Snack Feature: Make Your Own Luck with West Mathison
West Mathison, President of Stemilt Growers has been featured in the latest edition of AndNowUKnow’s print publication, The Snack Magazine. During the feature piece, West shared what makes Stemilt tick as well as the strategies and mindset which has led his family to its enviable position within the Washington produce community.
Check out The Snack article by clicking here, or read the full article below:
Make Your Own Luck with West Mathison
“Humility is probably one of strongest leadership characteristics you can possess,” West Mathison, President of Stemilt Growers, tells me. And humility is something that West has in spades. But don’t let that fool you. As humble as he may be, West also exudes the leadership, wisdom, and ambition of an industry veteran twice his age. Partner that with his drive to evolve the treefruit powerhouse and his strong Mathison values, and West is laying the groundwork for the continued growth of Wenatchee, WA-based Stemilt Growers.
“Produce is a challenging industry,” West reflects. “We are subject to weather, market fluctuations, supply gaps, and labor issues, to say the least. It is how we address those issues and apply the right processes that will really differentiate our business and support strategic growth.”
Take cherries for instance. “With a top-selling category like cherries, you are dealing with a highly perishable fruit in a highly competitive category. The supply chain requires vigilance, precision, and sensitivity,” West tells me. “So we create a culture that encourages our team members to be proactive and promotes communication throughout the supply chain. In an industry like ours, you are only as strong as your weakest link.”
“Any conflicts we have are laid out on the table and we work together to solve them quickly,” West notes.
One of Stemilt’s most challenging hurdles came about 8 years ago, as the company simultaneously entered into a time of large scale growth and increasing market demand. As more and more fruit came under the Stemilt organization, the Mathisons realized they needed to integrate non-family members into the business in order to more efficiently streamline its operations and address the mounting responsibilities.
“The challenge came in creating a supportive environment for our transition and succession plan. We wanted to redevelop our management model, while also maintaining the best attributes and culture of a family owned and run business.” West tells me. “We thought the best way to accomplish this was by establishing trust through communication and transparency.”
Under West’s leadership, the company clarified its mission and strategy, which in turn created more clarity between the different teams. Systems were put into place that allowed for more access to information.
“When everyone is empowered with the most current and relevant information, then all departments can remain connected and aligned. We needed the entire company on the same page in order to continue moving forward,” West notes. Once everyone had a hand in establishing transparency throughout Stemilt’s business and visibility of strategic goals spread throughout each department, trust seemed to follow.
Conquering the company’s growing pains is a priority at Stemilt. From instituting better growing practices to innovating new marketing initiatives, West’s leadership has taken him into uncharted waters and also into some familiar ones, such as dealing with torrential rain or late freezes. And then there’s the market.
“The way Stemilt approaches variables like weather and market risk in an industry where we have little control over the conditions is by focusing on the decision making that comes in the wake of a challenging event,” West says.
“It isn’t so much about the circumstances,” West tells me. “It is more about asking ourselves, what are we going to do about it now? Make your own luck. It’s about what you do in the aftermath,” West notes.
When Stemilt gets into difficult markets or encounters inclement weather, the company has situated itself to react quickly, relying on a host of numerical data and metrics that tell the company how to best respond. “Again, it’s about that transparency of information and ensuring it is readily available to help us make better decisions,” he tells me.
Along with culture and growth, sustainability initiatives remain consistently a part of Stemilt’s evolution. “Sustainability is really about a mindset of incremental progress. Where we may be constantly investing in those big result-driven projects, it’s really more about asking ourselves the question…How do we continue to harvest the little wins along the way?” West says.
Stemilt truly is a champion of the land. Take West’s father Kyle Mathison and his sustainability initiatives. Kyle started a compost farm atop Stemilt Hill with the goal of feeding Stemilt’s beloved trees with a high-quality, natural, and prescription compost that was made by regenerating green waste from Stemilt orchards and packing facilities. “Composting is just one of the ways that we address sustainability,” West notes, “with water conservation, sustainable packaging, recycling, and integrated pest management also playing their roles in our effort.”
It has been a journey for West, who succeeded his grandfather and Stemilt founder, Tom Mathison, as President back in 2005 at the young age of 28. Before becoming President, West received a degree in International Business from the University of Puget Sound and worked as a consultant for Accenture, where he was able to further develop his data-driven personality and organizationally-oriented nature. “You can’t grow it if you can’t measure it,” he tells me.
But, being a grower and working with the land was in his DNA, eventually leading him back home to Wenatchee and with Stemilt Growers. When West jumped back on board, he regained his bearings by tackling Stemilt’s strategic processes and systems including production, sales, and human resources. West now works with his father Kyle Mathison, and brother Tate Mathison, with the goal of bringing differentiation and innovation to the fresh produce industry.
Tate Mathison has become one of the primary leaders of Stemilt Growers, having recently assumed the position of Director of Sales. Like West, Tate has been part of the Stemilt tradition since birth, and he has taken his expertise to the company’s blog, The Stem, as a farming expert. With his strong intuition and fervent passion for growing the best tasting fruit, combined with his knack for market dynamics, Tate is ensuring that the company is well-guided into the future.
Under West’s leadership, the company has also made its mark with new apple varieties like Piñata!® and SweeTango®. While these continue to head up Stemilt’s portfolio, West is also working on bringing new fruit varieties and flavor signatures to the company. Genetics have played a huge role in evolving the produce landscape for flavor and eatability, and West considers genetics the next place to really focus the Stemilt platform.
“It’s a really exciting time in produce,” West tells me. “As growers, we are now talking directly with the retail community and bringing something new to market to create even more brand recognition and loyalty for our customers and consumers.”
Still in their infancy, Stemilt has two new programs that promise to bring a buzz to the fresh produce industry. Not even named yet, the company is working on an apple cross with the Honeycrisp variety. Currently, Stemilt is ramping up production to debut the apple with promotable volumes in the next three years when it will be harvested at the end of July and first week of August. This new variety has fracture similar to a Honeycrisp but with more juice and a sweet acidic finish.
The question I am asking myself is…could this be the new “Honeycrisp”?
The company is also working with the breeders of Skylar Rae®, a new late season blush cherry variety that will further enhance Stemilt’s extensive cherry program. And let’s not forget about more of the company’s signature programs like high altitude “Moon” cherries and Kyle’s Pick™ cherries, named after 4th generation cherry grower Kyle Mathison. Lil Snappers™ also offers retailers an award-winning line of kid-sized fruits. Apples and pears are packed in kid-centric 3 lb. pouch bags to deliver convenience and quality to today’s busy and health-conscious consumers.
The Mathison mindset is what keeps Stemilt ahead of the curve and moving forward with its pioneering efforts. It’s taken five generations to get here, and West finds himself lucky to have been able to work with the company’s patriarch himself, Tom Mathison.
“I worked really closely with my grandfather, Tom, professionally starting in 1996. We spent a lot of time together until he passed away in 2008. I believe we worked so well together because our ideas aligned. We may have had different management styles, but they complemented each other,” West tells me. “I am more process oriented. I enjoy thinking about how to take an idea and develop it into a pilot, then bring it into a test environment and then execute its commercial reality. My grandfather saw the larger picture, and how it stretched from our humble beginnings to who we are today.”
Tom took the reins of his family's small farming business in 1947, and in 1958 he returned a mere $88 on his 100-ton cherry crop. That year forced Tom to change his go-to-market practices. He opened a small packing operation and began packing fruit for neighbors. In 1964, Tom founded Stemilt Growers with the goal of delivering high-quality fruit to people everywhere. Fifty years later much has changed, yet family values and traditions continue to guide Stemilt.
“I was young when the baton was passed to me, but Tom made sure I was ready,” West notes. “My family taught me you should try and effectively use the two ears and one mouth God gave you, which means listen twice as much as you speak,” West laughs.
These days West has little students of his own, a daughter and a son whom he brings to the orchards to enjoy the experiences he was so lucky to have had. Like their dad, the children enjoy seeing fruit on the trees and riding 4-wheelers. Apart from the farming and business life, the young family spends its free time on the ski slopes. West started skiing when he was in Kindergarten and used to race snowboards on a national level, and the passion has already carried forward to the next generation, with both kids on skis at just two years old. Family time is also for hiking and eating sushi, he tells me, something that he and his wife love to do.
The family-man knows that the success of Stemilt has been driven by its legacy. A tremendous group of people have built this treefruit company into an industry leader and well respected advocate of the consumer experience.
“The results we’ve had keep exceeding my expectations,” West says. You can hear the smile in his voice. As much as Stemilt is growing and evolving, it’s important to the company that every milestone aligns with the company’s long-time mission of maximizing return to the land by building consumer demand.
With multiple generations now running through the orchards of Stemilt Hill, you can see that it is the legacy of family that brings Stemilt its spirit, drive, and values.