Will adding a sour kick get millennials to eat raisins?

Harry Overly, is the new CEO and president of Sun-Maid

Chicago transplant Harry Overly, the new CEO and president of Sun-Maid, brings new leadership to the iconic raisin brand founded in 1912.
Up Next
Chicago transplant Harry Overly, the new CEO and president of Sun-Maid, brings new leadership to the iconic raisin brand founded in 1912.

Sun-Maid Raisins is easily one of the most recognizable brands in the United States. But even the company’s iconic red bonnet-wearing farm girl hasn’t been enough to keep this century-old cooperative from losing touch with consumers, especially younger ones.

Harry Overly vows to change that.

Overly was hired last year as the president and chief executive officer of Sun-Maid Growers. A 39-year-old marketing whiz who has spent most of his career in Chicago, Overly was brought in to shake things up in raisin land.

For the first time in more than 10 years, Sun-Maid will launch a national campaign next year focused on rekindling consumers’ fondness for the brand. Research shows consumers react favorably when they hear the words Sun-Maid. Now, it’s up to Overly and his team to leverage that into new sales.

Sun-Maid workers in 1909 gather at a loading dock. JOHN WALKER

His goal is $100 million in growth over the next three to four years. Stay tuned for new products, new advertising and an elevated presence in the grocery store.

“During our research we heard comments from people who said: raisins are the bridesmaid but never the bride, or it’s like mustard, you eat it on a hotdog but never alone.” Overly said. “Raisins are not a top of the mind snack. And the fact is the competition on the grocery store shelf is fierce. There are new brands and niche brands that are arguably more innovative and take risks to get products to the shelf.”

Overly said raisins suffer from what he calls an “lifespan problem.” What that means is that parents feed raisins to their young children when they first start eating solid food, but once the child reaches school age, they want other things in their lunchbox.

“And then they may not buy them again unless they are making cookies for their grand kids,” Overly said.

For more than 30 years, the venerable company was dutifully run by Barry Kriebel, who provided steady and pragmatic leadership. For years, it served Sun-Maid well. Growers earned a decent profit and consumers loved the brand.

The problem was that while the brand’s logo was well known, people began eating other more interesting and tastier snacks. Sun-Maid was losing market share and worse, wasn’t even on the minds of millennials, the much-coveted group of emerging consumers.

“Our kids aren’t thinking about raisins anymore,” said Jeff Jue, farmer and chairman of Sun-Maid’s board of directors. “We need to make Sun-Maid more relevant. And that’s why we hired Harry.”

A self-assured city boy, Overly admits he was cautious about taking the job. After all, he had climbed his way up the corporate ladder of several major food companies in Dallas and Chicago. Kingsburg and Sun-Maid weren’t exactly on his radar.

His last job was as the CEO of the North American division for Deoleo, one of the largest sellers of olive oil brands in the world, including Bertolli olive oil. Before that he was in Chicago as the chief customer officer of TreeHouse Foods, the largest private label food maker in the United States.

Overly wondered if Sun-Maid was willing to take risks, or whether they just wanted someone to play it safe.

“If they wanted a guy to run a volume-based business and manage it for cash, I would probably be bored and leave in a year,” Overly said. “But that’s not what the board wanted. They wanted to grow the business and make Sun-Maid relevant again. They wanted to put the business on a different trajectory. ”

Harry Overly moved from Chicago to become the new CEO and president of Sun-Maid. JOHN WALKER

To do that, Overly started by changing the culture at Sun-Maid. He got tired of people describing the company’s sluggish sales as “managing the decline” or thinking of packaging as being just in a box.

“People would say that we just don’t do that around here, but that kind of thinking has to change,” he said. “There was such a fear of failure in this company that they became risk averse. But consequently nothing would happen and the company’s business performance shows that.”

He estimates that raisin consumption has dropped about 10 percent over the last five years, in part because Sun-Maid has not invested in growing the business.

To help reverse that trend, Overly brought in some new talent for his marketing team, including creating a new role, vice president of insight and innovation. He hired longtime colleague Lana Simon from Chicago to be his key asset.

Simon will oversee the relaunch of a new flavored sour raisin snack made with natural fruit juice and no added sugar. The snacks were actually launched about 18 months ago, but Overly gave it a makeover, including new packaging and placement on the all important snack aisle instead of the dried fruit aisle. The raisins are made in watermelon and strawberry flavors.

Snacks, especially healthy snacks, are a growing segment and appeal to both millennials and Baby Boomers, the core of Sun-Maid’s customers.

Simon said consumers can expect to see raisins combined with other healthy ingredients. Simon and her team also plan to roll out ads that play on the nostalgia and trust Sun-Maid raisins represent.

Workers box raisins at Sun-Maid in the early days. Special to the Bee/Sun-Maid

“The brand brings back so many fond memories for people, “ Simon said. “We talked with millennials who told us that when they have kids they want to feed them Sun-Maid raisins, just like their mom did because they also want to be good parents.”

Overly knows he has doubters among the cooperative’s 700 growers. Change happens slowly in the raisin world from growing to marketing. For decades, farmers have made raisins the same way. Every late summer, thousands of workers will clip ripe bunches of grapes, like the Thompson seedless, place them on paper trays in the middle of the vineyard where they naturally dry into raisins.

Long-time Sun-Maid grower Paul Locker of Selma said selling more raisins is only part of what has growers in knots. The industry has literally been shrinking over the last decade as more growers rip out their vines and replace them with higher value crops, like almonds and tangerines. Even Locker has added wine grapes and almonds to his mix of crops.

Since 2000, raisin acreage in the San Joaquin Valley has plummeted from 270,000 to 150,000. A majority of that acreage is in Fresno County, the nation’s raisin capital.

New raisin grapes that are being planted are being done to accommodate mechanical harvesting, a labor-saving method of picking, but costly to install. Some of Locker’s vines are harvested by machines.

“We have been able to grind out a living , but it is expensive,” Locker said. “And it is not getting easier.”

He is hopeful that Overly can help revive the Sun-Maid brand and boost sales.

“If we can come up with some new products using our label then we might be able to turn things around,” Locker said. “But in Sun-Maid’s long history they have taken some risks that didn’t turn out too well. It’s always a risk. I just hope that we are successful this time. “

Borrowing a baseball analogy, Overly is adamant that he isn’t scared of swinging and missing.

“We may launch something that may not work as well as we hoped, but we need to learn from it and get back to the plate,” he said. “Failure is going to be acceptable, but we need to win a lot more than we fail.”