It’s not just about growing lemons anymore at Limoneira Co. – Harold Edwards has bigger plans in mind

Harold Edwards, president and CEO, Limoneira Inc.

Harold Edwards, president and CEO, Limoneira Co.

It’s a fairly common approach when taking on a new job to talk to those people who have been there for a while to learn what the company is all about. Harold Edwards tried this approach at Limoneira Co., and he didn’t like what he was learning.

“To be pretty direct, a lot of complacency and apathy had crept their way into the organization,” says Edwards, president and CEO at the Santa Paula, Calif.-based grower and provider of lemons. “We literally had situations where the people who had worked for the company for the longest period of time were probably doing the least amount of work.”

As Edwards looked at the financial numbers, he could see that the company wasn’t really on the upswing. But it was the attitude of senior leaders at Limoneira that concerned him even more.

“Most evident when I showed up was just a lot of senior-level managers and people who had been with the organization for a long time were not only not aligned with the objectives of the organization but also were very clearly and very evidently complacent about their day-to-day duties and responsibilities,” Edwards says.

The work culture and environment had become a big problem. Edwards needed to act swiftly to get things turned around at the company, which employs 226 people and has been producing lemons since 1893.

“The area where a lot of companies go wrong is they don’t stay current with their dynamic environment and they don’t consistently go through and define those objectives and focus on the alignment or realignment of those objectives every year as the environment continues to change,” Edwards says. “That’s where many companies fall down.”

Edwards hoped his plan would keep that from happening at Limoneira.

Laying out a new course

The changes on the leadership team were first up for Edwards. They were not easy moves to make.

“There were some pretty strong and big power struggles that had bred themselves within the organization,” Edwards says.

“One of my first orders of business as I was building my senior management team was to attempt to eliminate those power struggles. I wanted to get everybody’s full commitment to the vision of the organization and the new, very decentralized structure that we were putting in place to foster better teamwork.”

Edwards made it clear that he wanted to identify new growth opportunities and assess what was working and what wasn’t working to help Limoneira function to its full potential.

“We never had the vision that maybe the way to manage the company in a better way would be to really focus in on the growth of the business,” Edwards says. “And by growth, I mean really make it our business to transition from our focus from just being a producer into becoming a supplier of lemons.

“Surround ourselves and our assets not only with our own fruit but eventually with the fruit of other growers that would allow us to take advantage of our strong brand reputation in the marketplace.”

Those who weren’t committed to pursuing this new path didn’t stick around long, which turned out to be a good thing.

“In a way, it was very emancipating and helpful for the overall organization because as some of those people who were hanging onto their turf exited, you could almost hear the overall organization breathe a big sigh of relief,” Edwards says. “It was viewed as very empowering for many of the other people who were in essence held down or oppressed by some of these former managers.”

To those who feared they might be ousted by this new leader, Edwards worked hard to get them to see that he wasn’t there to conquer Limoneira. He was there to give people the freedom to help the company grow.

“My style is not to micromanage anybody on my team,” Edwards says. “It’s really just to position myself as an enabler and a supporter and to try to see that each one of these individuals is able to have success with the objectives that they’ve laid down for themselves and their teams.”

Building communication channels

The next step for Edwards at Limoneira was not a painful one, but it was a big challenge. His goal was to have his managerial team identify the top five objectives for the entire organization.

“They weren’t financial goals,” Edwards says. “They were more specific strategic objectives. Once they were created, we methodically went through each person in the senior management team, down through the management team, down through every salaried employee and then down through the rank-and-file employees.

“When the exercise was complete, the goal was everybody in the company had their own top five objectives that if they were successful accomplishing, the organization would have the best chance of achieving its top five objectives.”

It’s obviously a lot more challenging in practice than it is on paper. You have to accept that while there may be some hiccups along the way in developing all these objectives, they will lead you to a better outcome if you stay disciplined with the process.

“It really takes a commitment,” Edwards says. “Not all organizations are able to embrace that. There is a downside to innovation. There’s a downside to being really entrepreneurial and, in this case, intrepreneurial. It can be very disruptive. But if you’re willing to embrace some choppiness and disruption to do things better, it will work.”

With everyone committed to pursuing new growth opportunities, Edwards says the past five years have provided a consistent flow of new ideas from employees who previously weren’t involved in such talks.

“We have laid down very specific and very measurable growth targets that have really helped us smooth out the cyclicality and volatility of our business,” Edwards says.

“It’s also gotten all the employees who are involved in this part of our business very specifically focused on what their role and responsibility is. We can determine if we were successful or not. That is a specific objective that really has helped us transition the company and helped us grow.”

Edwards says it’s a message he repeats over and over again that great ideas at Limoneira do not have to begin in his office.

“Encourage people to think outside the box and come up with ideas about how to streamline efficiencies and how to get things done in a more efficient way,” he says. “Don’t just assume or accept that there is only one way to do things.”

Stick to it

When you think you’ve finally driven home the idea that you want employees to feel empowered to share their ideas, you need to resist the urge to stop talking about it.

“Part of the performance management program has a quarterly evaluation process that makes each employee better connected with a greater sense of consistent purpose with his or her manager,” Edwards says. “That allows them to do a better job of determining when an employee is getting it done and when they aren’t.”

Most employees want to make their supervisors and managers proud and want to do their part to help the business. But you have to maintain the dialogue and keep talking about it to make it work.

“The skill of the manager is to make sure that the things that aren’t going to be good objectives and goals, that those aren’t implemented,” Edwards says. “The ones that will really drive the organization forward are used.”

The discipline is not just a means to keep employees on task. It’s to help keep you and your management team on task as well.

“It’s very easy to see if we didn’t stay vigilant and diligent on quarterly evaluation and the communication of those evaluations, that it could very easily become just another thing that the organization was doing and the whole purpose would really be lost,” Edwards says.

One of the final pieces of the transformation at Limoneira has been to make sure the board of directors and company leaders understand the difference between management and governance.

“Part of the board’s responsibility in good governance is to help define and lay out good strategy for the organization as it moves forward,” Edwards says. “What had happened was the board had begun to get involved in personnel decisions. It had actually started micromanaging certain managerial posts sort of at the expense of the authority of the CEO of the company.”

Edwards shared his thoughts that the board needed to focus on strategy and let leaders like himself deal with day-to-day operations.

“By getting the board back to being a part of the governance structure and the management team really focusing in on the management of the company and keeping those roles and responsibilities separate and distinct and very disciplined, we’ve allowed both to operate at excellent levels that have really pushed the company forward,” Edwards says.

The result is a business that has grown consistently, with revenue leaping from $52.5 million in 2011 to $65.8 million in 2012.

“It’s much clearer the level of collaboration and teamwork that is necessary in order for all the employees to be successful,” Edwards says. “It’s forced people to play their roles and responsibilities more in concert as a team rather than as individuals. It’s that new alignment and fostering of teamwork that really set the company in motion.”

How to reach: Limoneira Co., (805) 525-5541 or www.limoneira.com

 

The Edwards File

Name: Harold Edwards

Title: President and CEO

Company: Limoneira Co.

Born: San Francisco

Education: Undergraduate degree in international affairs, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Ore.; MBA in global management, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Glendale, Ariz.

What was your very first job?

Working on a ranch in Santa Paula. It was physical labor. I was hewing weeds, chopping suckers off trees or laying down mulch and fertilizer. I’m five generations deep in one of six families that represent the largest shareholders of this company. I grew up on one of the ranches that is one of different 15 ranches that the company manages.

What do you enjoy about the work?

I’ve sort of committed myself to making the world my canvas and taking opportunities to be living in a global world that produces and distributes product all over the world. The part of my job that gives me the greatest level of satisfaction is to, in a very small way, play a part in feeding the hungry world.

Why do Europeans consume so many more lemons than the United States?

You correlate it with obesity and the quality of our diets here versus the diets in other parts of the world. Then you look at life expectancy and health and you start to see some trends that are very compelling. If we were just to reach parity with Europe in terms of their lemon consumption, we don’t grow enough lemons here in the United States to accomplish that today. So we spend a lot of time trying to convince people to use lemons in their everyday lives here in the United States. So far we’re starting to see the results of a lot of these efforts take place.

 

Takeaways:

Be clear about your intentions.

Build channels to communicate.

Stay disciplined with your plan.

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