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Internship evolves into career for Kelly Ricketts

Kelly Ricketts, a sales associate for Sweet Onion Trading in Melbourne, FL, joined the company in May 2009 as an intern soon after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in food and resource economics.

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Kelly Ricketts, sales associate for Sweet Onion Trading, and boyfriend, Derrick Connell, enjoying a Thanksgiving celebration with family last November.

“I knew I wanted to be in some aspect of agriculture, but initially my goal was to become a veterinarian of large animals, particularly horses,” the 23-year-old told The Produce News.

Ms. Ricketts has ridden horses all of her life, so it seemed like a natural direction for her. But when her professors, all horse lovers themselves, told her that out of every 100 horse veterinarians, one might be able to find the time to ride regularly, she began having doubts about her career choice, although she wanted to stay in some aspect of agriculture.

“A lot of a vet’s work is done in the field, and my professors warned me that it can entail very long hours and a lot of emergencies, such as a horse going into labor in the middle of the night,” she said. “But I also wanted a relatively normal life, so I heeded the warnings.”

She consulted a family friend who does business with Sweet Onion Trading, and he told her that, coincidentally, the company was looking for an intern.

“The job market was pretty tough, so I decided to give it a try,” she said. “In August 2009, they offered me a full-time job, and I immediately accepted.”

Ms. Ricketts found out soon after joining the company that she really likes the produce industry, and she feels the same way today.

“I get to meet and talk with all types of people,” she said. “It can be an emotional roller coaster — one minute it’s calm and the next it’s incredibly hectic. So much responsibility lies in my hands at times that it can cause anxiety. But you get used to the pace, and you learn to not overreact or make rash decisions.”

Much of Sweet Onion Trading’s business is done in the Northeast, but it plans to expand to other regions. When she began working at the company, Ms. Ricketts’ job was to help with the house accounts. Today she focuses strongly on helping the company expand into the Midwest

She also likes the comradery that comes with working with a small, tight-knit sales team. Besides her, Barry Rogers, company president, and Derek Rodgers, sales manager, oversee sales.

“We work really closely together, and we always help each other,” she said. “When we take on a new client, we discuss who will oversee the account. But if that person is absent or inundated with work, the others will pitch in. It makes for a pleasant working atmosphere.”

Ms. Ricketts added that the more customers she gets to handle on her own, the more she learns and the more comfortable she feels about making important decisions. And she does have aspirations for her future.

“I want to learn more about imports,” she said. “We handle sweet onions from Chile, Mexico and Peru, and we’ve done business in Guatemala in the past. Import programs are very different than domestic movements, and it is something I would like to learn more about and become involved with.”

Although her job requires her to be in the office Monday through Friday, she doesn’t hesitate to go into the office on Saturdays when the workload demands it. She and Derek Rogers man the phones after hours and on weekends, and they do a lot of traveling for business.

“We work the trade shows, and during Vidalia season one of us is in Vidalia [Georgia] at all times to make sure the quality of the crop is in good shape,” she said. “We work with three Vidalia onion growers, and if we see something that isn’t right in one field, we can quickly turn to another to make sure we have the needed supplies. Someone from the company also travels to offshore sites at least once during a movement to make sure things are going according to plan.”

When Ms. Ricketts wraps up a sale with a client, her job has just begun. She oversees all aspects of the product movement through to delivery.

“Ideally, we want every sale to run smoothly, which can sometimes put a lot of pressure on you, but I love the follow-up process. It’s important to be attentive to every detail. It’s strange, but the more pressure we’re under, the more efficiently things seem to get done.”

Life outside of the sweet onion business is also pretty sweet for Ms. Ricketts. She spends most of her free time with her boyfriend, Derrick Connell, a personal injury attorney who is practicing in the Melbourne area.

“Derrick is from Georgia,” she said. “We visit his family there about once a month. I have family in Lake Wales, about two hours from Melbourne, and we try to get there at least once a month. Derrick has a ‘MAKO’ offshore boat, and we love to go boating and fishing on it. We also like to freshwater fish from a small boat in a lake behind our house.”

They also enjoy going to live music concerts, and they have taken up golf together. Ms. Ricketts loves to cook, and her stepmother put a book of family recipes together from which she enjoys preparing different dishes.

Her family members are all good cooks, so she feels that cooking and baking are in her nature.

The couple has definite plans for the future, but they haven’t set a timetable yet because they are both very busy at their jobs.

For now, Ms. Ricketts has put horseback riding aside, but her love of horses hasn’t waned.

“I’m used to having my own horse,” she said. “Riding someone else’s horse is not the same. Until I can have a horse and dedicate time to it, I’ll hold off. For now, Derrick and my careers and our dedication to family have center stage.”

Sweet Onion Trading adopted National Onion Labs certification as of Jan. 1, and Ms. Ricketts is excited about how it will benefit the firm.

“We are certifying all onions that we handle outside of Vidalia, Georgia,” she said. “Sweet onion certification is becoming increasingly popular because certified onions demand a premium, which is hard to get without certification grading that denotes the amount of pyruvic acid. It will help give the product a little more integrity, which will help to drive sales.

“Sweet Onion Trading’s business has been pretty consistent throughout the recession,” she continued. “During economic downturns, people tend to stick with products that have proven to be tried-and-true. But as the economy eases up, I think people will be more prone to trying new things. Our business is good, and I think that 2011 will show a more positive aspect for us and the entire produce business.”