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Ken LaGrande of Sun Valley Rice: “Persistence and Perseverance”

I think heroism is putting others interests before one’s own. I think of the people on our team at Sun Valley Rice who came to work in the middle of a pandemic because they accepted the responsibility of feeding people, even though it meant putting themselves and maybe their family in harm’s way. As part of […]

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I think heroism is putting others interests before one’s own. I think of the people on our team at Sun Valley Rice who came to work in the middle of a pandemic because they accepted the responsibility of feeding people, even though it meant putting themselves and maybe their family in harm’s way.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID-19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken LaGrande, CEO of Sun Valley Rice.

Ken LaGrande is the founder of LaGrande Family Foods Group, a leading provider of food products and processes. In 1851 the LaGrande family moved to the Sacramento Valley, where they run their fifth-generation family farm. Among other things they grow, dry, mill, and market rice. In addition, Ken and his family are also multi-generation cattle farmers. Their businesses include Sun Valley Rice, Planet Rice, Valley Select, and Foothill Warehouse.

Ken is a longtime activist for California water issues and the former chairman of the board for the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, the water service provider to over 130,000 acres of irrigated agriculture in the Sacramento Valley. Ken is also the former chairman of the Sites Project Authority, a public agency whose mission is to promote the development of off-stream storage reservoirs in Northern California.

In 2019, Ken’s company Sun Valley Rice was the first US rice miller to sell rice to China. He has been featured on CNN, CNBC, and in The New York Times and Harvard Business Review. In addition, Ken is a member of the board of the USA Rice Millers Association and Delta Water Fowl, an organization dedicated to the conservation of duck habitat in North America. Ken is also an active member of YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization), the world’s premier peer network of chief executives and business leaders. Ken and his wife, Julie, grow rice and run a cow-calf operation in California and Oregon.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in a small rural and agricultural community in Williams, California in Colusa County. It was a community of about 2000 people, and half of them were relatives. Our house had one bathroom and two bedrooms, and it sat in the middle of a farm.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. I remember it as being impactful because I realized the quality of perseverance, character, and spirit it took to live that life. I could imagine my own ancestors walking through the plot of that novel. Even though I read it 35 years ago, I still think about it regularly.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

It’s a simple one. If you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours. That helps me every day to remember that we don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives or realities. And it doesn’t cost anything to be kind or to be open-minded. And at the end of the day, I think what it really says is that it’s all about people.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

We realized quickly that not only were we in an industry that had been designated as essential, which is the food industry, but that our product was amongst the most essential of that category. Rice was right up there in the top five things that were being cleared out of supermarkets. It was literally feeding people on a daily basis.

Media very appropriately put a lot of attention on the healthcare sector as the frontline — and those people are heroes. As a leader I felt that one of the important things that I had to do was make sure that my team at Sun Valley knew that what they were doing was essential and was literally feeding people. I wanted them to know they were making sure people were eating everyday — from dirt to dinner.

For example, we had the big companies, such as the Costcos of the world, really needing supply. And while we were delighted to work with them, we had to balance that with regular mom-and-pop customers who were feeding people in their immediate neighborhoods. In many cases, those smaller businesses were struggling with cash flow, and having trouble paying.

We had to really put extra effort, care, and thought into how to operate from a partnership point of view with them and maintain good business sense. That meant being flexible to work with many of our customers on payment terms and delivery sequencing.

For example, we had customers who had rice, and suddenly their restaurant business was shut. Now they have all this rice in their warehouse, and what did they do with it? There was just a myriad of problems that had to be solved. We tried to work on a case-by-case basis with all of our customers to get to a resolution.

In order to manage all this unexpected and unprecedented demand brought about by people wanting to go to the store and buy rice, we had to ramp up production to 24/7. We busted every record from a volume point of view per week, month, and quarter in our company’s history.

I don’t want to do that again! It really taxed my staff. Particularly because I was asking them to come into work at a time when there was a lot of fear about “What might happen to me and my health?”

I responded “We need you there because it’s literally the difference between people eating and not eating. We will give you all the support you need in terms of scheduling, sanitation, and safety.” And I am proud to say my entire team at Sun Valley Rice — shipping, accounting, customer service, order entry, production, all departments — stepped up and did it.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I think heroism is putting others interests before one’s own. I think of the people on our team at Sun Valley Rice who came to work in the middle of a pandemic because they accepted the responsibility of feeding people, even though it meant putting themselves and maybe their family in harm’s way.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Awareness

Moral Compass

Decisiveness

Humility

Persistence and Perseverance

A great example of all of these combined for me is something that happened recently. One of my senior executives has a daughter whose school friend accidently stepped in front of a bus. It’s likely she would have been killed had it not been for a bystander who grabbed her by her backpack and pulled her out of harm’s way.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think at the end of the day it’s having a moral compass and doing the right thing.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

I think, to be fair, it started when a lot of orders were coming in, and we were just responding to it as a business. The heroic bit came when there was there was a counter pressure of fear that started to build, and also the threat to safety. That’s when I think the call to heroic action began to ripen into “This isn’t just about filling orders; this is about feeding people. We are not delivering champagne; it’s rice, and within two or three days of leaving here, people are going to be eating it.”

So while it wasn’t heroic at the outset, when we realized we were part of feeding people, we started to figure out things like a rotational schedule for customers, working with clients on payment schedules, and changing our hours of operation to 24/7. I’m sure there were things we could have done that would have been smarter from a business bottom line point of view, but that was not the right thing to do given the pandemic.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I think that my heroes today are all of those who have been willing to be on the front lines. That is people like nurses and doctors, policemen and firemen, utility workers, grocery store clerks, and farm workers.

Of course, people need an ambulance to come pick them up when there is an emergency, but there are also all those heroes that keep things going day to day. The people keeping our mobile phones going and electricity running. All those people put themselves at risk. So, I think they are heroes as well.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

Countless lives are being destroyed in a business closures, loneliness, abuse, along with children who aren’t getting the social stimulation of school, the safe harbor of a classroom, or the square meal of the cafeteria they need. There are many unintended consequences of this disease and much collateral damage.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

The spirit of humanity and the way people overcome. They do. Sooner or later. I believe in the inherent goodness in people, and in the perseverance of people. When I think that about the underlying principles of our economy it’s sound. It wasn’t a financial crisis that caused the problem — it was a pandemic. Underneath, our country is strong and sound and we need to get it moving forward again. I think as we do that, economic health and prosperity will return.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I know I sound like a broken record but the people on the front line, those who have just kept calm and carried on doing their bit to help others, have inspired me. I’m disappointed in the people who are into the shaming and judgment game when others have a different approach or idea.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

No, I would not say that it has.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I think we as a global society will have a greater appreciation for the things the world had and, in my view, began to take for granted — myself included. As much as I told myself that I don’t take life for granted, I took for granted that I could go to Mass on Sundays. I took that for granted. I thought that was something that was sacrosanct. So when I’m back to being able to go on Sundays, I will appreciate it in a way I didn’t before.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

That each of us is responsible for our own actions and destiny. This is what I tell my children and the young people in my life every day: “You’re responsible for yourself.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would put the word “blame” on the wall and put a circle with a line through it. Stop blaming and take control of your own life.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Andrea Bocelli. I’m a huge fan of music and I’m a huge believer in music’s ability to bring society together. I think of the pandemic as the day the music died. You can’t sing at church. You can’t have live music. There are no live concerts. I really think that there’s something missing. Andrea Bocelli sings without sight and that really intrigues me. I’ve been inspired by him many times, and I would really like to meet him and hear his story, because I find great joy in singing.

How can our readers follow you online?

www.kenlagrande.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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