Tom Bellamore, the president of the California Avocado Commission, has had a diverse career and life that took him from the Garden State of New Jersey to the harsh climate of the far reaches of Alaska before he began calling sunny and mild Southern California home.
He was born in New Jersey as a first-generation Italian American in the early 1950s. His parents were intent on him and his two siblings assimilating quickly. It started with his last name before he was born. In Italy, Bellamore has a distinct melodic sound pronounced “Bell - a - more - ray.” But Tom and his brother and sister were “Bell - a - more.“ “Our parents went to great lengths to Americanize us,” he said. “I don’t remember growing up cognizant of our immigrant status.”
Though the young Tom grew up in Bergen County, which is a densely populated area in New Jersey, his modest house happened to border some open space that featured a pond, croaking frogs and a world of bugs that would have made Tom Sawyer happy. This oasis was not just the environment of a bucolic childhood but set Bellamore on a career path that had a fairly straight line in one respect. “As I think back on it, like many kids, I had a fascination with bugs and biology. That is the one thread that ties my career together. In every job I have had biology has played an important role.”
Bellamore began his college career as a biology and pre-med student at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, but one of his buddies attended college in Alaska. “It only took him one semester to fall in love with the place and he told me I ought to join him.”
Bellamore did follow that advice and he applied and got into the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. “I remember I took a plane from New York City that was bound for Tokyo with a refueling stop in Fairbanks. Here I was, sort of a scruffy looking long-haired kid with a bunch of businessmen on this plane. I think I was the only one who got off in Fairbanks.”
That was the early 1970s and Bellamore ended up living in the nation’s 49th state for more than a decade — and loved every minute of it. He graduated from the University of Alaska and took a position as a biologist with the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in the most northern section of Alaska — a frozen tundra if there ever was one. “There were four or five us hired at the same time. It was a very international and fascinating place. There were people there doing research on ice dynamics and polar bear experiments, and all sorts of things. We flew all over the Arctic doing dozens of experiments. It was an amazing experience that you just can’t duplicate.”
Bellamore said the cold never bothered him after his first year in Alaska. “That first winter in Fairbanks I froze my butt off,” he said. “But after that you learn to buy the right clothes and you are fine. I remember the most important thing to buy were something called ‘bunny boots.’ Once you could afford those your feet stayed warm.”
He stayed with the Naval Arctic Research Lab for several years before joining the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. In that position, he flew all over the state, working on a number of different projects. But, as Bellamore said, “Once you start with Alaska Fish & Game, eventually you will end up working with fish” because it is such an important crop up there. “In those days a single red salmon was worth more than a barrel of oil.”
After a half-dozen years with that state agency, Bellamore joined the Alaskan Seafood Institute. That three-year stint from 1982-85 introduced him to the world of commodity marketing, where he has basically spent the rest of his career.
In 1985, he moved to Seattle to take a position with the Seafood Marketing Institute. “I loved Alaska but after 13 years I was ready to go someplace else. I had seen all of Alaska from the south to the north and I was ready to move on.”
His position with the seafood institute was very marketing-oriented. “I spent a lot of time on the Targeted Export Assistance program which eventually became the Market Access Program.”
That government-funded program is designed to financially help commodity marketers promote their agricultural product overseas. “At the time, people didn’t look at seafood as an agricultural commodity, but we worked to get our foot in the door and eventually became one of the bigger beneficiaries of that program,” Bellamore said. “We went from being unknown to getting around $7 million annually in funding.”
That process gave Bellamore an education in accessing those export program, and made him a wanted commodity. In 1990 he was lured away by a position with the cotton industry that was based in London. He soon discovered it wasn’t quite the right fit and came back to the United States where he went to work with the U.S. Dry Pea & Lentil Council. It was his foreign export knowledge that got him the job. “That was a great experience. Eighty-five percent of peas and lentils are sold in the export market, so I traveled all over the world. We had four overseas office and we ran promotion programs in 23 countries.”
The office was located in Idaho and during his four years with the council, Bellamore met and married his wife. That fortuitous move was basically responsible for bringing him to the California Avocado Commission. His wife was a Californian and though she gave living in Idaho a fair chance, the Golden State was in her blood. With the ability to sell his skills as both a biologist and a marketing effort, Bellamore began looking for a new opportunity.
Soon he was hired by the CAC as vice president of industry affairs. “That brought me back to bugs,” he said.
At that time, California was working hard to protect its industry and prevent the importation of avocados from Mexico because of the risk of pests.
In those early years, Bellamore spent countless hours discussing bugs and their impact on the industry and writing position papers on the subject. At the same time, he began furthering his education by getting his masters in business administration, which he achieved in 1998. Soon thereafter, he realized that his job involved the skills acquired in law school so he soon set out to get his law degree, which he earned in 2003.
That education set him up perfectly to become senior vice president and corporate counsel of CAC through the mid years of the last decade. And it also put him in a prime position to become president of the commission when it went through a tumultuous upheaval in 2009. Soon after the resignation of the previous president, Bellamore was named as acting president, but many in the industry thought a complete changing of the guard might be necessary.
He held the “acting” title for a year before that qualifier was removed. Most people give him very high marks for getting the commission back on track and leading the industry into some of the best years it has ever had. “That first year was a horrible year in many ways. The most important thing I did was get some people back involved who had been omitted for one reason or another over the years. We had some big players that were no longer taking part,” he said.
Bellamore also downsized the staff and greatly reduced expenses, which was the major point of contention with the previous administration. “We went from spending $26,000 per month on rent to about $2,000 per month. That needed to happen. We were spending way too much on administration.”
Today, CAC is right-sized and the budgeting process is very transparent. “In those days it was very difficult to know where the money was going. Today we spend 66 percent of the funds on marketing and it is easy to follow.”
Though the avocado industry itself has gone through many changes since Bellamore came aboard almost two decades ago, he is very bullish for both the industry and California. Per capita consumption of avocados has grown exponentially over the past decade and he believes California “has a very bright future” as a product with a premium position. He believes that as U.S. consumption grows and California’s share of the market shrinks, even as its production stays the same, that will create a scarcity of California product. He said that scarcity of product grown within the borders of the country and thus closer to market will continue to create a marketing advantage that can be exploited.
Though the CAC president no longer lives in the outback of Alaska, he has found a rural existence in Southern California. Living in north San Diego County, he and his wife spend much of their free time riding horses. In fact, he rarely lets a presentation to the industry go by without sneaking it at least one picture of his horse somewhere in the power point.