Chris Sarles | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Chris Sarles


Oregon Fruit Products is a family-owned company with roots in the 1920s, when founder Max Gehlar first offered his dried fruits to the market.. During the depression year of 1935 the Oregon brand was established, and the Salem-based company shifted its focus from dried fruits to canned specialty fruits. All of the company's products are certified Kosher, allergen-free, gluten-free, preservative-free, GMO-free and vegetarian.

The Mistake:

I think I would call this my most recent mistake, occurring as I transitioned out of an industry where I had been for 30 years.

I had been in the wine and spirits industry, and I transitioned to the fruit business. My work had been so seamless for so many years, where I managed, grew and developed teams. When I came to Oregon Fruit Products, I made the assumption that because I was the leader, I had a vision where we should take the business and that it would naturally translate to the team.

The team felt differently.

They were hesitant to hear from an outsider how to immediately improve upon a company like ours, with the iconic black can that’s been around since 1935 and that virtually everybody’s mother and grandmother had baked cherry pies from. We were all about history, and how things had always been done.

It was clear I needed to spend some time earning the team’s trust and allowing them to get to know me better. And I, in turn, needed to learn more about them. Much of the team had been here for a very long time and had their great ways of doing things. I needed to convince them that to give this company another 82 years, they had to trust me to change things up a bit. I needed to engage everyone from my management team to workers on the line and in our production plant.

I needed to get buy-in and work with employees to develop trust.

The Lesson:

While I wanted to hit the ground running and start making improvements, I needed to step back and take more time to share my vision. I needed to get buy-in and work with employees to develop trust. To start this process, we worked through a book I’ve used before, called "The Speed of Trust."

I’m pretty sure we’ll look back and see this was a pivotal point in the company’s history. Together, we began to look long-term, using what I call our company stool and the legs of our business. First, we needed to bring relevance back to the can.

We’ve done a couple of things there that are helping. We got ourselves certified with the non-GMO project and invested in BPA-free cans. We know people are interested in fresh and nutritious (food) and although we don’t advertise on TV, we have let people know through our grass-roots campaign that it’s a matter of hours from the time fruit is picked to the time it is in our cans. It’s as healthy and nutritious as anything on the shelf.

We also have promoted the one-can/one-meal concept, creating recipes that can be included to make everything from blueberry before-dinner cosmos to blueberry cobbler for dessert.

This opened up some great dialog as a team too, and the one-can/one-meal campaign was a result of all of us working together. It also was important to diversify the business beyond the can too, and it took patience, education and trust. But the food service business, which includes selling to restaurants looking to increase fruit offerings, has had nice double-digit growth year after year since 2014. We’re off to a really nice start for 2017.

Having come from the wine and spirits industry, I also saw an opportunity to sell fruit for brewing, and we grew that business from 100 customers to 1,000. It took some time and effort, but I feel like the multiple legs of our business stool are strong.

The team is proud of where the company has been, and more importantly, where it’s headed. As we like to say around here, we bring fruit to life.

Follow Oregon Fruit Products on Twitter at: @OregonFruit

Pictured: Chris Sarles. | Photo courtesy of Chris Sarles.

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