Chuck Olsen, 67, founder and president of The Chuck Olsen Co., has written more than a few exclamation points of achievement in the family’s 101-year-long farming saga.
Olsen has survived lean years, threats by organized labor on the lives of his family, and, in recent years, numerous surgeries. His perseverance reflects the kind of grit he learned from his mentor and grandfather, the late Carl Olsen, who began farming in California’s San Joaquin Valley in 1910.
Today, Chuck Olsen is the mentor — to his son, Jeff, and his daughter and son-in-law, Marti and Tom Salisbury.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world to have my son, daughter and son-in-law helping me and to work together every day and have fun,” Olsen said.
The good fortune is deserved, says Steve Probstfield, director of business development for Ruthven, Ontario-based Clifford Produce.
“He’s one of the greatest individuals I’ve ever met in the produce industry,” Probstfield said.
After graduating from Fresno State University, Olsen began his career not in fresh produce, but in the wine industry as a grower relations representative.
He likely would have stayed in wine, he said, were it not for a 1971 telephone call from his grandfather Carl.
“He told me my uncle was retiring, and it was time for me to come back to the ranch,” Olsen said.
Olsen did his grandfather’s bidding, and within two years, he was elected to the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association’s board of directors and to the Mid-California Sunkist Growers board.
An Olsen-designed packinghouse was completed in 1976 and featured hand grading and packing and no accumulation bins.
“Customers were willing to pay premium prices because they knew they were getting the best available from the West Coast,” said Probstfield, who spent 36 years with Sunkist.
As the family’s fruit was attracting loyal customers, Olsen’s political efforts in support of growers were creating enemies.
In 1976, he was named co-chairman of a statewide campaign aimed at defeating an initiative that would have given labor nearly free rein to organize in growers’ backyards.
At one point, a United Farm Workers official delivered a not-so-subtle threat that sent chills down his spine, Olsen said.
“She told me they knew where I lived and where my children went to school,” he said.
“A few days later, a dummy of me was burned in effigy right across the street from our home.”
Statewide headlines followed when more than one dozen bullets were fired through the family’s living room window, but no one was hurt.
Voters soundly defeated the initiative.
In 1989, Olsen left the company his grandfather founded and five years later established The Chuck Olsen Co.
“He started the company with nothing but his integrity,” Probstfield said.
“It was his reputation for dealing fairly with customers, taking care of them with good quality produce, service and follow-through that made The Chuck Olsen Co. successful.”
Volume in that first year approached 500,000 cartons, and the company this year will sell and ship more than four million boxes, Olsen said.
One of the company’s guiding principles is a lesson learned from his grandfather.
“He told me, ‘Never ask a man to do something you can’t do, wouldn’t do or haven’t done,’” Olsen said.
Now in the twilight of his career and battling health problems, Olsen has no plans to retire soon.
“This is the greatest industry in the world,” he said.
“Some of my best friends are my competitors.”