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International Fruit Tree Association tour attendees participate in a hard cider tasting session highlighting BC Tree Fruits’ decision to open a cidery as a market for the cooperative’s commercial-grade fruit at its Kelowna, British Columbia, packing facility. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

International Fruit Tree Association tour attendees participate in a hard cider tasting session in July, 2018, highlighting BC Tree Fruits’ decision to open a cidery as a market for the cooperative’s commercial-grade fruit at its Kelowna, British Columbia, packing facility. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

BC Tree Fruits, which packs the bulk of British Columbia’s apples, has laid off a few familiar faces as part of the cooperative’s restructuring.

In January, the Kelowna-based company cut seven positions over various departments and supervisory levels as part of its changes to seek competitive edges in a rapidly changing industry, said Chris Pollock, marketing manager.

“It was a mindset of wanting to focus on core business elements or practices of the cooperative,” he said.

Among those laid off were Hank Markgraf, the longtime grower services manager, and Tony DiMaria, a field services representative.

Markgraf and DiMaria both are common faces at events held by the International Fruit Tree Association, a grower-education group that hosts tours and conferences around the world. Markgraf is a member of the board of directors and organized a large chunk of the association’s 2018 summer study tour through British Columbia’s fruit industry.

Markgraf also has his own orchard and is under contract to bring his fruit to the cooperative for at least one more year, Pollock said.

The changes at BC Tree Fruits also affected the CEO, Stan Swales, who has been reassigned as the company’s bin resource manager, Pollock said. The interim CEO, Bob Fisher-Fleming, is leading the search for a permanent replacement.

Meanwhile, the company’s CFO, Warren Everton, recently resigned to take a job elsewhere in Kelowna, Pollock said. The cooperative will replace him.

The cooperative is early in the process of exploring the option of building a new packing facility elsewhere in Kelowna, Pollock said. The new building would also house the cidery, which the company opened in 2014 at its current downtown facility, which is aging and is short on parking.

BC Tree Fruits represents between 70 percent and 80 percent of the province’s apples and about one-third of its cherries.

The reorganization comes at a time when the British Columbia fruit industry is looking for new ways to keep up with a global trade growing increasingly competitive.

For many years, the area relied on the signature apple variety Ambrosia, which is now public and available to large production companies in the United States. Meanwhile, most of the province’s growers hold small acreage farms, making it difficult for them to attract profitable club varieties to the region.

In December 2018, the provincial government began taking applications for financing through the Tree Fruit Competitiveness Fund, designed to help the industry pay for modernizing equipment and facilities, develop new markets and fund new research.

A month earlier, a 28-page industry analysis by the province painted the tree fruit industry as lagging behind other growing areas of the world in modernization and other aspects of competitiveness.

—by Ross Courtney