How a Canadian company that started before Confederation stays nimble

A century and a half saw B.C.-based produce distribution company, Oppenheimer Group, steadily expand. Here’s how they adapted over the years.

Rosemary Counter, Canadian Business
Workers pick and process blueberries

Workers pick and process blueberries at Golden Eagle Farms in Maple Ridge, BC – a partner of Oppenheimer. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

Next time you’re at the grocery store and casually drop some blueberries into your cart, consider that the fruit might have been shipped by a company that’s existed since before Confederation.

Then and now, it’s never been easy for the Oppenheimer Group, a.k.a. “Oppy,” a B.C.-based produce distribution company. “During the Gold Rush, provisioners would deliver food in 100-lb. packs, up the mountains on horseback,” says John Anderson, the company’s CEO. “The journey would take weeks up steep banks in the wintertime, through the extreme cold and snow.”

Naturally, founder David Oppenheimer was a tough and impressive guy. Known on the West Coast as the “Father of Vancouver,” he was the city’s second mayor, helping to rebuild after 1886’s great fire and establishing Stanley Park, where his statue now marks the entrance. But before that, alongside his three brothers, he was a Bavarian immigrant who arrived in Victoria via New Orleans to chase the Gold Rush. In 1858, Oppenheimer Bros. & Co. became the first incorporated company in British Columbia.

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A century and a half saw Oppy steadily expand. In 1891, they brought Japanese easy-peel oranges to North America. Ditto for Granny Smith apples from New Zealand in 1956, and kiwis in 1960, when they were still called “Chinese gooseberries.” Now operating partnerships in 27 countries—pears and cherries from Argentina, mangoes and grapes from Brazil—Oppy is the largest produce distributor in Canada with 320 direct employees spread across 15 offices. When you add their contracted growing operations, Oppy works with nearly 50,000 employees. Managing a team of that scale is an enormous task, but the firm’s willingness to listen to employees at every location and level has earned a spot on Deloitte’s Best Managed Companies list for 17 consecutive years.

To hear all voices without filter, Anderson sends surveys out to staff. For the honest feedback he seeks, he asks questions like: “Do you understand the direction of the company? Do you like working here? What are we doing wrong?” The responses are reviewed by chosen workers called “champions of change.” “They’re an employee in every department in every location, but they’re not management,” says Anderson.

Every spring, champions of change are flown to Vancouver to sit down and comb through the findings, which are incorporated into an updated strategic plan. Then Anderson travels to every office—it helps that he owns his own corporate airline, Anderson Air—to deliver the refreshed plan in person. “I open the floor for anyone to ask me questions,” he says. The champion of change program, he explains, fosters an entrepreneurial culture that encourages low-level employees to invest themselves in Oppy and move up. Anderson himself joined Oppy at the very bottom in 1975, flinging potato sacks into the backs of trucks, with no business training at all. The top team is staffed by ladder-climbers like him: a former part-time inspector is now a senior VP, and the president began as a sales assistant

Meanwhile, the produce industry is unfolding very much in Oppy’s favour. “Produce used to be the poor cousin of the grocery business,” says James Milne, VP of marketing since 2000. Then, at the turn of the century, the health and wellness industry exploded. Relaxed protocols allowed new imports from Chile, Peru and South Africa. Consumers began to demand fresh avocados, citrus and asparagus whether they were in season or not. “Now produce is the leading light,” says Milne. “If you don’t have a great produce department, you’re in big trouble as a grocery operator.”

Demand is massively up—but so are consumers’ expectations. “People say, ‘Oh gosh, I just can’t get strawberries like I do at the local market!’ Or on vacation they say, ‘Why can’t I get tomatoes like this at home?’ The answer is distribution channels,” says Milne.

To serve increasingly fickle consumers, Oppy must always be adapting to its landscape. It’s this process that impresses Rick Kohn, B.C. consumer products leader at Deloitte. “They’ve managed to exist in an ecosystem that’s highly complex and vulnerable,” says Kohn. “Yet here they are, still highly successful.” 

How do you innovate in a business as old as agriculture? Firstly, technology. “We’re not far from a robot going down the orchard rows,” explains Anderson. And while Oppy doesn’t do any GMOs, it’s very interested in the all-natural development of new and exciting fruits. New to stores these days are Envy apples, a cross between Braeburn and Royal Galas that Oppy developed, patented and trademarked.

Kelsey Van Lissum, Oppy’s marketing communications specialist, is tasked with making the new fruit pop on social media. She heads to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as @EnvyApples, where 6,000 followers win gift cards, enter contests and watch celebrity chefs do recipes and demos. “It’s absolutely crazy how social media has blown up even this,” says Van Lissum. “Our commodities are turning into brands now, and it’s a new world for everyone.”

David Oppenheimer might not recognize it, but the oldest business in B.C. is nonetheless still going strong. “You can only imagine what a company in business that length of time has had to do to stay vibrant and innovative,” says Kohn.