David Gill was a full-fledged California grower before his 26th birthday.

A 200-acre farm was No. 1 for the David Gill Ranch Co. Today, Gill’s holdings, now known as Rio Farms, stretch over more than 14,000 acres. His sphere of influence in the fresh produce industry reaches much farther.

“I always wanted to be a farmer,” said Gill. “I thought there was a simple way to do it, but you lose so much control if you just farm.”

Early in his career, Gill began developing his strategy for control.

“After I figured things out, the only thing I wanted to accomplish was to have more control over the steps in the process — growing, harvesting, cooling, loading, sales,” he said. “The more you can directly link with the customer — and have him understand — is where you want to be.”

Gill stepped back from day-to-day growing tasks and began to delegate, an earmark of his career.

“I try to empower people to step up,” he said. “I like to get things going, get things started — then move on to negotiating deals for more crops, for increasing volumes, for expanding into vertical integration mode.”

Stepping back does not mean giving ranch managers total autonomy.

“I’m always there, always watching, and I understand the business top to bottom,” he said.

Gill’s strategy also included affiliating with other grower-shippers.

“I’m a big advocate of partnerships, because the partner can direct the partnership operation while I focus on other areas,” he said.

A careerlong partner in many of Gill’s endeavors has been his brother, David Gill. The two founded Gills Onions, Oxnard, in 1989.

Other partners read like a “Who’s Who” of the California fresh vegetable industry. Among them:

  • Church Bros. LLC, Salinas;
  • Taylor Farms California Inc., Salinas; and
  • Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista.

The achievement — and partnership — of which he is most proud, Gill said, was not a farming effort.

“It was our first real marketing company,” he said.

Gill and three grower partners acquired the company in 1988 and renamed it Growers Express.

“It bloomed; it just took off,” Gill said. “We had good people in sales and management, and we gave them good quality product and good volumes.”

Gill credits much of the success he and his brother have enjoyed to the reputation his farming family had established. Today, he gives the credit to others.

“None of what we’ve accomplished could have been done without a lot of good people, good managers,” Gill said. “I value good employees, and I think we have a whole bunch of them in our organizations.”

Among the rewards Gill enjoys, he said, is “the fun I get watching them grow and develop.”

Gill has served key positions in several industry associations. His success also enables him and his wife, Susan, to be active in a wide range of civic groups and efforts.

“I think what I admire most about David and Susan is that they give back to the community so much,” said Jim Bogart, president and general counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Salinas. “Monterey County is lucky to have them.”

Volunteering does not mean Gill, who expects to celebrate his 60th birthday on Oct. 28, plans to leave the industry.

“If I wasn’t having fun, I would sure think about retiring,” he said. “But the industry is so full of good people, our company particularly, and that gives me the flexibility to do what I want to do.”