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Beth Manfre-Gross bridges the generations

Beth Manfre-Gross sees the future of the produce industry through the prism of the past.

"This is an industry and a business that is so important, incredibly important, to the future of this country and our children that I have to be a part of it," the 31-year-old produce entrepreneur said. "I have to help strengthen it. I love the idea of being able to improve the industry by providing talent and helping shape the next generation of leaders."

Ms. Manfre-Gross is the founder and managing member of the grow search group, which was launched earlier this year and is based in Scottsdale, AZ. "We are an executive search firm that specializes in produce and fresh-cut processing. From farm to fork as the saying goes," she said.

She comes from a strong produce heritage, describing herself as "the first in the fourth generation of Frank Capurro & Son in Moss Landing, CA. Frank Capurro was my great-grandfather. Bob Manfre was my grandfather and Bud Capurro is my great-uncle."

Her father, John Manfre, her uncle, Mike Manfre, and her cousins, Frank Capurro and Kris Capurro, currently run Frank Capurro & Son, which in 2008 became partners with Growers Express in Salinas, CA. The family grows vegetables in California in Monterey County and Riverside County, as well as in Mexico, under the "Topless" and "Capurro Farms" labels.

Like many with a similar background, Ms. Manfre-Gross began working summers and school breaks in the family business at an early age, in her case when she was 12. She has worked in the trade at the professional level for almost 10 years.

Her pursuit of a career in the industry was in some ways inevitable. "It just made sense," Ms. Manfre-Gross said. "My training was there, my experiences and ideas of what a career should be were developed at the ranch. It started as something I never thought too much about, but as I grew and understood the business and industry from a more mature perspective and realized the importance of carrying on a tradition, I was completely romanced by it all. I love the volatility, the seasonality, the dirt, the smells, the process - everything. The difficult times appeal to me as well. This is when the grit and determination that we as an industry possess is revealed and it makes me proud to be a part of that."

She added, "That's why I chose to open a recruiting business this year -- the hard times are when you prove who you are."

Ms. Manfre-Gross sees her youth as a positive factor in that business endeavor, noting that she bridges the gap generationally. "I grew up being taught the old ways by the leaders of today but am part of a new culture in business that will produce the leaders of tomorrow," she said. "I understand where the industry has been and how hard change can be and am sensitive to that. At the same time, I embrace technology and change in order to be more effective."

To that end, prospective clients can follow her on Twitter (http://twitter.com/growsearchgroup) for job opportunities, candidate profiles and industry news. The company web site is www.growsearch.com.

Before launching the grow search group, Ms. Manfre-Gross was an executive recruiter with JBN & Assoc. in Phoenix, where she launched the produce division. Prior to that, she was the Walmart business analyst for Frank Capurro & Son. She also worked for Fresh Express in Salinas, CA, as national recruiting and relocation manager, and for Robert Half International in Monterey, CA, as division director. She studied communications at St. Mary's College of California and Arizona State University.

One of her early memories is of her grandfather walking her through the office, holding her hand and explaining what accounts payable and accounts receivable were.

"My first job was at the ranch when I was 12," she said. "I sat in the vault filing invoices summer after summer, doing carton inventory on the Fourth of July and answering phones in the sales office at 6 a.m. It was all very inconvenient for a teenager."

The payoff, she said, was learning the value of a strong work ethic above all else. "Work hard and be honest because you need to earn success and respect - no one is just going to hand it to you," she said. "I learned that the way up the ladder is not glamorous but the journey can be incredibly satisfying."

Ms. Manfre-Gross was awarded the Frieda Rapoport Caplan Family Business Scholarship to attend the United Fresh Produce Association's 2005 Washington Public Policy Conference.

"It was an amazing experience to travel to Washington, DC, for this event," she said. "It really brought to light for me the struggles that agriculture faces in terms of government policy and conflicting agendas. Immigration was coming front and center as an issue and we still have not seen considerable progress. I am surprised at how long it can take to accomplish things, to effect positive change and how hard you have to fight to be heard. It was very enlightening. From that point on, I became very interested in being a part of these important policy discussions, a part of the fight."

She said that Karen Caplan of Frieda's (who awarded the scholarship) "was wonderful. It was an inspiration to see a woman who was so influential, so well liked and so in tune with what was going on in this industry. I realized that I could climb as high as I wanted."

The climb is not necessarily an easy one. It takes a great deal of time to build a strong network and a loyal client base in the recruiting business, Ms. Manfre-Gross said. "I have only scratched the surface of that potential. I have to work a little harder to get my business out there than those that have spent the last 20 or 30 years doing this. I have to be better."

She noted that the economy has made for some difficult times, but not as bad as one might expect.

"There is plenty of opportunity out there," she said. "The challenges are finding the growth, finding the change and becoming a part of that. It has made me stretch geographically and move out of my comfort zone of western agriculture, which has been wonderful."

One reward is that she can affect a large cross-section of the industry, working in different areas. "Farming, manufacturing, sales, quality, food safety - they are all fascinating to me. I get to experience the whole process" (vicariously, of course), she said. "Unless you are running a very large organization, most people don't get that perspective. I get to see it all and help fix what is broken or help create something new that will grow a business."

She has been married for seven years to Mike Gross, who works as a chef. The couple has two children, 5-year-old Grady and 3-year-old Emma. In their free time, Ms. Manfre-Gross and her husband play co-ed softball. "We both have played ball all our lives," she said. She also acknowledged that she is "fanatical" about fantasy football.

"I love to garden and have been especially challenged trying to grow strawberries in the desert," Ms. Manfre-Gross said. "I finish working and get to go out and put my hands in the dirt, sort of complete that cycle." Her children enjoy joining her in that pursuit.

As for the future, she is optimistic and with cause. "I am proud to say that 93 percent of my clients have given me repeat business over the last year-and- a-half," she said. "I am on my way and enjoying the ride."