Tom Byttynen, the new chairman of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, didn’t plan a career in produce. Nor did Byttynen, president of Calgary-based Thomas Fresh Inc., imagine following his father into Alberta’s dairy business.

After pursuing religious studies at university for 10 years, he intended to become a minister or a theological scholar.

“But life jumped out and grabbed me,” said the personable 60-year-old, who instead found himself managing a Palm Dairies depot in central Alberta with a staff of 12 and a territory of 1,800 square miles.

“I still have my Class 1 license in case I ever have to go back on a truck,” said Byttynen, who became a CPMA director at the 1993 Montreal convention and served two five-year terms as president of the Calgary branch.

In 1992, while consulting for Dallas-based Morningstar Foods, he got an out-of-the-blue call from the owner of Winnipeg’s Supreme Produce, who was taking over a larger fresh-cut produce company in Calgary.

Byttynen promised to meet him in Winnipeg for 45 minutes between sales calls two days later, and ended up visiting his plant.

“I looked at his operation and thought, this is an interesting industry,” Byttynen said.

“Next thing you know I was running Hikari Produce in Calgary. I spent 90 days learning the world of produce from the owner. The first day he didn’t trust me to operate a pencil.”

In 1997, Byttynen launched Thomas Fresh in Calgary, packing potatoes and onions with three staff, 17,000 square feet of space and an empty warehouse.

“I remember sitting in the back on a lawn chair with my foreman, wondering how we were ever going to fill the place and get business,” said Byttynen, who in 2008 received The Packer’s Canadian Produce Man of the Year award.

Today, Thomas Fresh buys and packs more than 200 product lines from around the world for western Canada customers. The company has 80,000 square feet in Calgary and 40,000 square feet in Vancouver, with more than 100 staff.

“To serve our customers in this world of individuality and convenience, we now have 1-, 2-, 3-, 5-, 7-, 10-, 15- and 20-pound bags in five different varieties just for potatoes,” he said.

Having spent his career in dairy wearing a hairnet and boots, Byttynen is a strong supporter of food safety and traceability in the produce industry.

“We want to ensure the people who buy our products know they’re safe to consume,” he said.

“Even today, visitors to my plants say, ‘Wow, is it ever clean in here!’ We polish the floors every night and we’re as eco-friendly as possible. We even recycle the heat inside our building.”

The watchwords for his CPMA term will be education and communication, he said, particularly among growers, packers and retailers.

“Retailers have told me time and time again that we don’t ask what they want, we go in and try and sell them what we have,” Byttynen said.

“Yet the retailer has already spent thousands of dollars to find out what their customers want and what will bring them into their stores.

“We have to do the same thing in our world,” he said.

“Today’s smart farmers don’t just grow a product and try to sell it, they come in first and ask what you want. We work with them to figure out the best product to grow depending on the soil they have, package it under the right conditions and bring it to the marketplace.”

As he prepares to take on his new role in Montreal, Byttynen warns that he’s saving a hug for every delegate.

“I’m a big hugger,” he said. “I grew up in a Finnish family with a lot of aunts and every one of them used to smother me.”

As his wife Janet McMaster can attest: “It’s just my way of expression.”