This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Portland House of Music on Feb. 28, 2020.

Give us the high level of overview of Wyman’s.

Wyman’s is a 146-year-old business owned by the descendants of Jasper Wyman. We are vertically integrated in wild blueberries, and have processing facilities in Down East Maine and on Prince Edward Island in Canada. We own over 10,000 cropping acres of wild blueberries, and we compete in multiple different segments. First is our retail business, another is the food service channels, where products end up in restaurants, hotels, hospitals, etc. The third really important one is our ingredient channel where we’re selling wild blueberries as an ingredient in other foods, like a Stonewall Kitchen jam and jelly. Stonewall Ktichen is our No. 1 seller. All of the blueberry muffins that you would buy at a Starbucks have Wyman’s wild blueberries in them.

It’s a challenging time and a really exciting time for wild blueberries. They unique in beneficial ways. I will tell you that I’ve never worked on a product that has as many inherent, authentic, real, superior benefits versus the competitive, cultivated, pampered, not so tasty …

Bloated, unhealthy …

Cultivated blueberry. But the world does not know this.

Mainers know.

They know the benefits of wild blueberries are real. While we’re in this challenging time as an industry, the opportunity that exists for us is massive. The upside is huge.

Let’s talk about Tony, starting with where you grew up.

I spent the first 18 years of my life living in foreign environments. I was born in South Africa. Then I lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and then from there I moved to Miami, Florida, which I also call a foreign environment. It was a nice first landing pad into America. I went to college in Minnesota. Having Miami as a stepping stone was probably a good thing. Coming from Rio to Minnesota might have been a shock.

So how many languages do you speak? And maybe do a sentence in each language.

The definition of speak, I guess, is really the question. I speak five languages including English, to some degree. My Portuguese is my strongest, and my Spanish is pretty darn good. I studied French in high school. I studied Japanese in college and lived a handful of years in Japan after college, and so my spoken Japanese is reasonably good and my written Japanese is non-existent. All of you who can write kanji don’t embarrass me in the hall.

Do you use many of them in your job here in Maine?

We are a major exporter to Japan and speaking Japanese with our customers there has certainly been very valuable. We are also a major importer of other frozen fruits from Latin America, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. Speaking Spanish with our suppliers has been useful. The one that I’m not using yet is Portuguese. So, to my team, our next market that we’re going to go after is Brazil.

What was your first job?

My first paycheck was from bagging groceries at Publix Supermarkets in Miami when I was 15. It taught me the respect that folks in tough jobs who are on their feet all day doing relatively monotonous kind of work deserve. It made me more effective in my career as I’ve gone on and had respect for people across all levels of every organization I’ve been in.

What was your first job out of college?

After I graduated with a Japan studies major with lots of international business classes,
all of my friends got real jobs. My father, to his great credit, encouraged me to go and be a ski bum. In retrospect, it was a dangerous move on his part, but it was a wonderful one. I drove out to Colorado, got a job teaching kids to ski so I could get my ski pass, and worked as a bellman. That was another job where you learn some of the tough tasks of turning down beds and putting the chocolates on the pillows.

From there, I hopped on a plane and moved to Tokyo, Japan, and was hired by a company called Warner-Lambert. I was working in their confectionery division on chewing gums and men’s products like Trident and Halls and Bubblicious.

I was really fortunate and given way more responsibility than anybody my age, I was 22, should have been given. It was an entirely Japanese group of people with the exception of the person running it, who was Australian, and the person running marketing was American — neither of whom could speak Japanese. I was a conduit between the people doing the work and the people at the top, and so it gave me great exposure to the leaders of the company as a young punk with no business having that kind of exposure.

I started in a market research role there and realized that I was more interested in making the decisions than making recommendations to the brand managers. I pitched the marketing director on how we should launch a new product in Japan. I was able to be the guy who did that, and it was a fantastic experience. My career has really been out of the box, and I pursued those things that I had passion for. I was able to jump rungs on the ladder and get broader experience by putting myself out there.

Let’s fast forward to the business that you started.

I started a breath mint company that had a pretty exciting ride. I started it literally myself cutting plastic to make a unique package. We became the No. 1 selling breath mint at 7/11 almost overnight. If you’re familiar with the Listerine pocket packs, they were like those little sheets.

We then had sort of the next evolution of breath mint technology in these liquid-filled capsules that look really cool. Super fun name, M-O-M-I-N-T-S. We had an incredible rise and then this spectacular fall. I learned a heck of a lot in the process. We launched two other products along the way. One was a candy for kids called Tongue-toos, which is a little square paper that you have an edible inked image on with candy sprayed on top of that, and you put the piece of paper on your tongue, you lift it off and the image transfers to your tongue. Getting to sit in front of buyers at Walmart and stick your tongue out at them was pretty unique.

State of Maine, everybody. Let’s do state of Maine right on our tongues.

We got knocked off by Hershey’s because the technology of these liquid-filled mints was not proprietary to us. When Hershey announced that they were going to launch a competing product, one of their competitors approached us to acquire us as a means to leap-frog into the marketplace. I was young and foolish and did not take the offers, because I said, “Well, if they’re offering this now, imagine what they’ll offer in a couple years.”

In the meantime, things didn’t go quite that way, which is why I’m here today.

After leaving your next job at Post, when you were thinking about your next opportunity, what were the things that were important to you?

I wanted a growth business. I wanted to do something that I feel good about and leave a legacy that I am proud of. I wanted to work with a food product that I felt the more money we made by selling, the better the world would be. I wanted a business that was smaller than the one that I was in before at Post. I felt as my career went on, I got further and further removed from the consumer, and from the decisions that I love making.

Then I got a call from a recruiter about this opportunity. It met those three criteria, but it wasn’t clear to me immediately that it was teed up for growth. It took some time for me to study and think through before I decided, “Yeah, this is the one.”

What are you focused on? Key strategies?

Wild blueberry prices are really, really low in a historical context, and that is driven by the cultivated blueberry supply. Wild blueberries grow naturally on glacial soils like a carpet in the beautiful barrens Down East and in eastern Canada. They can’t be planted. Cultivated supply has increased about 70% over the past decade. Countries like Peru going from zero pounds to larger output than the state of Maine in the last five years.

In ingredient and food service channels, blueberries are commoditized and there isn’t a brand there. What we’re focused on is what I call de-couple or die. As an industry, we have to command a premium for wild blueberries.

We have authentic points of difference that really matter, like health, taste and the way that they’re grown. If you are a yogurt brand and use the more potent wild blueberry, you don’t need to add more artificial ingredients like sugar and artificial colors. Because wild blueberries are smaller, you get more wild blueberries in a blueberry muffin per pound than you do with cultivated blueberries. These benefits deserve a higher price. This past year, we have been successful in substantially increasing the premium wild blueberry price versus cultivated. Sorry, John. [chuckle] But still John, at a far lower price than in a historical context.

We are now the No. 1 frozen fruit brand in the largest natural foods chain in the world, Whole Foods. We are the largest mass merchandiser at Walmart, and No. 1 at the largest grocer, Kroger.

We have a small but phenomenal team of folks focused on innovating at the intersection of health, taste and convenience. As I mentioned before, I think nine out of 10 people do not eat the recommended daily amount of fruit each day.

Which we learned is one and a half to two cups.

We live in such a time-starved world where we just don’t have the time to go and wash the berries and sit down and actually eat them, and so we have this pipeline of really, really exciting products like Just Fruit.

Healthy Dippin’ Dots, right?

We use the same technology as Dippin’ Dots, but instead of making it out of ice cream, we make it out of Greek yogurt. It is a guilt-free, clean ingredient, low calorie, truly healthy and very convenient way to up your fruit intake.

I ask for all of your support as we launch these new items, like Just Fruit, with limited budgets to go out and communicate with the world. Try it, and if you like them, share them on all your vast social media channels.

What keeps you up at night?

I feel a great weight and responsibility to this industry to the growers to Maine. Make no bones about it, this industry is going through a really, really challenging time. With the quality differentiation that we have at Wyman’s, I believe we are best suited to reverse those trends.

The other worry is all the things that are completely out of my control, such as Mother Nature. The number of things that can go wrong in a farming business is astounding. From drought to frost to pollinating. If it rains, just like humans, the bees tend to chill out and stay home.

So you’re definitely not sleeping?

Right now, we don’t have enough snow on the barrens. The snow cover provides protection. If we get a deep freeze, that can have a real impact on our crop. That keeps me awake at night for sure.

The bee population is so critical to you, you actually rent bees, right?

We do. They come on trucks, and we bring in between 8,000 and 10,000 hives of bees each year. They travel from the almond harvest in California, who uses the greatest number of bees. They’re here for a few weeks, and they do a phenomenal job. We spend a significant amount of time and effort to create natural habitat for the bees to mitigate risk. We like to say no bees, no berries.

This is our last question, here it comes.

What should we be doing more as the state of Maine to get more value added, whether it’s into the blueberry industry and other food products, like seafood?

We have this incredibly vibrant food footprint here in Maine. We bring 30 million tourists to Maine each year. It is a phenomenal opportunity for us to create awareness for these amazing foods that we have in this beautiful state in which we live.

I love your concept of thinking of the tourists as pollinators. So they come here, we teach them the difference between the wild blueberry and the cultivated.

Exactly. When they go home, they can still find wild blueberries on the shelves of their local store.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you, guys.

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