged, boxed, topped with ice, stored again, retrieved again and, at last, shipped.
Just 30 percent of those processed carrots end up in the bag. The rest is whittled away or chopped off, or rejected entirely as too yellow, too blemished or too crooked. In contrast, about two-thirds of Grimmway’s whole, unprocessed carrots makes stores shelves.
The Malaga plant uses about 10 acre-feet of water per day, and though Bob won’t say how much power it uses, he admits Grimmway is PG&E’s No. 1 customer in Kern County.
The Malaga plant is just one of Grimmway’s seven facilities: There are also three “cello,” or cellophane-packaged, whole-carrot packing plants (two in Lamont and one in Cawelo, near Shafter); one frozen-processing plant near Arvin; a cutting/processing facility in Colorado; and a plant near Aberdeen, Scotland, which opened just last year as a foot-in-the-door to Europe’s 350 million potential carrot eaters.
HERB GRIMM IS ONLY in the office one day a week, but in one sense, a philosophical sense, Grimmway Farms is his company. His belief in the rewards of hard work and dedication are reflected in his sons and their enterprise. It worked for his sons, and his sons are making it work for hundreds of other people, many of them previously much closer to the bottom of the economic food-chain.
There is no better example of that than the five Juarezes, two sets of brothers from Mexico who sealed their deal with the Grimms with a handshake in 1976. The Juarez brothers, their entire fleet limited to three battered trucks, agreed to handle all the trucking for the fledgling carrot company. And so they have, for the past two decades. Now the Juarez brothers run 120 trucks.
Like the Juarez brothers, each of Grimmway’s employees has a stake in the product, or so the Grimm brothers have sought to convey. That fact is never more evident than during the Grimms’ semi-annual meetings with employees, all 3,600 of them, gathered 20 at a time. No matter what their position, employees have the opportunity to ask Rod, Bob or their top managers about any concern. Eighty percent of Grimmway’s employees speak a tongue other than English as their primary language, so the company brings in Spanish translators and, for the benefit of Grimmway’s 300 Sikh employees, a Punjabi interpreter. As a result of the comments from those meetings, Grimmway has instituted a dental plan, modified its health plan and added additional paid holidays.
The Punjabi-speaking community showed its appreciation by honoring Rod, dressed for the occasion in a flowing yellow robe, at a public ceremony at the Sikhs’ Guru Ram Das Academy on Weedpatch Highway in August 1995. “Grimmway has treated our people very well, very fairly,” said Nazar S. Kooner, an independent farmer and former Grimmway employee who organized the event.
Like Grimmway’s impact on Lamont schoolchildren and the improving home ownership opportunities of low- to moderate-income families in that area, the Punjabis’ appreciation is just another by-product of a profit-driven company’s conscience. Rod measures profits, he says, “not just ... by money in the bank but by job satisfaction and reward.” Money is nice, success rewarding and competition invigorating, the brothers seem to be saying, but it’s only half the payoff.
Perhaps that’s what Herb Grimm had in mind all along.