Larry Alsum doesn’t think of himself as a leader in his role as owner of Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. Instead, he sees himself as his employees’ servant, working to create a fair and healthy environment so they can flourish.

“I have to have a vision and communicate that to others. I surround myself with good people who have passion and I focus on helping them,” said the accountant turned grower.

Alsum has been at the helm of the Friesland, Wis., potato growing and produce distribution company since 1981. He took over, giving up an accounting career, when his cousin Glen Alsum died in a plane crash.

“You’ve got to always be on the lookout and step outside your comfort zone,” Alsum said. “Change is a good thing and you have to embrace it when it’s the right option.”

Alsum has changed a lot at the business in his 33 years, but not so much in the area of personnel. He said “a couple” of his 150 employees predate him and “a bunch more” have been with him since the mid-1980s.

“Larry is a humble man who leads with a passion for the industry and a vision of continuous improvement,” said chief financial officer Jan Braaksma.

Improvements in recent years include food safety upgrades, introduction of high-tech devices in the field, remodeling the potato wash system to reduce water use by half and installing coolers with timers to cut electricity usage by up to 20%.

Alsum said he also strives to help employees improve themselves. He credits the company’s health and wellness program with doing just that. “We were able to decrease our employees’ contribution (to the health plan) last year and our costs decreased, too.”

Braaksma said Alsum leads by example and Alsum agreed, saying he believes in walking the walk, especially when it comes to health. Once weighing 300 pounds, Alsum lost 100 pounds in 22 months and now maintains a weight of 220.

“You have to find a balance in life and work,” he said. “I try to help everyone do that. The book ‘The Servant’ by James Hunter is a good place to start understanding how to do that.”

He also works to keep the industry healthy by serving on the boards of the National Potato Council and the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association. He is also a past chairman of the U.S. Potato Board.