From Silicon Valley into Olive Oil Business

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Walk down the beer aisle or into your local wine shop, and you’ll see endless drinking options from around the country and world, with a wide variety of flavors and prices. The olive oil section at your local grocery store likely looks nothing like that, with a few old brands and little differentiation. Gregg Kelley, CEO of California Olive Ranch, wants to change all that.

A former tech executive during the first Dot Com bubble, Kelley has experience taking startups to IPO—as well as winding them down and laying off employees. Disillusioned by Silicon Valley, he traveled the world and did consulting work until he came across California Olive Ranch, a small producer of olive oil in Northern California.

Since joining the company as CFO in 2006 and taking over as CEO in November 2007, Kelley has raised $120 million and used that money to grow from less than $2 million in revenue to a projected $80 million this year. California Olive Ranch, which sells at national retailers from Walmart to Whole Foods, is now the #4 brand of olive oil in the United States—although it remains a small player in an industry dominated by foreign giants.

Kelley’s long term goal is to convince consumers of the benefits of higher quality (and higher-priced) olive oil, just like brewers and wineries have done. He spoke to Forbes recently about his experience in a conversation that has been condensed and edited.

Brian Solomon: Of all the businesses out there, how did you end up in olive oil after leaving Silicon Valley?

Gregg Kelley: It was purely chance. I toured California Olive Ranch in sleepy Chico, CA. At the time they had a single ranch, single mill operation. They were only six years old, kind of a hobby for the owners—a family office based in Barcelona. They were looking for a CFO, and I saw some potential. But I knew nothing about olive oil. I was the typical American with an old name-brand bottle at home. I took a 70% pay cut, wrapped up my six-employee consulting firm, and moved to Chico. But I was single, and didn’t have to make a lot of money.

Solomon: What was different about the way California Olive Ranch did business?

Kelley: It was almost a classic Peter Drucker business case. Harvesting costs are one of the biggest in olive oil, and here they were growing trees closer together in a hedgerow, like a winery. That allowed them to use a mechanical harvester, replacing hand pickers. Suddenly you can process the oil from the trees in just 6 hours. Even to this day, just a small percent of the world’s olive oil is mechanically harvested. There are millions of acres of olives farmed in Spain and the rest of Europe—most of it isn’t even irrigated. They need massive production infrastructure, and still can’t get the fruit off the tree effectively.

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