Ag execs agree on ethics principles
Salinas Valley effort underscores values
August 6, 2003
by Scott Faust, The
Jim Bracher, center, conducts brainstorming
on agribusiness ethics June 12 at the National
"In many of the families, fathers have taught
their sons and daughters these things, but there's
no guarantee that's going to go on as we bring
so many people into this industry."
-- Basil Mills, founder of Mills, Inc.
A six-month effort to identify core values
of Salinas Valley agriculture has yielded a set of principles
that organizers say could foster a nationwide renewal
of business ethics.
At a meeting in Salinas on Monday, ag executives heralded
the moral legacy of those who established the local
produce industry in the 1920s and '30s. Today, the multibillion-dollar
sector -- led by many of their descendants -- directly
or indirectly employs more than 30 percent of Monterey
One concept emphasized throughout an agreed-upon document
is that of a "verbal handshake" -- the mutual
trust that permits quick transactions under the deadlines
of a perishable commodity. Also emphasized is the idea
of giving back to the community, which participants
say is still reflected in the civic generosity of many
ag companies in such causes as Relay for Life, the annual
fund-raiser for cancer research.
Longtime ag executive Basil Mills, who joined with
Monterey business consultant Jim Bracher to launch the
values program, said a primary goal was to reinforce
basic ethics among the next generation of industry leaders.
"You don't always get these things by osmosis,"
said Mills, founder and president of Mills Inc., a Salinas-based
produce firm. "In many of the families, fathers
have taught their sons and daughters these things, but
there's no guarantee that's going to go on as we bring
so many people into this industry."
Training may follow
Formally known as the Salinas Valley Agribusiness Integrity-Centered
Leadership Program, the effort's next step will be a
trial run of a training curriculum based on eight key
values that include such things as honesty, openness
Mills said Tuesday he expects a small group of top
ag executives this fall to try out an industry-specific
course that could later be presented to promising leaders
within local agribusiness companies.
They will include some of the 17 participants who attended
about five meetings since March at the National Steinbeck
Center, which also was represented in the discussions.
The agribusiness integrity principles may eventually
be displayed in some way at the Steinbeck Center's new
Agricultural History and Education Center, scheduled
to open Sept. 1.
The 17 included many prominent figures: Bill Ramsey,
co-board chairman of Mann Packing Co., Bob Antle, co-chairman
of Tanimura & Antle, and Jim Bogart, president of
the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.
Bracher, who is founder and president of the Bracher
Center for Integrity in Leadership, said he's hopeful
the ag-focused training program he coordinated will
make the Salinas Valley a national model.
Though he did not charge participants a fee as facilitator,
he said he would like to take the basic approach to
core business values and market it to other industries
as a moneymaking venture.
"Sowing the seeds for the renewal of free markets
is the essence of what drove me to it," said Bracher,
who first approached Mills with the concept in January.
"The more we discover about it (Salinas Valley
agribusiness), the more we believe this is the legitimate
home for the renewal of free enterprise."
Mills cited the raft of corporate-ethics scandals that
have made headlines over the past year, including such
big names as Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing.
He said the newly agreed-upon agribusiness principles
do not mean that industry leaders consider their companies
incapable of missteps.
"Really the country is crying out for something
like this," Mills said. "... None of us is
immune to forgetting some of the basic things that are
important: integrity, fairness and how we treat people,
whether they're customers or employees."
One thing that sets the produce industry apart from
other businesses is a pair of private rating systems
called The Blue Book and The Red Book. Both include
financial and character ratings based on information
provided by companies about themselves and their peers.
Jim Carr, president/CEO of the Produce Reporter Company,
the Illinois-based firm that owns The Blue Book, said
he's not aware of any effort quite like the values standards
just agreed upon by Salinas Valley ag leaders.
"The people in the Salinas area are very good,"
said Carr, who also teaches business ethics at Wheaton
College in Wheaton, Ill. "Many of the companies
are very good -- very highly rated by our firm."
Perhaps the youngest participant in the values-agreement
process was Lorri Koster, daughter of Don Nucci, Ramsey's
co-chairman at Mann Packing.
Koster, who owns her own ag-related marketing firm,
said some observers may overlook the importance of character
and honesty in the success of early agribusiness leaders.
"Innovation certainly made the companies successful,"
she said, "but it was also how they were managed."
Jerry Escovel, a second-generation agri-businessman
who did not take part in the values-brainstorming effort,
said he has found that written agreements are more and
more important, despite close-knit relationships.
"You don't want to be left hanging with a payroll
of employees after you've harvested a 30-acre field,"
said Escovel, owner of Chieftain Harvesting.
But he said he's not ready to give up on cherished
"It would be nice to have the old-school ethics
the way we grew up," Escovel said, "where
word of mouth and a handshake really went a long way."
At a glance The following are the eight key
values of the Salinas Valley Agribusiness Integrity-Centered
Leadership Program, adopted Monday by a committee of
16 leaders of valley agricultural companies. Listed
with each is a quote from a five-page summary document:
- Character: "Business is transacted with a
phone call or a handshake, and even though much of
agribusiness today involves contracts, it is clear
that contracts are formalities..."
- Honesty: "From the irrigator and harvester
in the field to the broker and the shipper in the
office, every person must understand that agribusiness
as a whole thrives on honest and reliable information
- Openness: "Openness with competitors, perhaps
unusual in other industries, is routine in agribusiness.
While it is a competitive business, it is interdependent
and cannot prosper without openness."
- Authority: "The early leaders and their successors
have succeeded in building a climate of authority
based on performance, knowledge, competence, follow-through
- Partnership: "They have developed business
relationships where any company can be the competitor,
the supplier and the customer of the other company."
- Performance: "Today's leaders will need entrepreneurial
spirit and common sense, along with the drive and
energy necessary to persevere with high standards
of ethical performance."
- Charity: "Stewardship begins with the land
and extends to the citizens who share responsibility
for making the soil productive."
- Graciousness: "The early leaders of the Salinas
Valley agribusiness community could be seen performing
alongside their employees, as no job was too small
nor any person unimportant."
Originally published Wednesday, August 6, 2003