The fruit and vegetable cooperative has been running a program for several years now where a child, ages 7 to 12, can use a special Sunkist lemonade stand to raise money for his or her favorite charity.
To Sunkist President and CEO Tim J. Lindgren, it’s the perfect way to do some charity work while also building on an international brand.
“We build on the fact that Sunkist has a long tradition of wholesomeness and that reinforces that,” he says. “We provide them with a lemonade stand in front of public events or stores, and they serve lemonade with the Sunkist brand on it, so we get associated with some real wholesome activities, and I think we probably have now 20,000 of these stands, so every time you see one, it’s around some wholesome activity; that’s the image we’re building on.”
If it seems pretty basic that a household name like Sunkist has an image based on wholesomeness, then the brand work done behind the curtain has been successful. But that doesn’t mean that it does-n’t take a heavy dose of leadership to grow a successful organization. In addition to taking the reins for one of the largest brand names in the world, Lindgren is charged with leading more than 400 employees between Sunkist’s office and manufacturing facility, as well as working with the 6,000 grower members in California and Arizona. Lindgren has been aggressive with his leadership and has moved Sunkist forward, pushing it to $1.1 billion in revenue for its growers in 2006, up from $1 billion last year.
Here’s how Lindgren has continued to raise the bar at the largest fruit and vegetable co-op in the world.
Give your employees a basic vision
With more than 6,000 growers in the co-op, Lindgren will be the first to tell you that there are many, many babies to kiss and hands to shake along the path to building buy-in.
“I would tell a new CEO that probably the single most important thing you can do is to get a basic vision that is a composite and get it out in front, and then march ahead with it,” Lindgren says. “Because when you get a vision out there, it allows everybody to participate. Different people have different talents and a different frame of reference, but if you can get them all going under one vision and orchestrate it so all the product that comes out is a really one, single product, where everyone knows that is the goal, that’s the best thing you can do.”
That single vision becomes the cornerstone of every initiative in the company. For Sunkist, it’s based around being the best brand in the market. From that simple idea, Lindgren can get everyone on board and then start to work out the specifics for the rest of his strategic plan. That’s when he hits that long road of trying to get ideas and feedback from those 6,000 members.
“It’s extremely important to have a defined vision out there; it’s important for your team and staff to participate in developing the aspects of it and that they participate in the modification of the plan as you go forward,” Lindgren says. “We’ve had amazingly positive response from our growers, and we are really revisiting all areas of our company operations, everything that we do.”
Once you’ve set up the basic vision, you can go back and really focus on the details by doing something else that is simple: asking for feedback.
“We’ve gone to the growers and said, ‘We want to create a new vision and what do you see as far as priorities,’ and it’s been an amazingly satisfying prospect,” Lindgren says.
It’s in that mode that face-to-face meetings become important. Though he can’t realistically get to everyone, he does his best to organize ways to get feedback from as many growers as possible. He takes time on the road to see people and get as many people as possible involved even if he can’t fit their idea into the updated version of the vision.
“There’s no substitute for that, going to their home or grove and talking to them,” Lindgren says. “We have grower meetings, we go to areas and have luncheons and have conversations with them about what is happening at Sunkist.
“It’s very important to see what they’re feeling out there and also communicate what you’re trying to do. It has to be done in a somewhat organized manner because obviously with 6,000 growers, you’re going to get 6,000 different points of view, so it takes experience to filter through it to make sure what you’re hearing, what you’re passing on, what you’re taking action on is done within an organized framework. But it is extremely important both from an information-gathering standpoint and for making them feel involved.”
Build a company around a brand
Lindgren wants you to know that whether you’re aware of it or not, the Sunkist brand is all around you.
Don’t be scared, it’s part of the plan. With Sunkist, building up and protecting the brand is on top of the organization’s to-do list. So, while it has lent its name to more than 600 products, ranging from soft drinks and juice to candy, in 50 different countries, there is a method to the madness.
“It’s a real sacred trust, it’s a brand that’s been built up over more than 100 years, it is one of the most recognized food brands, so it’s something we take very seriously, and our quality control and service levels have to be maintained and stay high,” Lindgren says. “My role as CEO is to be certain that when someone has a Sunkist brand they know they have a good, quality product, so we have a pretty rigid system of quality enforcement. Beyond that, we are always promoting our brand.”
That promotion, like the lemonade stands, is centered on keeping the brand tied to its strongest and best-known elements. The basic thing Lindgren wants to do is to keep that profile regardless of where the brand moves. Therefore, Sunkist has implemented a snack program where it provides sliced fruits as an alternative to vending machine snacks. Sunkist also turned its focus to organic fruits for the first time in 2007, a strategy that took years to plan out but that keeps consistent with the idea of building goodwill around the brand.
“Our main thrust was to get out and establish identity,” Lindgren says. “The product lends itself to that; there’s nothing more wholesome than a citrus product, so you start with that, we maintain high quality, we have a staff that’s dedicated to promoting that, and they are constantly taking that out into the public.”
Not only does Sunkist want the consumer to see the brand as the label of success, but Lindgren uses it as something like a company flag to fly outside the office.
“The brand is central to everything,” he says. “We take great pride in it, and it’s developed a great culture for us. The brand gives you a rallying point. When you have something to build on, it’s not like you’re starting from scratch. It’s important to understand that the brand is sort of the banner out there to combine the emotions and efforts of people. It becomes a really good rally point for combining people who have been in the system for a long time and the new people coming in who can immediately attach to a pride and a continuity.”
The idea of hanging a brand flag can work as an energizer on both ends, too. While building a successful brand will give employees something to believe in when times are rough, it can also act as a starting point for upping the ante when times are good.
“It’s important that when you talk about the brand and the vision that it isn’t just something that you do when you’re down or in trouble,” Lindgren says. “We came off one of our best years, but we decided to take on a major new vision wrapped around our Sunkist brand even though we’re on top. You always need to be improving and looking ahead, and it’s better to do that when you’re on top than when you’re fighting from behind, so you can use that to motivate them to keep upping the brand.”
Lead without fear
Lindgren has learned plenty about leadership in his time at Sunkist, but there’s one business lesson that he takes with him that comes from outside of the business world.
“I had a friend who was a great athlete, and I asked him one time, ‘How do you do this?’” Lindgren says. “He had all this national claim and attention, and he told me, ‘My motto is that I hate to lose, but I never let the fear of losing interfere with how I play the game.’”
That fearlessness is something that Lindgren has applied to his leadership tactics ever since. And while he appreciates the consensus he builds at Sunkist, he knows it’s not worth anything if he can’t push final decisions out the door.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that you are the leader for a reason, and you’ve been selected to do that,” he says. “So the buck stops here, and the final decisions have to be made by you.”
That’s not his way of saying forget the team, but he knows that there are times that you simply can’t get a final move from a larger group, and when push comes to shove, you have to be willing to make the big decision and present it to your people.
“I consider myself to have a very participative style of management, so I like to build up consensus, but I guess the only regrets I’ve had over the years are when I have not ended up using my own individual judgment,” Lindgren says. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to sort everything out and make the decision. I’ve had ventures that I’ve not gotten involved in that I maybe should have because I got overly cautious advice or times where I was pushed by advisers to do something I wasn’t sure about. Over the years, my experience has been that my judgment, combined with the best advice I have available, is the thing that I have to lead with. At the end of the day, you have to go with your judgment, and you’re going to win more than you lose.”
HOW TO REACH: Sunkist Growers Inc., (818) 986-4800 or www.sunkist.com