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Shaping The Industry – Part III

14 Canadian business leaders share their thoughts on commerce, careers, and community

Read Part I
Read Part II

As Canada commemorates its sesquicentennial this year, there is much to celebrate. Of course, there are also areas of ongoing concern—and this is true for the fresh produce industry as well. For this year’s True North supplement, we departed from our usual coverage to talk with 14 business leaders who have had a sustained impact on the Canadian fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain.

Among the common characteristics of these influential leaders are their acute vision and ability to juggle personal and professional lives. All are supreme multi-taskers. For most, it’s not enough to lead large companies and develop innovative programs and practices; they are also heavily involved in industry organizations as founders, board members, educators, and advocates.

As you will read, a background in produce is not a prerequisite for a successful career in buying or selling fruits and vegetables. But all of these individuals share a curiosity, enthusiasm, and passion for the produce industry, imbuing their respective companies with fresh insights and, perhaps most importantly, a positive outlook to inspire those around them.


Name: John Russell
Title: President
Company: J.E. Russell Produce Ltd.
Location: Toronto, Ontario

Some people find their way into the produce industry by chance; others intentionally seek it out. John Russell, the president, owner (with his wife), and chief executive officer of Toronto’s J.E. Russell Produce Ltd., was literally born into it. “My father, Harry, following his service in the Royal Canadian Air Force overseas in World War II, spent the next 35 years in the produce industry,” he explains.

“My career path was destined from the age of sixteen, when I started on the docks of the Ontario Food Terminal in 1967.” That’s where the company named for him still operates today, occupying four stalls in Canada’s largest wholesale shipping facility, where it services independent retailers, chain stores, and foodservice companies across the nation.

When asked about the top attributes or background for thriving in the perishables industry, Russell cites desire, attitude, and an ability to think on one’s feet as ideal training for the job, rather than any specific field of education.

Russell founded his eponymously named-company only ten years after that first day he spent on the terminal docks as a teenager. His father instilled him with the values of honesty, integrity, respect, and hard work—all of which have driven the company’s leader ever since. Additionally, Russell has acted as a former director of the terminal market’s board and of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and is current director of the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association.

He cites being named the Ontario Produce Marketing Association’s “Produce Man of the Year” in 2001 as his most memorable experience in the produce industry. “My biggest contribution is a willingness and ability to move with the introduction of new products. We’ve continued to innovate through the evolution of organic farming and the emergence of locally-grown produce, and we’re currently learning how to efficiently produce and feed a growing population while at the same time meet a demand for safe and affordable fruits and vegetables.”

After almost fifty years in the business, Russell still has a teenager’s excitement about the future: “The science and necessary crop production that will change the industry could be right around the corner.”


Name: Oleen Smethurst
Title: Assistant VP & General Manager of Produce Buying & Operations
Company: Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd.
Location: Ottawa, Ontario

You certainly couldn’t accuse Oleen Smethurst of resting on her laurels. The current assistant vice-president and general manager of produce buying and operations for Costco Canada, she has also served on the board of directors for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) for four years, chaired its Global Development Committee for three, and served on three committees for CPMA since 2011, including its executive committee.

“My roles in the industry have helped me to grow, both personally and professionally,” she says. “I have been exposed to areas of the business I would otherwise never have experienced, so I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that have come my way.”

Those opportunities began 25 years ago when Smethurst took a job as an inventory control specialist at Costco and met Seald Sweet International’s CEO, Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, who she describes as a mentor. “Mayda invited me to join her in the PMA Global Development Committee, and she has been a very instrumental part of my growth. She has taught me to challenge myself to go beyond my comfort zone.”

Part of venturing outside her comfort zone is confronting problems that face the industry, which she summarizes in two words: weather and water. “Changing weather conditions and lack of water are the two largest challenges facing the industry today, along with consumers not understanding the impact these two factors play,” she explains.

In her view, to “continue to feed the planet, the industry will need to work with varieties that will be more drought-tolerant and produce higher yields while still delivering taste and quality. If we could educate consumers to understand how incredibly important this is, it would be a major opportunity for the industry.”

Creating such opportunities are part and parcel of Smethurst’s résumé, which includes introducing top-seal packaging to Costco Canada, an innovation that brought higher product visibility, more appealing package design, convenience, and better quality to shoppers, while still reducing overall plastic content.

“We are constantly trying to improve the taste and flavor profiles of our items,” she asserts. “I travel the world to find new vendors, new growing regions, and new varieties to try to create a ‘wow factor’ for our customers.”


Name: Fred Webber
Title: President & CEO
Company: Fruit and Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corporation
Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Despite its name, the Fruit and Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corporation (DRC), president and CEO Fred Webber is emphatic that the nonprofit, nongovernment entity based in Ottawa is really about networking and education. “Mediating disputes between parties is what we do; but in Canada, people look to us as a resource,” he explains, noting the organization has also been called the ‘honest broker.’

Webber started his produce career as a farmer in Illinois, growing corn and soybeans, where he later joined the USDA’s Chicago office of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA), promoting fair trade. This prepared him for his next move to Blue Book Services on the Trading Assistance team, where he helped members with collections and mediated contract and payment disputes, helping companies find their own solutions and avoid government involvement.

Webber and Blue Book’s Jim Carr started working with the trinational Dispute Resolution Corporation project back in 1997. Initially, Blue Book Services handled the disputes for the DRC. After Webber immigrated to Ottawa in 2005 he became a dual U.S./Canadian citizen and went to work for DRC full time. In 2011, he succeeded Stephen Whitney as president and CEO of the group.

Webber is ardent about the produce industry. “This business is the last bastion of free enterprise. Someone has to be as good as their word. When people are in a bind, they call us and ask, ‘What can we do?’ We provide them with an honest opinion and can help with their issues because of our network of knowledgeable individuals.”

He believes the biggest challenge in the industry is food safety. “No one can be smug about someone else’s outbreak. If there’s a big recall, it can bankrupt an individual company and financially cripple an entire segment of the industry.

“But people up and down the food chain try to spread the responsibility—no one wants to put a trading partner out of business,” he notes, because it could just as easily be them the next time. The same is true of contract disputes, he says, “People want to do the right thing and we mediate to get them there.”

On the subject of mentors, he has many. “I was fortunate enough to have great industry mentors like George Hartfelder, Carol Williams, Jack Flannigan, Ken Clayton, Matt McInerney, Stephen Whitney, and Danny Dempster, to name a few. My most rewarding moments have been when Jim Carr hired me at Blue Book, and currently as the DRC [prepares to take] over licensing in Canada.” Lastly, he notes is “the opportunity to bring along a young, talented staff who will continue to serve this industry.”

In a business where most deals are still made over the phone and product is eaten long before it’s paid for, trust and cooperation are indispensable. Webber firmly believes most people are honest and the DRC supports this openness and sharing of industry knowledge. In addition to resolving disputes, DRC conducts seminars and provides networking opportunities. Like his love of volunteering to groom winter trails for cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts, Webber says his favorite thing to do is to smooth out differences between people and fix problems.


Name: Virginia Zimm
Title: President
Company: Ontario Produce Marketing Association
Location: Toronto, Ontario

It would be easy to assume Virginia Zimm’s love for products grown in Canadian soil reaches back to 1972, when her mother founded Faye Clack Communications, a marketing company that specialized in fresh produce—which Zimm would later lead.

Her roots, however, run deeper: her grandparents were farmers in Ontario’s Holland Marsh, and working there as a child gave her an appreciation of her home province’s bounty that has lasted her entire life. Then Ian Mackenzie, longtime president of the Ontario Produce Marketing Association (OPMA), approached Zimm to replace him upon retirement. Her response: she drafted a succession plan, sold the marketing business to her employees, and prepared for a new chapter of her life.

“I really believe this job was tailor-made for me,” she says. “I started out extolling the virtues of fresh produce based just on who paid us; now our mandate is to promote the consumption of all fruits and vegeta-bles from anywhere in the province of Ontario.”

She’s come a long way since sampling recipes her mother developed for clients in their test kitchen, but she’s brought a great breadth and depth of knowledge about the industry with her. When she was working with a succession planner, he asked her to write a headline describing what she hoped to accomplish in five years. Confident of fresh food’s ability to change the world, she wrote: “Produce industry emancipates the Canadian healthcare system.”

As a firm proponent of healthy eating and its impact, Zimm is dedicated to making her statement, though lofty, a reality. It is also the idea behind the OPMA/Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s proposed initiative to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables 20 percent by 2020, with every citizen adding an additional serving per day. And part of spreading this message is getting fresh food to those who may not have access. Each year, the OPMA donates thousands of pounds of fresh produce to a local food bank.

Ontario, it seems, is the ideal setting for Zimm and her passion: “We are a multicultural mosaic, and we bring in new and exciting produce from all over the world,” she explains. “Toronto is the best place for a test market—there are 127 official languages recognized at City Hall.” This is all part of her uncompromising belief that food is essential to a healthy society.

Zimm is also excited about OPMA’s new website,, which is tied to the group’s social media outlets and a perfect way to build interest and demand for fresh produce in the community. “It’s a good way to reach older consumers who are trying to expand and develop their kitchen skills, and for millennials to really grasp the health and sustainability issues that are important to them.”

Image: Ilya Bolotov/5 second Studio/

Read Part I
Read Part II


Cristina Adams is a freelance writer and editor with more than twenty years of experience. She writes for a number of business publications and websites.Leonard Pierce is a freelancer with more than twenty years of experience in the food industry.Amy Sawelson Landes spent many years in advertising and marketing for the food industry; she now writes and blogs about produce.