Innovation helps drive long-term success

08/06/2013 10:49:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

Editor’s note: Emerging Leader Spotlight is a recurring feature about participants of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s Emerging Leader Development Program. Citrus + Vegetable Magazine asked them to share an item they gleaned from the program and how they’re using it in their business.

Justin RobersonAs manager of production systems and sustainability for Lipman Produce Co., Justin Roberson is surrounded by innovation.

The Immokalee-based tomato grower-packer-shipper, for example, recently installed a new electronic sorting/grading line for its grape tomatoes. The result was a better quality and more consistent product for its customers.

But Roberson says he has learned Lipman isn’t alone.

As part Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association’s year-long Emerging Leader Development Program, he and classmates visited both smaller and larger operations in Florida and California.

What Roberson says he found were the successful operations also were some of the most innovative.

“A lot of the companies that are leading the industry now and have been successful throughout the years share an ability to innovative,” he says. “It may not always be innovation from a technology standpoint. There’s also innovation from creative ideas and best practices—that fresh-forward thinking approach to everything they’re doing.”

He cited as an example a large California central coast lettuce grower-shipper who began producing a lettuce variety with leaves perfectly sized for sandwiches.

“They weren’t just growing lettuce, but were able to meet their customer’s needs,” Roberson says. “They were breeding this proprietary line that put out the type of leaves that their customer was really wanting.”

The innovation came from taking the approach, “What do you want as a customer, and how can we provide it?” he says.

And external forces, such as customer demand, can be a huge force to drive innovation, Roberson says.

But innovation isn’t limited to larger-sized operations, the leadership class discovered.

Roberson says he and classmates visited a family-owned Florida blueberry operation that wanted to find a home for its fruit late in the season, when shelf life may be limited.

“’We have all of these good blueberries on the bush, but there’s no market for them and the quality is starting to go,’” the owners told the leadership class.

So the family began making wine, Roberson says, joking it was a case of making lemonade when life gives you lemons.

“They knew the way to maximize yields on their bushes and get more product per acre to really bring the cost down,” he says. But the family asked, what else can we do with our blueberries if we can’t sell them on the fresh market?

The winemaking business proved so successful that the family exited the fresh blueberry business entirely.

Being innovative isn’t necessarily about following a step-by-step procedure, Roberson says. Instead, it’s more of an open mindset and a willingness to take risks.

“A lot of people—it’s surprising—don’t want to try anything new,” he says. “The money up front and the uncertainty prevent them from really growing and moving forward.”

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