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Sun Pacific sales representative catches the produce wave

Tommy Hays is still getting his feet wet in the produce industry, but that hasn?t stopped him from diving right in.

Mr. Hays, 24, is a member of the sales team at Sun Pacific Marketing Cooperative, a grower, packer and shipper of clementines, Navel and Valencia oranges, Minneolas, kiwifruit, Roma tomatoes and table grapes, headquartered in Bakersfield, CA. He works in the main sales office in Los Angeles.

Mr. Hays began with Sun Pacific about a year ago after graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2004 with a degree in political science. He considered continuing on to law school, but decided that it wasn?t for him and that he was ready to take on the responsibilities of the working world.

A native of Southern California, he saw an opportunity to return to the region when a position opened up at Sun Pacific, which is owned by his uncle, Berne Evans. Mr. Hays relished the chance to work with family in a family business; a cousin, Barney Evans, is sales manager in Los Angeles.

?I work really closely with him, he?s pretty much my boss," Mr. Hays said. Besides, "I enjoy working in a fast-paced environment " the action here," he added. He initially worked as an assistant in the export department, handling order entries, before starting to sell on the phone about six months ago.

?I handle the whole line of multiple citrus varieties," he said. "My job is to sell the manifest, everything we?ve got coming out."

Mr. Hays spends most of his day on the phone sealing deals, but he was able to get a feel for the business shortly after beginning with Sun Pacific when he took a marketing trip to the East.

?It was very beneficial," he said of the experience, which included visits to the Hunts Point (NY) and Toronto markets as well as to the Philadelphia terminal. "I got to see some of the Spanish boats coming in with the fruit on them."

It gave him a good sense of the overall picture, he said. He hopes to include more business travel in his future, probably this summer, after the current Navel season ends. "I?d like to get out there and meet more people face-to-face, maybe stir up a little more business," he said.

It's a little different from his first job: washing dishes at a fish restaurant in San Diego when he was 14. "Kind of stinky," Mr. Hays laughed. But the job taught him discipline, he said, and ignited his desire to keep busy while working, no matter what the task.

Mr. Hays grew up in San Diego, where his parents still live. His mom is a teacher and his father is in the printing business; two younger brothers still attend college, both in Colorado. "I come from an ideal family. They?ve been so supportive every step of the way [from school to work], and now it's up to me to make a success of my life," he said.

Mr. Hays is still settling into his new home in the Hollywood area, but he visits San Diego several times a month, primarily to visit family but also to take advantage of the surfing conditions there.

?I love any type of sport," he said, but surfing tops his list of recreational activities, which also include tennis and basketball.

He had an opportunity to check out the waves in the South Pacific while studying abroad in Australia at Bond University on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane. A side trip to Fiji was beautiful, he said.

?That was an awesome experience," Mr. Hays said. In Australia, 90 percent of the population lives within five miles of the coast, he said, and the warm water becomes a natural element for a lot of people. "It was a little more competitive [than California]," he said. "There were always a lot of people in the water."

People weren?t the only fish in the sea, however. "There were a ton of sharks over there, it's not a lie," he said of the land Down Under?s reputation as a haven for the ocean predators. "I saw a few of them," he said, but happily at a distance and without incident to himself or other surfers and swimmers.

Mr. Hays puts in 10- to 12-hour days at Sun Pacific, and by his own account, has "crammed quite a lot of experience into the last year."

In addition to the trip back East, he has visited multiple wholesale markets and retail outlets more locally. He is aware that his relative youth and inexperience can put him at a disadvantage, but he is catching up fast. Inexperience "does enable you to occasionally sneak up on people; not often, but sometimes," he said. Most days fly by, he said. "Pretty much the bottom line is I enjoy selling, so any day I can be writing up orders all day is a good day," he said.

As for his future in the industry, Mr. Hays is optimistic. "I enjoy what I'm doing and it's been everything and more than I thought it would be," he said. Does he see himself sticking with it long-term? "Absolutely."

After hours, Mr. Hays spends as much time as he can with his girlfriend, Emily Tidholm, who works in marketing outside the produce industry. They met while students at SMU and have been dating for about a year-and-a-half.

Ms. Tidholm relocated from Texas to Los Angeles about six months ago. "She has been really supportive," both in school and now of his career in the produce industry, Mr. Hays said.

He is eager to share his love of surfing with Ms. Tidholm, who was born and raised in Texas and is new to California beach culture. She wants to learn the sport but is a little wary of the effect taking lessons from her boyfriend could have on their relationship.

?We were just talking about this the other night; she?s not so sure I should be the one [to give her lessons]," Mr. Hays said. But he thinks he would make a good teacher. "I think I could do it; I can?t wait to teach her to surf."

Just as with his head-on approach to the challenges of the produce industry, Mr. Hays is ready and eager to take the plunge.