Patience. Patience is the pearl of wisdom that all business owners need loads of. True leaders recognize that patience enables them to take stock of the situation, to understand what is required, and wait while they build the capacity to take appropriate and effective action. It’s a constant balancing act between leading the company and doing what needs done. I’m glad to say that I enjoy both roles equally. For me, I see the company as one of my children — it requires a significant amount of time, patience, and energy to nurture, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
CEO & President of Fresh Farms, Irina Kleinsasser, has built the nation’s largest farm-to-table trucking enterprise one-mile-at-a-time as she pushes to reach her goal this year of delivering 17 million pounds of fresh, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and meats to customers across the country.
As a second-generation transportation and logistics mastermind, Irina intuitively was able to see the threads of opportunity that wound through the countries network of small to midsized family farmers and developed a way to bring them together that ultimately allowed Fresh Farms to grow and expand its customer list to include more than 1.4 million enthusiastic and loyal customers of the Farm-to-Table movement.
Thank you so much for joining us Irina! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a child, my father was a long-distant truck driver who treasured spoiling his family with special treats brought back from the cities and states he traveled day and night. He loved seeing the excitement and anticipation on our faces as he rolled into the driveway after each trip; his favorite and our favorite treats always seemed to include the amazing farm-fresh fruits and produce he would purchase from small farms across the country.
Imagine having fresh Georgia peaches, Washington State apples and cherries, citrus fruits from Florida and vine fresh grapes and olives from California as a kid. We fell in love with the difference in taste and quality and soon found it impossible to enjoy store bought produce when our stockpiles ran low.
I hadn’t realized how spoiled I had become, until I grew up, got married, and had children of my own. Then I realized that having access to truly farm-fresh food was rare for any family.
Now a mother to four children, I wanted to provide the very best for my family, and I also wanted my children to enjoy the many wonderful seasonal treats grown across the country just like my father had introduced me to so long ago so. Long before the subscription-based product options of today, Irina decided to follow in her father’s footsteps by starting a food distribution business that specialized in delivering the same farm-fresh food experience to families looking to skip the produce aisle at their local groceries.
We started small; working with local farmers and wholesalers to transport truckloads of locally grown fruits and vegetables to cities in other states where we could sell directly to consumers before refilling our truck with harvest fresh produce to bring to our next stop. Soon after, we added a farm-to-home delivery option. Since launching some 20 years ago, Irina and the Fresh Farms team has expanded its Truck Tour stops to include over 5,000 cities in states coast to coast.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
At the beginning of my career, I worked at a variety of small businesses were employees were required to wear multiple hats to keep the business running. In each of these companies, I noticed that the office-environment was relaxed and easily overwhelmed. Typically, there was a supervisor or the entrepreneur who was responsible for making decisions and while also focused on keeping the wheels of progress moving in the right direction. This flawed system was one I vowed not to repeat.
As Fresh Farms, LLC began to expand, I decided early on that my team would develop a system of protocols, guidelines, and processes to give the company, and its employees, room to grow. It’s important to structure a work environment that is supportive of the culture of the business while addressing possible pain points that come up as you expand.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Without a doubt, I am where I am today because of my father and the many valuable lessons he taught me as a child. He instilled a ridiculous amount of confidence in each of his children while reminding us daily to be driven and to remember that nothing was impossible with a little bit of hard work.
I also believe in having a little luck and a lot of God in my life. I’ve been lucky to have met some great leaders and mentors along the way. There are a few I am especially thankful to have cross paths with, who have taught me things I will value and carry throughout my whole career.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
Right Person, Right Seat
Creating a strong team is simply about placing the right person, in the right seat, and giving them the tools and space, they need to thrive. Companies don’t mean to place employees in the wrong position … but it happens.
A perfect example of this was a recent employee we hired to fill a position. Unexpectedly, the individual struggled in his new position. I had a choice; part ways or find the right seat. We transferred the employee to a different department and within months he was visibly excited, and event exceling, in his new role — a win for the company and our loyal, hardworking employee.
Patience is the pearl of wisdom that all business owners need loads of. True leaders recognize that patience enables them to take stock of the situation, to understand what is required, and wait while they build the capacity to take appropriate and effective action.
It’s a constant balancing act between leading the company and doing what needs done. I’m glad to say that I enjoy both roles equally. For me, I see the company as one of my children — it requires a significant amount of time, patience, and energy to nurture, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
Many of the tasks you need to face as a CEO can only be handled by you. You need your employees to remain narrowly focused on the daily tasks of running the business. Balancing sufficient yield in the present with necessary investment in the future — we need to have a well-rounded view of the company and the world around us. It’s also important to make time to find enjoyment and a purpose for your journey so that you don’t experience burn out.
There will be many long hours and hard days; expect the unexpected and be flexible.
Delegate & Automate
Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day no matter how much work is piled on your desk. When Fresh Farms was just getting started, I was really involved with the logistical aspects of the company. As the company grew, so did the number of puzzle pieces that required my attention.
I had to learn to learn to delegate and/or automate as many of the day-to-day tasks that I could to free up my schedule and allow me to focus on building the company. I was blessed to have an amazing logistics team around me and now can’t imagine leading the company without them. Let it go!
You have a vision; so, follow it! If a business deal, consultant, or employees work doesn’t align with your vision — stand your ground and don’t agree or accept it.
At one time Fresh Farms hired a consultant for a project that the team was not able to get behind. It just wasn’t aligning with our teams’ vision for the project. Months later the work was completed, and it was not completed to our quality of expectation. We ended up hiring another contractor that was more aligned with our vision and when he completed, the same project, our team was excited and glad we hadn’t compromised.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Do what you LOVE and find a purpose for what you DO! If you can’t do that then you will never thrive. Whether its going the extra mile to satisfy a customer or making a difference in a co-worker’s life — do it because you love it! And, don’t forget to turn work off at least one day a week. Spend time with your family and friends and every once-in-a-while do something nice for yourself. You’ll be a much better leader if you live a balanced life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve found that running a business is like raising a child; it takes a village to grow an operation as large, and nimble as Fresh Farms. Yes, my father helped to mold me and influence me in ways unknown at the time while my husband, an entrepreneur himself, has also provided invaluable support and guidance as we work to balance our lives. And, then there are the many employees who regularly contribute to my daily success and that of our future.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I have four small children, all under the age of 11, and a large family that also demands my time and attention. I sometimes have to remind myself that time does not stand still, and that my children are growing up as fast as the company. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to focus as much time and energy as possible on family while growing Fresh Farms. Long hours are the norm for me and I’ve made it a personal goal to set small goals to break away from work so I can re-shift my focus to family & me.
Professionally, I have been working on developing our farm-to-home business model at Fresh Farms. It is a little different than our farm to truck business model because of the logistical dynamics involved. We are so excited to push the boundaries of our services as we program progresses.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
My hope is to make a positive contribution in the lives of the people we serve by giving them healthier food options to feed their families. Future generations won’t remember whether we hit our sales goals or not but they will remember the joy they experienced sharing great food with their family and friends.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I am extra passionate about supporting and growing the role of women in business. I hope to encourage other women like me to take the leap and take that job! We need to keep moving forward and believe in ourselves even when no one else does.
I am also passionate about the charities that Fresh Farms support that help our employees and the local community. If we can make just one person’s life a little easier than the journey is worth it to me!
How can our readers follow you on social media?