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Entrepreneur of the Year,
Pacific Region Overall Winner
Food & Beverage Distribution
John Anderson – October 2015

(Chair, President & CEO, the Oppenheimer Group,
President & CEO of Anderson Air Ltd.)

John Anderson started his career at the Oppenheimer Group in gumboots, shoveling ice off a rail car full of cabbage. It was 1975, and the teenager aspired to become an airline pilot. He had earned his commercial pilot’s licence already but took what he intended to be a temporary warehouse job at the fruit and vegetable distributor. Anderson quickly moved up the ranks through sales and operations. Forty years later, the 59-year-old father of two no longer hauls 100-pound sacks of potatoes. He owns 65 per cent of the company and is its chair, president and CEO.

The Oppenheimer Group, rebranded in 2012 as Oppy, was founded as a supplier of provisions to gold-rush miners in 1858 by four brothers including Vancouver’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer. While it is the province’s oldest existing company, it’s no museum relic. The amount of produce it handles has tripled since Anderson took over as CEO in 1993. Revenue has grown a hundred-fold from the roughly $7 million per year that flowed into the office when Anderson joined in the 1970s. Oppy now oversees a sophisticated supply chain that links some 4,500 growers and 1,100 customers across the globe, constantly shifting to stay ahead of the seasonal changes, political conflicts, weather disruptions and economic crises.

“There’s a huge amount of volatility in what we do,” says Anderson. Few businesses are as exposed to worldwide events as much as Oppy. The drought in California forced berry production to shift to Mexico. A change to Chilean labour laws created a worker shortage for the country’s grape harvest. The company needs to watch over how such events affect more than 100 different globally dispersed products. Mandarins, cucumbers and kiwis will all go to rot if the logistics aren’t seamless. Oppy’s 12 offices throughout the Americas and its world-wide network of suppliers give Anderson better sources for news than CNN. (“I could tell you they are getting a lot more snow down in the southern part of New Zealand than they have in over 30 years, and they had a major snowstorm just north of Santiago, Chile, yesterday,”he says.)

Managing a company through such volatility requires more than simply flipping a switch when one sector goes awry. Anderson has cultivated relationships with his partner growers-at times supporting them with pre-season financing to help them through tough conditions. It’s a benevolent act that also secures supply and mitigates the company’s exposure to risk. Over the decades, the company has also introduced new varieties of fruits and vegetables to the North American market (like gold kiwifruits and the Jazz apple) and stayed on top of consumer trends by providing a growing selection of organic and fair-trade-certified products.

While being the high flying CEO of Oppenheimer Group remains a full-time job, Anderson continues to make time for his passion for aviation. In 1980, he founded his own charter and corporate airline, Anderson Air, to serve the executive travel market. In the early days, Anderson hardly slept, flying medevac gigs in the middle of the night and returning to the Oppenheimer offices the next day. Today, the firm flies four jets and Anderson continues to serve as its president, CEO and majority shareholder in addition to his duties running Oppy.

You won’t find Anderson at the controls of his planes anymore. He’s one of his airline’s most frequent fliers, but he leaves the flying to staff pilots and the day-to-day running of the company to his 33-year-old son, Ryan Anderson, who serves as its vice-president. John Anderson has stewarded the Oppenheimer brothers’ legacy and taken the company they formed to new heights. Meanwhile, he’s leaving his own legacy for his family to follow.

— Dee Hon
BC Business Magazine