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Gahl Crane uses a down-to-earth approach

Gahl Crane is a walking advertisement for Prime Produce International in Lake Forest, CA.

The 23-year-old sales representative is a vegetarian who tends his own garden and eats three or four avocados - the company's exclusive product - a day. "It's absolutely my favorite food in the world," Mr. Crane said. "Being a vegetarian, I need its protein and vitamins to meet my dietary needs."

Mr. Crane's father, Avi, an avocado veteran whose experience includes 10 years with the California Avocado Commission, six years at Chiquita Frupac and four years at Calavo, founded Prime Produce International in 2004.

Mr. Crane's family background contributed to his decision to enter the produce industry, but it wasn't the only factor. As a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, "I took a class called small-scale food production. We grew our own food and learned about local agriculture - lots of hands-on techniques. That class really interested me in the food business," he said.

There is not that much difference between his hands-on class and Prime Produce International, Mr. Crane said. "This is large-scale exporting and importing, but basically it is all about a commodity people need and that is healthy for them."

Mr. Crane graduated with a degree in environmental studies in 2004 and spent the summer months immediately following making the trip of a lifetime, traveling through Israel, Egypt, Greece and Italy.

Mr. Crane was born in Israel and holds dual citizenship; his parents moved the family back to the United States when he was two-and-a-half years old. "I have an Israeli passport; if I live there for over a year, I have to do military service," he explained.

He had the chance through a group called Birth Rights to travel to Israel for free and extended his itinerary from there. "I had a great opportunity," he said.

He saw the pyramids in Egypt and toured the remarkably well-preserved ancient Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey. "Walking there you definitely feel like you are walking through the past," he said.

On his return to California, Mr. Crane plunged into his new career, "right in the middle of the Chilean season. My first day was making cold calls to Texas," he said. "Texans are very tough - it was a good way to get started."

Prime Produce International's goal is to supply avocados all year long. In addition to the Chilean program, which runs from August to February, the company works with growers in California, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Noting that as of Feb. 1, Mexican avocados can be sold in all of the lower 48 states, Mr. Crane said that the company is consequently doing a lot of business with Texas and the Northeast.

As for the firm's location, he said, "We're the only avocado company in Orange County. We are centrally located in terms of the groves."

Being in the middle of things suits Mr. Crane just fine. "This is the most interesting sales job there is," he said. "For the most part, it's been a lot of fun."

Mr. Crane takes his job seriously, but said that his youth gives him perspective. "I think I have a unique style. I'm a fresh face, a fresh voice, [so] that works to my advantage," he said. "Customer relations are very important, and people have been pretty helpful. It's been a good learning experience on both sides."

Mr. Crane tries to keep his approach consistent, even when dealing with a difficult customer. "When the fruit is a little ripe and a customer calls [to complain], I need to be responsible for it," he said.

Such consistency is already paying off. Mr. Crane recalled the week before Christmas 2004, "pretty much the quietest week in produce, when out of the blue a new customer he had been in preliminary contact with called and "cleaned us out" of product. "It was a nice pre-Christmas gift," he said.

Mr. Crane honed some of his interpersonal skills as a boy of about 14, doing volunteer work under the supervision of his mother, Shiffy, who works in the health care field. One of his tasks was setting up activities for the elderly. Not only did the unpaid experience teach him to stay active and enjoy the moment, it highlighted for him the personal aspect of dealing with people on a day-to-day basis.

Mr. Crane witnessed first-hand the importance of good relationships in the produce industry under the tutelage of his dad, whom he has accompanied on numerous business trips, including one to Chile two years ago. Aside from the highlight of actually seeing the fruit on the trees, "I met a lot of the growers and exporters and really got a sense of the business etiquette there," he said. He has also visited Mexican growing regions and wants to get to the groves in the Dominican Republic and California. While maintaining the strong relationships his father has already established with growers, he is ready to forge some connections of his own.

"In terms of customers, I definitely want to get to Texas, to Houston and San Antonio," he said.

Besides his father, Mr. Gahl credited Prime Produce International's sales director, Dick Keim, with mentoring him. Mr. Keim recently resigned from the company for personal family reasons.

"He was a great guy to learn from, teaching me the basics: how to keep the customers happy, how honesty and integrity pay off, how it's not just about profit," he said.

Outside work, Mr. Crane keeps pretty busy and counts surfing, basketball and biking among his hobbies. "I used to surf a lot more than I do now," he said. And while he loves biking both for fun and as a means of transportation, he acknowledged that "I would love to bike to work, but it's a little tough at six in the morning."

Hiking is another activity. "I did a lot of hiking in Santa Barbara, between the mountains and the beach - in the back country away from cities and cars."

Travel is also a constant on Mr. Crane's agenda.

"I have no problem just taking off for the weekend and coming back late Sunday night," he said. He listed trips to Santa Barbara to visit friends, the San Francisco Bay area and Catalina Island. "It's what Southern California used to be like before it got so developed."

The desert is another special spot. "There are a lot of wildflowers there now because we [California] got so much rain," he said.

Mr. Crane tills his own garden in his backyard in Mission Viejo, CA, where he grew up. "We have a couple of avocado trees, lemon and apple trees. I started a few vegetables - tomatoes, green beans, zucchini," he said.

"It kind of ties everything together," he said of the plot he started last fall, about the same time he began with Prime Produce International. "I know the produce industry is a business, but the gardening makes it more hands-on. That's how it all got started in the first place."