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The Kiwi Queen Plays Songs of Love

Frieda Rapoport Caplan, Founder, Frieda's Inc.

More than 20 years ago, I received one of the highest honors my industry has to offer: The Packer's "Produce Man of the Year" award. Of course I sent the plaque right back, and a few weeks later they sent me a new one. From then on, winners were called "Produce Marketer of the Year."

My opportunity to go into business for myself arose, not so much because I was a woman but because the owners of the L.A. Produce Market who pushed me saw what I was doing as a potentially successful company. They felt I was going to fill a very important niche in the produce industry. It was years before I became aware of women in business, the feminist movement and things of that sort.

At the time I started my own company, in 1962, most buyers for produce houses were only interested in the high-volume items like apples, pears, strawberries, potatoes and onions. So when farmers came by and offered novelties like Jerusalem artichokes, which I renamed sunchokes®, and limes and papayas and mangoes, they had no interest. They said, "Go see Frieda—she might be interested, because she handles odd things, like mushrooms." Now we're the nation's leading marketer and distributor of specialty produce, with annual sales approaching $35 million.

Standing Out in the Industry

On the national scene, it was different. I was treated as an unusual person. Just before I went into business for myself, the L.A. Times did a story about me. They found it very interesting that there was a woman operating in the produce market. They didn't want to say I was chubby or fat, so they wrote, "the sturdy mother of two"! In fact, my husband, who was a labor-relations consultant, raised my daughters with the help of a housekeeper. For a number of years, he had his office in our home. We led very independent lives. But he wanted me to fully enjoy what I was doing.

At one of my first produce conventions, at the suggestion of one of the merchandisers who was very supportive and fascinated with some of the imported fruit I was handling, I hired four Japanese students dressed in kimonos to promote it by handing out a four-page brochure I had made. It created a sensation. Nobody in the produce industry had ever done anything like that. The following year, at a convention in San Antonio, the chairman gave a speech that started, "Welcome, gentlemen—and Frieda Caplan." I realized afterward that what he meant was that there were no other women in the industry—so I stood out like a sore thumb.

Being a woman turned out to be a big bonus. Although I was way out in Los Angeles, getting noticed like that gave me an opportunity to have a national presence. When supermarket buyers and retailers around the country wanted something unusual for their stores, I started getting phone calls. In the first years, I never had a sales force. People just called me, because there was no other company like mine in the United States.

Raising the Bar for Women

Business was something I did because I had to make a living, and it turned out to be a lot of fun, but it wasn't until 1982 that I began to be aware of women's roles. The Committee of 200, an organization of top women entrepreneurs, developed out of seed money from the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) had generated revenues of over a million dollars, and I was invited to join. They found so many that they raised the bar up to $5 million. At the first meeting I attended, I commented that I was seriously considering turning the reins over to my daughter Karen, who had been in the business since 1977, and they told me I was absolutely crazy—that I would regret it, that she would push me out of the company. I didn't pay any attention, because I realized that they were just talking as if it were the classic conflict between fathers and sons.

Back then, I didn't know anything about business plans. I just plowed ahead, buying and selling and promoting, with no real goals. I didn't like to hire and fire and I really didn't know how to build a company, and my daughter Karen, who was just turning 30 and very goal-oriented, was dying to take over. She had even taken courses to prepare for it when she was at the University of California-Davis.

When I made her president of the company, she had me get out a letter to the trade. She wanted me to say that there would be no changes, and I said, "Karen, there had better be changes!" I made it clear to her that I expected her to start implementing the things she felt were needed to increase the business. And I was absolutely right—that was the smartest business decision I've ever made. We were doing about $10 million at the time. Within five years Karen took it up to $18 million.

Whole Lot of Sharing Going On

When a company reaches revenues of about $15 million, the culture has to change—the whole operation goes onto a different level. These were things I didn't understand starting out, but my daughter did. Her generation understands it. There were beginning to be opportunities for women. Organizations were developing that helped and recognized entrepreneurs. The whole atmosphere, the business climate, had totally changed.

Karen is very visionary, and she has positioned the company for progress. She can be away two or three weeks and everything goes fine, because she has structured a company that allows this to happen. She and her sister Jackie have an excellent relationship. As vice-president of Frieda's and one of our top salespeople, Jackie is an implementer—she supports Karen's program and is able to carry it out. We've been the subject of a lot of university case studies. What they pick up is the nurturing relationship of women. Fathers and sons are often competitive, but mothers and daughters do tend to be nurturing.

After I made the move to give the presidency to Karen, my sisters in the Committee of 200 really changed their attitude. Beatrice Coleman, who was the president of Maidenform, told me that because of my success with Karen, she brought her daughter Elizabeth in, and when Beatrice died, Elizabeth became president of Maidenform. It opened everyone's eyes. There's been a lot of sharing with their daughters—and their sons, as well.

Mind Wide Open

At first, we didn't know anything about financing. When we moved to our present facilities, we tried to finance everything—close to a million dollars in refrigeration and facilities—through our cash flow, but what happened was that we had to slow down our payments to our vendors—a poor move on our part. We were always so proud that we were able to do everything internally, but there comes a point where, if you want to expand, you just can't do that continuously—you have to be able to get credit.

Finally, when Karen was president of NAWBO here in Los Angeles, we got all these contacts that helped us learn the importance of having access to capital, and how to use it. We didn't know, because we had been so successful in working the way we were that we had never addressed it properly. I think the women's movement is doing a good job now of educating entrepreneurs.

One of the keys to our success is that we've always had an open mind and an open door, whether it has to do with produce items, packaging, transportation—we were the first to use air containers—or information. We were probably one of the first produce companies to set up a Web site, Friedas.com, in 1996. We knock ourselves out to provide the information, background, samples, everything. Many major food writers in the country use our Web site as a resource. It's basically an educational tool. We encourage produce managers in the store to use it, and we urge our clients to use it to learn how to handle products.

Another reason for our success is our excellent relationship with the media. All my life, I've always done things and developed skills that I now recognize as marketing. Ever since high school, I was campaign manager for everyone who ran for student-body president, and helped elect the first non-fraternity vice-president at UCLA. I did fundraising, volunteered at the Red Cross and helped establish UCLA's international house. I would say, again, always keep a very open mind. Don't prejudge, don't rule anything out. Don't take no for an answer—when you have a good idea, pursue it. And if somebody turns you down, but you're convinced it's a good thing, find a way!

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