Blow Your Own Horn
From the January/February 2008 Issue
There’s no contradiction between making profits and respecting the environment, says David DeLorenzo.
As he tells it, David DeLorenzo became CEO of Dole Food Company Inc. the “old-fashioned way.” He joined the company straight out of business school 37 years ago and worked his way up to the top position last June. He moved 13 times with Dole and spent 10 years in Central America. Dole, based in Westlake Village, near Los Angeles, has $6 billion in annual sales and 75,000 employees around the world. It is privately owned by David Murdock.
David, Dole was taken private in March 2003. How has that changed the company?
What sectors is Dole involved in?
And you are a global company?
As a result, you provide services and infrastructure that most businesses do not. Can you explain?
For example, when we went into Honduras over 100 years ago, we built a port there. We put in all the schools in the area. We brought in a whole order of Catholic nuns, actually. They were missionaries, but they acted as nurses and schoolteachers. We founded the first bank, the largest bank in Honduras today. We put in dairies because there was no milk. We know it is important to be not only a good corporate citizen but a lead corporate citizen. We joke sometimes that we’re working where other people are fighting or afraid to go, yet we seem to survive and thrive in those areas.
What about labor standards?
In Ecuador, for example, when we got there 40 years ago, it was mostly small banana growers. And it was pretty primitive—very small packing houses, unsanitary conditions. So we went in over the years and cleaned everything up, brought up all the environmental standards, and basically raised the standards of an entire industry. Even these small growers have places where the employees have dining rooms, where there are proper toilets and washrooms, where their packing plants are as clean as a whistle.
It sounds as though Dole is simply doing business in a way that is the most beneficial to you, but that means being socially responsible. Is that right?
How do you balance commercial demands with environmental demands?
Do you see more of a demand for organics, or more natural food?
We are in developing areas where there has been a lot of slash-and-burn agriculture because of the agrarian reform movements over the years, where the governments have taken away these big tracts of land and given one acre apiece to thousands of people. It is very difficult to make a living off just one acre. What they end up doing is burning off the land. Those areas tend to surround ours, so we have reforestation projects in most of the countries to try to bring back some proper balance.
For example, we’ve got a great program in the Philippines called “Chairs for Trees.” Out of our big pineapple cannery there, we’re taking any kind of leftover wood that we have—a lot of our stuff comes in by ship on pallets—and we’ve set up a cottage industry making tables and chairs. We donate them, the wooden chairs and tables, to local schools in Mindanao. We have given out over 44,000 chairs so far.
In return, the schools have to have a program where the kids plant a tree or two for each chair that we give out. Reforestation is important to us, and it’s not just for the environment. Our research believes that the deforestation does affect weather patterns. We need a lot of rain.
Are you surprised that some of the criticism says, “These businesses put profits ahead of people”?
You’re a business, so you are trying to make a profit, but it makes sense to be what’s called “socially responsible,” right?
And you do not get a great deal of sympathy in the press?
What are the main areas of public policy that Dole involves itself in?
We had a big blowup with the European Union where they closed their market for a while to Latin American bananas. It lasted for about 15 years. They lifted that in 2006, but they still have a very big tax that the countries in the region and the importers are fighting to get reduced.
What is your relationship with Castle & Cooke?
Castle and Cooke were two young missionaries who graduated from Harvard when they were 19 years old. They got on a ship in 1851 and sailed off to do missionary work in Hawaii. When they got there, they ended up setting up a community store that became the foundation of our company. They got into the steamship business and then hotels and then pineapples. Castle & Cooke became one of the big-five companies in Hawaii. It’s a pioneering spirit. We send young people off in fairly remote areas and they’ve done wonderful things.
Image credit: photograph by Jonathan Exley.