Keith Mathews, FirstFruits Marketing
Keith Mathews, FirstFruits Marketing

Keith Mathews, 60, was a high school math and physics teacher and track coach when he decided to give the produce industry a try for a year.

Thirty years later, he hasn’t looked back.

Mathews had been teaching in Clarkston, Wash., for eight years when his father-in-law, Virgil Doty, suggested he take a year off to work at Doty’s company, Gleed, Wash.-based Apple Valley Fruit Co.

Mathews entered produce from the ground up, sweeping floors, pouring bag after 50-pound bag of salt crystals into the shed’s antiquated refrigeration system.

“I wrecked a few bins in my day.”

Eventually, Mathews made the switch from warehouse general manager to Apple Valley’s sales desk. Then, in 1989, he switched gears, becoming a manager at the Yakima-based Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.

In 1994 Mathews returned to private industry, becoming marketing director of Selah, Wash.-based Rainier Fruit Co. A five-year stint in the Selah office of Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc. and a second go-round at the association, this time as executive director, preceded Mathews’ current job — chief executive officer of Yakima-based FirstFruits Marketing of Washington.

Dave Austin met Mathews when Austin was hired by Rainier Fruit to head up the company’s national marketing efforts. Austin, who now works as the marketing director for Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., worked directly under Mathews.

What characterized Mathews then and now, Austin said, is honesty, professionalism and industry knowledge.

“When I went on the road and talked to retailers, what stood out was the instant credibility Rainier had, and that was largely because of Keith,” he said.

“He doesn’t tell stories and he doesn’t blow smoke. I’ve never heard a bad word said about him on either side — retailers or shippers.”

When Austin is talking to someone and Mathews’ name pops up, it usually brings a smile to the person’s face.

“He has a manner that’s quiet, professional and very believable,” he said. “It can be a difficult business at times. Very few can rise above the fray as Keith does.”

Looking back on his career thus far, Mathews cites a few highlights: contributing to Rainier’s growth; lobbying successfully for a Washington law that protects packers in financial dealings; and marketing FirstFruits’ exclusive Opal apple.

Mathews traces his success to mentors including Doty, Rainier owner Bill Zirkle and Ralph Broetje, owner of Broetje Orchards, Prescott, Wash., whose product FirstFruits markets.

From those mentors and others, Mathews said he developed a management style that gives people the freedom to do their jobs, but steers them in the right direction when they need steering.

“My philosophy is to counsel and empower,” he said.

“I strongly believe that people need to have a lot of responsibility. But I give them the tools and the counsel to complete the task.”