Miles Kohl, 49, has been CEO of Allan Bros. Inc. since 2007. He came to the job after spending several years as the executive director of the Yakima Valley Grower-Shippers Association, which later merged into the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
Kohl oversees a staff of 600 full-time employees and 2,500 workers during peak harvest season who work across Allan Bros.’ packing operation; the company’s orchard business, Yakima Valley Orchards; and its Pasco-based vineyards, Sagemoor Vineyards.
Allan Bros. business operations include 3,500 tree fruit and wine grape acres and 30 acres that house its packing operation in Naches. Most recently, the company completed construction of a 300,000-square-foot building expansion.
Kohl grew up in a family that worked in the fruit business in the Naches Valley. After earning a business degree at Washington State University in 1992, he started his first job as an agricultural lending officer.
Kohl talks about his transition to CEO of the fruit company in his hometown, fruit industry consolidation and the company’s venture into wine grapes. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You spent nine years with the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, or YVGSA. How did your time running a trade organization help you when you moved to a CEO position?
One part of my work there was overseeing the data side, the reports on shipments and storage and markets. I have always been kind of a data junkie. That facilitated the mindset I brought with me to Allan Bros.
Our organization is focused on being data-driven. We want data to help us make a good decision in both how we are doing and where we want to go to continue to differentiate and find opportunities to get above-average returns.
Even though I represented the broader tree fruit industry, there were still a lot of diverse opinions and mindsets within that group. I needed to pull a group in a direction that was for the betterment of everyone; to bring people together and move toward a common direction.
The job of the CEO is to define the vision in what we want to achieve as a company and lead the management team in how to execute that vision well.
Talk about your relationship with the Allan family. How involved is the family, and what input do they give you?
At the board level, there are four Allan family members and me. That’s where we decide what we want to achieve. What are our strategic objectives? Do we want to grow? And how do we want to do those things? I lead those conversations. Then I come up with a strategy to execute those plans that we agree to and I take that to our management team and build out how we achieve our goals.
There are two Allan family members who work for the company: Travis, who oversees our tree fruit division, and Tom, who works on the storage side. They are not serving as third-generation owners in those positions. We try to differentiate between the ownership side (of those family members) and the individual positions they hold within the company. It’s about being focused on the objectives and being true to those. If everyone agrees with the objectives and you keep driving back to what those are, it’s a good way to navigate through individual issues that could come up in serving in a role with the company.
There is a lot of consolidation and change in the tree fruit industry. What has been key for any company, including yours, to be successful?
There are a bunch of different business models within the industry. There isn’t any one model that is right or wrong. For us, we really looked at how we could differentiate and provide good service around our products. We look to provide an apple or cherry that people will go into the store and look for — apples such as Honeycrisp, Envy and Jazz. We were quick to move away from commodity varieties. We don’t have any Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. That is our model, our niche. That works well for us. Others have been successful in being a lower-cost producer with a bigger operation. You have to continually evolve in what model makes sense for you and helps you be relevant in the market.
Allan Bros. has expanded its operations in recent years. What’s been driving this expansion? Where do you see the growth going from here?
We have been fortunate in having that focus on providing a good eating experience to the consumer. If you look over the last 10 to 15 years, we have been aggressive in moving away from commodity varieties and into Honeycrisp, Jazz, Envy and Pink Lady. During that time period, we have been opportunistic in aligning with (products) consumers say provide a better eating experience and have been willing to pay more for.
Now, I think we’re in that mode of slowing down a little bit because we have a lot of acres that are still coming into production. Certainly, with higher costs of labor, we’re wanting to absorb some of that within our cost structure before we expand too significantly.
Part of our model, too, is that we don’t necessarily want to be a certain size or the biggest tree fruit company in the industry. We want to be true to make sure we can deliver on the things that have gotten us to where we at: high-quality product. We don’t want to expand to where we would jeopardize that.
In 2014, Allan Bros. purchased Sagemoor Vineyards. How is that business going?
Sagemoor’s management team put a lot of effort in growing the grapes in a way the wineries wanted. They weren’t heavily reliant on Chateau Ste. Michelle volume or contracts. There were about 90 wineries when we purchased it. Now we have about 110 winery customers, of which Chateau Ste. Michelle is one. That allows us to have differentiation and provide a higher-value product because we’re able to custom produce grapes to the needs and requirements of the winemaker so they can express themselves through that wine.
Wine grapes are a nice diversification for us away from cherries, which are very risky. Our model within apples is also risky because of pushing into new varieties that aren’t necessarily fully accepted by the market and (the) growing challenges.