The Oppenheimer Group
The Oppenheimer Group
Founded: 1858 as Oppenheimer Bros. and Company
Sales: $415 million (2004)
NAIC: 422480 Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Wholesalers
Based near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and privately owned, The Oppenheimer Group is composed of three companies. David Oppenheimer & Associates (Canada) and David Oppenheimer & Co. LLC (United States) combine to make one of North America's largest distributors of produce, offering more than 100 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables from some 25 countries, including an increasing number of its own branded items. Offices are located in Vancouver and Calgary in Canada, as well as U.S. cities Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles and Visalia, California; Nogales, Arizona; Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Wilmington, Delaware; and Miami and Tampa, Florida. Oppenheimer also maintains a procurement office in Santiago, Chile. The third Oppenheimer company is David Oppenheimer Transport, a ground transportation company that operates out of the Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Wilmington offices. Oppenheimer is well known in its field, responsible over the years for the introduction of a number of fruits and vegetables to North America, including Granny Smith apples and kiwifruit.
Founders Immigrating to North America in the Mid-1800s
The origins of The Oppenheimer Group date to 1848 when five brothers—David, Charles, Godfrey, and Isaac Oppenheimer, as well as their brother Meyer, who was often neglected by historians—left Bavaria as young men to escape the persecution visited upon German Jews during that era. They originally settled in New Orleans, Louisiana before relocating to Sacramento, California at the height of the gold rush. The sons of a wine dealer, they elected to pursue careers as merchants catering to the miners rather than prospecting for gold themselves. Meyer launched a successful business in Sacramento, while David and his wife ran a hotel in the nearby town of Columbia. After the California gold fields were played out, many of the miners headed north to take part in the Fraser River Gold Rush in British Columbia, and in 1858 the Oppenheimers followed to supply their needs. Charles arrived first and established a trading business known as Charles Oppenheimer and Co. The family partnership expanded when David and Isaac Oppenheimer opened a general store in Yale, British Columbia, to outfit prospectors, and soon expanded to other mining camps, such as Fort Hope and Lytton. In 1858 the brothers formed Oppenheimer Bros. and Company, a full-service grocery company to supply their stores. As the gold rush moved north, the brothers opened a store in Barkerville in 1862.
Charles withdrew from the family business to take on a contract to build a road through the region, leading to the company changing its name to Oppenheimer & Co. Charles would later move back to San Francisco, where he died in 1890. Godfrey died in 1880, leaving David and Isaac Oppenheimer as partners. As the northern gold rush waned in the mid-1880s, the brothers elected to stay in British Columbia, as did a large number of miners. David and Isaac settled in Vancouver in 1885, where they established the first wholesale provisionary warehouse in the city's first brick building, and also became civic leaders and played a key role in the incorporation of Vancouver in 1886. They had already become large landowners in the city through their Vancouver Improvement Company and had been actively promoting Vancouver as the ideal location for the Pacific terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Canada's first transcontinental railroad. Not only would they become wealthy from their real estate holdings when Vancouver indeed became the CPR's West Coast anchor, they prospered by supplying provisions to the road builders. David Oppenheimer was elected as Vancouver's mayor from 1888 to 1891 and was responsible for so many improvements in the city that he would be regarded by many as a founding father of Vancouver. He would die in 1897 at the age of 63. Isaac left Vancouver four years later, eventually settled in Spokane, Washington, and died in 1922 at the age of 88.
The Oppenheimer brothers left a thriving grocery wholesale business to their descendants and also established a tradition of introducing new fruits and vegetables. In 1884 the family firm forged an alliance with the Japan Fruit Growers Cooperative and began importing mandarin oranges, each piece of fruit wrapped in tissue and packed in a wooden box. The oranges were originally sent to Canada as gifts for relatives who came to work on the CPR, but they would become part of the Christmas tradition in western Canada, as children looked forward to the Christmas orange in their stocking, and the boxes they came in would be transformed into treasure chests, doll houses, and sleds.
Produce Gaining in Importance: 1920s and 1930s
Produce eventually became such a major part of Oppenheimer's grocery distribution business, enjoying strong growth in the 1920s and 1930s, that a separate department was created and served as a sales agent for growers. With the advent of World War II, the longstanding ties with Japanese exporters had to be severed and mandarin oranges went missing from Christmas for a few seasons. When trade resumed after the war, Oppenheimer quickly reestablished its relationship with the Japanese growers. In the days before refrigerated trains, Oppenheimer commissioned special trains, the cars painted orange, to take the oranges straight from the ships to the eastern Canadian cities, where the residents knew the holiday oranges had arrived by the sight of the brightly colored railcars.
The 1950s was a decade of strong growth for Oppenheimer's produce business. In addition to sourcing produce, the company became increasingly involved in produce merchandising and promotional campaigns, which included in-store materials. A major reason for this expanded operation was the arrival during the 1950s of southern hemisphere Chilean and New Zealand produce, much of which was new to North American consumers, who would have to be educated and urged to give the new items a try. Chile began exporting a variety of products to North America during this period, including onions, honeydew, melons, and garlic. Chile is uniquely positioned to supply North America because of its unusual north-south geography. The country is composed of six distinct climatic regions, stretching some 1,200 kilometers. As a result, the harvest of fruits and vegetables is staggered, allowing Chile to supply produce to markets over an extended period of time. Moreover, because Chile is located in the southern hemisphere it became an ideal source of produce during the winter months for North America. Each year, Chile increased its volume of produce as well as its variety. The availability of refrigerated shipping space was also a key factor, as the amount of Chilean produce shipped to North America increased dramatically in the early 1960s.
Oppenheimer also established ties to New Zealand in the 1950s and, by chance more than design, was responsible for the introduction of the Granny Smith apple to North America. A shipment of 5,000 cases of the tart, green apples bound for Hawaii was diverted to Vancouver because of a longshoreman strike in Hawaii. Oppenheimer's salesmen pitched the new variety to retailers with the slogan, "not every green apple will give you a bellyache." In just one week they sold the errant shipment, and then in the following season the company sold the apple throughout Canada as well as the West Coast of the United States. Soon the Granny Smith apple was introduced to the rest of North America. Oppenheimer's success also forged a bond with New Zealand growers that led to the introduction of more than a dozen other apples to North America, including Royal Gala, Braeburn, Fuji, Pacific Rose, and Jazz. Taylor's Gold pears from New Zealand also would be marketed by Oppenheimer.
By the early 1960s the produce industry was undergoing a sea change, moving from a regional business to a global one. Not only was there jet transportation capable of supplying North America with produce from around the world, but the grocery industry was undergoing consolidation, and retail chains were interested in differentiating themselves by offering greater variety as well as extending the seasonality of produce. In 1962 the Oppenheimer produce operation had grown large enough that the family company was reorganized, divided into two separate companies: the grocery brokerage business of David Oppenheimer Bros. & Company, Ltd., and David Oppenheimer and Associates to concentrate on produce. The latter would be led by David Oppenheimer III, a grandson of one of the original Oppenheimer brothers. The newly independent company soon had it first marketing success, again courtesy of New Zealand growers, when in 1963 it introduced western Canadians to kiwifruit and also sold it to markets in the north-western United States and California. At the time it was known as "Chinese gooseberry," a name not easily marketed. As a result, the fruit would be named after New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi, thus becoming kiwifruit, which gradually gained in popularity.
The next major step in the expansion of Oppenheimer came in 1985 when the company formed a U.S. subsidiary, David Oppenheimer & Co. L.L.C., and opened its first office in Seattle, Washington. Over the next seven years six more U.S. offices were opened in strategic locations as Oppenheimer expanded to serve new markets.
We've built our company on determination, innovation and trust. For nearly a century and a half, we've been pioneering new fresh produce varieties, nurturing direct relationships between the world's leading growers and North American retailers, cultivating sophisticated delivery networks and setting standards for food safety and quality. This depth of experience now provides us—and our customers—with a world of advantages.
With that expansion came the need for a consolidated approach to ground transportation to manage the movement of produce across the continent. In 1993 David Oppenheimer Transport was formed and established operations in Oppenheimer's Wilmington, Delaware, office. At this point, the David Oppenheimer Group was formed to serve as a holding company for David Oppenheimer & Associates, David Oppenheimer & Co. LLC, and David Oppenheimer Transport. Initially limited to serving the East Coast of the United States, David Oppenheimer Transport would establish operations in Los Angeles, California in 2002, to serve the markets of the U.S. West Coast. Two years later, another branch was established in Vancouver to service the western part of Canada.
New CEO in the Early 1990s
In 1993, Oppenheimer's current president, chief executive officer, and chairman, John Anderson, was named CEO. He literally worked his way up through the organization. When he was a teenager and helping his father set up equipment for a figure skating and concert event, his hard work caught the eyes of an Oppenheimer executive who offered him a job. Anderson was uninterested, intent on following his dream of becoming an airline pilot. He was only looking for part-time employment as he devoted as much time as possible to flight training. A strike at the Safeway supermarket chain prompted the young man's contact at Oppenheimer to call him up to offer him work unloading a railcar, which turned out to be packed with broccoli, cauliflower, and ice. In just two hours Anderson managed to shovel out the car. His hard work once again prompted a job offer that he once more refused.
At the age of 18 Anderson began his own one-aircraft airline, but when that did not succeed he went to work for Oppenheimer with the understanding that he would eventually leave to be an airline pilot. While he pursued his lifelong dream, Anderson worked his way up from the loading docks at Oppenheimer to a sales job and then management. Then, just when he was on the verge of taking a job with an airline, Oppenheimer made him a counteroffer, eager to keep Anderson and promising him that there was no limit to how high he could rise in the organization. It was Anderson who opened and managed the Seattle office in 1985. He became chief operating officer in 1988 and by 1992 opened and managed another six U.S. offices. In 1980, Anderson realized his original dream and founded a successful charter airline service in Vancouver, Anderson Air. The company would service Oppenheimer employees along with many other companies in British Columbia and beyond.
When Anderson became CEO in 1993, he took over a company that was rich in history as well as baggage. According to BC Business, "Anderson concluded that almost a century-and-a-half's worth of corporate culture was going to have to be overhauled in order to drag the company into the 21st century." He explained, "I could see it was getting to be a global business and we had to become a full-service international marketer so that we would be able to control our own destiny, as opposed to somebody else controlling it for us. That meant getting into transportation, quality control, marketing, promotions, ware-housing, all the things we weren't in before." To sell his vision to the rank and file, Anderson visited each of the offices and met with every manager. According to BC Business, he allowed "them to voice their concerns, but [demanded] hard work and loyalty once the course had been set."
To reach the next level, Oppenheimer upgraded its technology infrastructure. In 1996, the company launched a custom-designed management information system that was the envy of the produce industry. Oppenheimer's advanced technology provided a competitive edge in an increasingly global market, allowing it to realize economies of scale by integrating its worldwide supply base and bring all of its marketing resources to bear to provide value-added services to its retail and foodservice customers. The system became so advanced that the company could take a box of its fruit from a store and trace it back to the section of the farm on which it was grown.
Later in the 1990s Anderson changed the way the company approached its business, adopting the concept of category management. Deal managers now became category managers, responsible for a single product category. In this way the unique needs of a particular product could be addressed, including quality control, the proper way to transport it, and market it. By 2000 Oppenheimer had established several main product categories with year-round availability, including pipfruit (apples and pears), stone fruit, citrus, grapes, kiwifruit, mangoes, pineapple, and greenhouse-grown vegetables. Products with more limited availability continued to be coordinated by deal.
In 2002 the David Oppenheimer Group shortened its name to The Oppenheimer Group and introduced a new corporate logo, the first change in the logo in about 20 years. A year later the logo would begin to enjoy greater visibility as the company introduced the first Oppenheimer-branded packaging. Further branding work took place in 2004 with the unveiling of a brand promise, "expect the world from us," which replaced the phrase, "International Marketers of Fresh Produce," at the foot of the new logo. With a refined image and solid long-term relationships with both growers around the world and North American foodservice customers and retailers, supported by a robust infrastructure, Oppenheimer appeared poised to enjoy even greater prosperity in the future.
David Oppenheimer & Associates (Canada); David Oppenheimer & Co. LLC (United States); David Oppenheimer Transport.
- The Oppenheimer brothers immigrate to North America.
- Oppenheimer Bros. and Company is founded in British Columbia.
- Business operations move to Vancouver.
- The produce business is split off as David Oppenheimer and Associates.
- The first U.S. subsidiary opens in Seattle.
- The David Oppenheimer Group is formed as a holding company for three related subsidiaries.
- The name is shortened to The Oppenheimer Group.
Dominion Citrus Ltd.; Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc.; Services Group of America.
Christmas, Jane, "David Oppenheimer Group," Financial Post, December 12, 2001, p. SR4.
MacNeill, Ian, "The Sky's the Limit," BC Business, October 2002, p. 60.
"The Oppenheimer Group," Food Institute Report, January 31, 2005, p. 6.
"The Oppenheimer Group Unveils New Look," Produce News, January 29, 2002.