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Obituaries

Robert Grimm, 54; Began Baby Carrot Boom

March 24, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Robert Grimm, a vegetable baron who was instrumental in nurturing the phenomenal sales growth of the baby carrot by introducing innovative packaging and expanding sales beyond supermarkets in the 1990s, has died. He was 54.

Grimm, who was president of Grimmway Farms, died of a heart attack March 17 at his home in Bakersfield, said Jeff Green, the company's general counsel.

The Bakersfield-based company did not invent the so-called baby carrot, which starts as a mature root that is given a severe makeover through peeling and downsizing. But the tiny product helped transform the company into one of the largest carrot producers in the world.

Grimmway has been recognized for boosting sales of the baby carrot by positioning it as a healthful snack and packaging it in ways that make it easy to pop into sack lunches or serve on airplanes.

The 2-inch vegetable is considered one of the American food industry's success stories: Carrot consumption grew by 33% throughout the 1990s, according to the American Marketing Assn.

When supermarket chains began clamoring for the product in the late 1980s, the business opportunity seemed too good to pass up, Grimm later recalled.

"Sometimes you just have to go on instinct," he said in 2000.

Today, baby carrots account for about 70% of carrot sales at Grimmway, Kern County's largest private employer, with 7,000 workers. Grimmway and Bolthouse Farms, a competitor also headquartered in Bakersfield, produce almost 90% of California's carrots.

The family-owned Grimmway also grows and processes organic carrots sold under the Bunny-Luv label, onions, organic vegetables, vegetable juice and potatoes.

"Bob Grimm was considered a giant of the industry," said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Assn., in a statement. Grimm had served on the association's board since 1988.

Grimmway traces its origins to the mid-1960s, when Grimm was in the eighth grade. He and his older brother, Rod, who was already in college, started farming 5 acres of sweet corn on their grandfather's chicken farm in Anaheim.

Their first employees were their cousins and two sisters, who sold the corn from roadside produce stands.

Eventually they added other crops, but by the late 1970s were deeply in debt. In the early 1980s, after a promising foray into carrot farming in Kern County, the brothers permanently relocated to the San Joaquin Valley.

A decade later, they began buying other companies, including two top carrot-packing firms, to become the industry leader.

By 2000, they had reportedly grown into a $350-million operation with five plants in the United States and Scotland and products shipped to more than 20 countries.

After Rod Grimm died of cancer at 51 in 1998, Robert Grimm took over as company president.

"We had a lot of respect for each other, and we shared a common work ethic and approach to religion," Grimm, a devout Lutheran, told Marketing Management magazine in 2000.

"Working for Bob as an employee of Grimmway, you really are a part of the Grimm extended family," said Green, who has worked for the company for 17 years. "He put his family first above all other things, and he put your family first."

Every year, the company sponsored a picnic for about 12,000 employees and family members.

Jeff Meger, Grimm's nephew and the company's vice president, will take over as president of Grimmway.

Robert Alan Grimm was born Dec. 11, 1951, in Orange, the youngest of Herbert and Eunice Grimm's four children. He grew up working on his grandfather's ranch.

A graduate of Villa Park High School, Grimm earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Cal State Fullerton in 1974.

Six years later, he married Kari Dobson after he saw her singing in the choir at Zion Lutheran Church in Anaheim. They moved to Bakersfield in 1983.

After the concept of baby carrots was successfully test-marketed by another company in Los Angeles, "it quickly turned into a race to see which processors could put in equipment fast enough to serve this emerging market," Grimm later recalled.

By the mid-1990s, the company was able to process millions of pounds of baby carrots a day. Grimm considered the name "a happy accident," while acknowledging that it did nothing to dissuade shoppers from thinking they were buying immature root vegetables.

In addition to his wife, Grimm is survived by his children, Brandon, 24; Kelli, 22; Brett, 16; Chase, 13; and David, 10; and sisters Judy and Jackie of Orange. His father died about four weeks ago, at 91.

A memorial service is planned for Sunday at 2 p.m. at St. John's Lutheran Church, 4500 Buena Vista Road, Bakersfield. Services will be conducted in English, Spanish and Punjabi. (About 5,000 Grimmway Farms employees are Latino and an additional 1,000 are Sikh.)

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