Bill Ramsey Goes Back to His Roots
by Loree Dowse | November 2017
Bill Ramsey’s voice and presence are inimitable. At 85, the patriarch of Mann Packing still makes an appearance at the office most days, where he greets everyone by name and is always happy to share a story or ask how your parents are, his blue eyes shining.
Bill’s rags-to-riches life is straight out of a Steinbeck novel. His parents lost their 100-acre ranch in Texas during the Great Depression, so they loaded themselves and their 9 children into a car and drove to California. Bill was born here in Salinas in 1932, and spent most of his childhood in the Alisal District, more commonly known as East Salinas today.
In 1951 Bill joined the Navy and married his high school sweetheart, Marlene Sbrana. When discharged in 1955, he and Marlene moved back to Salinas. He needed a job.
It just so happened that his father-in-law was one of the owners of the Liquid Ice Company. One of his tenants, Cy Mann, was looking for a field man. Bill interviewed and Mr. Mann offered him the job. Bill hesitated: he had dropped out of Hartnell College to enlist in the military, and his goal was to go back to school. But Mr. Mann – a graduate of Stanford himself – recognized Bill’s potential and told him, “If all of this succeeds you will get your fair share.” Bill accepted the position.
Over the next 62 years, Bill worked his way up through various positions at Mann Packing and in 1976, became a partner along with Mr. Mann and Don Nucci. His area of focus was on growing and harvesting, while Don handled sales and marketing. Bill played a key role in the design and development of broccoli harvesting machines and cultivation practices.
Today, Bill serves as Chairman Emeritus on Mann Packing’s Board of Directors, and is proud to have his two sons and four grandchildren working for the company today.
Service to his industry and community has always been important to Bill. He is past chairman of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California and the Western Growers Association. He has received a Distinguished Service Award from California Women for Agriculture and an Ag Leadership Award from the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, he is past president of the Salinas City School Board, and served as a Director of the California Rodeo for 15 years. The Hartnell College Foundation (who gave him an honorary degree in 1994), the National Steinbeck Center, the Community Foundation for Monterey County and Sun Street Alcohol Rehabilitation Center have all benefited from his leadership.
And next week, there will be another honor to add to the list when Bill receives the National Steinbeck Center’s 12th Annual Valley of the World Hall of Fame Award.
I was honored to sit down with Bill in his office last week to congratulate him on his latest accomplishment and ask him a few questions.
What has been your proudest career achievement?
When our broccoli used to come in from the field, it arrived in big 4-foot by 4-foot bins, and there were about 1,200-1,300 heads of broccoli in each of those. The guy that I worked for wasn’t very good at estimating how much product we had growing and what our customers needed. Myself and a couple others really worked on studying how a broccoli plant works. I literally sat on the side of a hill and watched how people harvested the plant, how many steps they had to take, how many heads they could get. As far as the plant itself, I studied how it developed over time. That’s how I figured out how to estimate a field.
I also got into equipment. Mr. Mann loved it too, and he was the one who came up with the idea of moving broccoli on big belts. His concept didn’t work, so I came in and told him how I thought it could be better. He said, “Young man, I’ve invested $25,000 that machine and I’d like to see it work.” So that’s what I did. I went to UC Davis and had a professor teach me about time and motion – when an employee was being productive vs. when they are costing you money. I applied these ideas to the machine, and it worked. This was pretty revolutionary for our industry, since there had been nothing like it before – workers would just cut the broccoli and put it into a basket.
Going from wooden crates to fiberglass, and figuring out the best way to cool broccoli without ice are some other things that stand out in my mind. Broccoli was looked at by other growers as a cover crop. But that’s not how Mr. Mann, Don and myself saw it. It was our livelihood.
You’ve seen a lot of changes to Mann Packing over the years. A lot of growth. Where do you see things headed over the next couple of decades?
There are about 325 million Americans and 36 million Canadians. They need to eat. How are we going to feed them? I don’t know the exact answer, but I do know that over time evolutionary things happen and we figure out ways to make it work. When I first got here, an acre of broccoli would yield about 450 cartons; today it yields 1,200. Through technology and excellent farming, we are all learning something. Will we end up in green houses? Possibly. Looking at the sheer volume of vegetables that go out of this valley, we need to continue to stay in the race. But I think the sky’s the limit, and diligence is its own reward.
The corporate culture here at Mann Packing is pretty special. How do you think you contributed to that?
Because my family came from Texas during the Great Depression, and because I mostly grew up in the Alisal [a neighborhood in Salinas], I grew up around a lot of cultural diversity – the Oakies, the Japanese, the Mexicans. There wasn’t any distinction in my mind. Here at Mann Packing, everyone who works here is the same, is important, and is worth something.
People make the culture here, without any question. Getting good people, and making them better than what they would have otherwise been, because you give them an opportunity. So keep your eyes open and realize what it takes to move forward.
You have been very involved our community over the years. Why has that always been important to you?
A lot of the things I’ve been involved with over the years – like the Steinbeck Center – are because of my family history. My dad lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, including our ranch and all of its equipment in Texas. He was going to buy a gas station in Tucson, Arizona. So my parents packed up our entire family – at the time they had nine children – and drove to Arizona. When they got there, my father took one look at the gas station and said “No.” His father had come to California a couple years prior, so my parents got back in the car and kept driving. I can’t, in my wildest imagination, see that scene of 11 people in a car with all of their belongings driving all that way. But back in those days, because it was the Great Depression, it was a new starting line for everyone. My mother and dad never complained about what happened to them in Texas, they just moved on. I see my parents’ story being very similar to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. That’s my family. That’s why I wanted to become involved – I had gotten interested in the stories Steinbeck was telling about the Salinas Valley and its people, and I stayed interested.
When I was 32 years old, I was playing basketball with Dick [Bill’s oldest son] in front of our house when a friend of mine showed up and asked if I’d be interested in running for the school board. I talked to Mr. Mann about it and he said, “Bill, do whatever you need to do.” And that was the start of my quasi-political career. I have to say, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! I just kind of got involved in things – there was no magic button, no stand out moment. In a funny way, my life has been like Forrest Gump: everything has just happened. It wasn’t anything I sought. The Grower Shipper board, the Western Growers board…
Don was the same way. When I was on the Salinas school board, he was on the Spreckels school board; when I was with Western Growers, he was with PMA. We really balanced each other well both in business and in the community.
What’s the biggest curve ball you’ve been thrown and how did you get through it?
The 13 years that we had a challenge with United Farm Workers. That took a lot of tenacity, a lot of patience, a lot of fairness. That one almost did me in. I was challenged constantly, and wondered if we would make it.
There were 26 companies that were unionized at that time, and Mann Packing along with 2 other companies were the only survivors. I’m not casting dispersions at UFW, but it took a lot to work through, but we did it.
When you go through life the way I went through life – which is drop out of college and do another thing and not look back – I probably had a bit of an inferiority complex. But that is what has driven me. When I was running a lot, when I got close to the finish line, I was just compelled to push harder. Had I completed college, Marlene would have left to go to Stanford and we may not have gotten married. And there’s no way my relationship with Mr. Mann could have developed the way it did. My life has really been the American Dream.
What is it about the produce industry that you like the most? Dislike?
Well, it allowed me to do what I did, and have what I have. Beyond that, the Salinas Valley has the most wonderful people in the world. They gave me an opportunity. From watching the work ethic of the growers, the people working in the fields…I love every part of it.
No dislikes. I’m satisfied that I brought some things to the party over the years and made it better than it would have been.
You were a dedicated runner – 18,000 miles over 25 years; 6 marathons including Boston. How did running influence your career?
Completing something. Setting out to finish something and making it happen. I always wanted to be better than the competition, and it’s just part of my drive. Don had that, and Lorri [Don’s daughter and currently our CEO] has that. You don’t have to cheat, you just want to be as good as you can be. And if your best is better than the average, well, there you go.
Can you talk about the Ramsey/Nucci family partnership a bit? What has made it work over the years and through multiple generations?
Work ethic. Each of Don’s kids started doing things for Mann Packing at an early age. My kids, same thing. Summer jobs: hoeing weeds, driving tractors, stuffing envelopes in the garage of the Nucci house. There were no heroes. We just did our jobs and got along.
When Joe and Don died, who got together? The Nucci girls and the Ramsey family. That’s when Lorri came up with the idea of being a women-owned company. Between her leadership and our skill set as a company, we’ve been able to grow and be where we are today. I don’t know how many companies I’ve seen come and go here in the Salinas Valley – dozens and dozens. Things change for a lot of reasons, but after all these years, here we stand. We got together and just moved down the road.
It’s amazing to me to have watched what Lorri and Gina have done, what my sons Dick and Jeff have done; what my grandsons have done. I am really proud.