Lynda Resnick Bearing Fruit
The Pom Queen opens up about ambition, instinct, sustainability—and Jackie O’s fake pearls a conversation with Jared Diamond / portrait by Matthew Rolston
Widely regarded as a marketing genius, Lynda Resnick established her reputation by building brands—think Pom Wonderful, Teleflora, Fiji Water and the Franklin Mint (a company she and her husband, Stewart, acquired in 1985 and sold in 2006). The Resnicks also own Paramount Farming Company and Paramount Citrus, two powerhouses in the world of California agribusiness. The Los Angeles Business Journal has estimated the couple’s net worth at $1.4 billion.
Jared Diamond, a noted authority on evolutionary biology, anthropology, physiology, linguistics and ornithology, is a professor of geography at UCLA, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs and Steel and a recipient of the National Medal of Science. Long acquainted with Resnick, he has said that she “figured out for herself how to succeed, again and again.” Now, with the publication of Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business, Resnick spoke to her friend and environmental ally about her brilliant, improbable career.
Jared Diamond: I looked up “pomegranates” in the standard book on crops of the Old World: “The pomegranate is an appreciated minor crop in traditional Mediterranean horticulture.” Now you’ve made pomegranate a name in the United States, but the fact is farmers have been growing them a long time before you saw the potential.
Lynda Resnick: Pomegranates are an 8,000-year-old overnight success. We discovered that by happenstance—we had purchased about 120 acres of pomegranates when we were buying pistachio land. Then we became enamored with the folklore and the myth around the pomegranate, everything from King Tut taking them into the afterlife in his burial chamber to Catherine of Aragon—the pomegranate was an emblem on her coat of arms. In many cultures, the pomegranate was the symbol of everlasting life. Dioscorides wrote about it curing laryngitis. It was supposed to be very beneficial to women who wanted to have children—and I can tell you that at one time, nearly everyone at Pom was pregnant. [Laughs.]
JD: Did you have more to go on than just mystique?
LR: We decided to do some real testing to see if there was any truth to the myths. We discovered pomegranates are a great anti-inflammatory and actually reduce plaque in the arteries. Once we got that information, we figured out a way to make a juice so it would be easier to get 2.5 pomegranates down every day. The fact that we had a very cleverly designed bottle, a delicious tasting natural juice, an established mythology and great advertising and marketing all together made the success we see today.
JD: Whose idea was the bottle?
LR: I would love to take full credit for the bottle, but I can’t. We have a design department run by Bryan Honkawa. He and I have worked together for 25 years. There were 100 bottle designs on the wall the day I walked into the studio. I pointed to one and said, “That’s it!” The concept is two pomegranates, one on top of the other, and the globes are your daily dose—you drink one globe a day. Because of my background in art and because we collect art, design is very important to me personally. The Pom bottle is sublime, in a way. When you go into a supermarket, you hear that noise everywhere: “Buy me! I’m going to save your life! I’m going to make you thin!” When you come to that Pom bottle, it’s like an oasis of calm.
JD: If your life’s work had been to bring pomegranates to the American public, one would have said you’d accomplished a lot. But besides Pom, you’ve done at least three other things that I’m aware of—Teleflora, Franklin Mint and Fiji Water. Since what we do as adults depends a lot on what we learn as children, I have to wonder when and how you developed your flair for marketing?
LR: I was trained as a fine artist. I went to a progressive public school in Pennsylvania that developed these talents, but I was never able to apply to a decent college because I had no math, no science—I was allowed to just paint all day and write. When I was a little girl I was a stand-up comedian on a television show called The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. Maybe all of that creativity around me—the gestalt of my father [producer Jack Harris] being in the movie business, my mother being a decorator—must have rubbed off. I left Philadelphia when I was a teenager because my father made a movie called The Blob, and that brought us to Los Angeles.
JD: Were either of your parents skilled in marketing?
LR: My father, certainly. He would write and produce these movies and market them and do all the advertising. He was trained as an artist. I’m definitely my father’s child.
JD: You have a reputation for being able to taste wine and recognize not only the precise vineyard but the vintage. I’m reminded that there are people who can listen to recordings of classical music and not only say within a measure which piece and which movement but which conductor. Did your parents drink a lot of wine and instruct you?
LR: It’s not the wine per se. It’s the taste buds. I can taste a meal and tell you every spice that’s in there. I have taste buds like Betty Grable’s legs—they should be insured with Lloyd’s of London. I do all the tasting for the new food products at the company, but we also have a taste panel.
JD: One of my favorite lines in Rubies in the Orchard ties in to a larger question: You were in a meeting with your husband, and “a look of smug satisfaction crept over Stewart’s face—a ridiculous immature and utterly annoying look known by every woman whose husband has just proved her wrong.” For a husband and wife to be in business together is often delicate. Do you have any advice for couples?
LR: It is not for the faint of heart. Stewart and I have similar values and work ethics, and I think that’s why it works. I always say that together we make one perfect person; separately we’re not so great. Hearing an idea for the first time, I’ll say yes, Stewart will say no, and we’ll both mean maybe. In the beginning, Stewart was upset about my working so hard, but after I started working for him he never mentioned it again. [Laughs.]
JD: Do you find that you have to make an effort to avoid intimidating your employees?
LR: People have said to me, “So-and-so’s afraid of you.” It’s true—I don’t suffer fools gladly, and when people are lazy and don’t understand their business, I’m not the easiest person to get along with. But I try to deal with problems with humor, because it softens things.
JD: Tell me about Jackie O’s pearls. I heard a rumor she had some fake pearls that cost her $35 and that you paid, well, considerably more than $35, but you nevertheless made a profit of something like 10,000 percent. Is that true? What did you see in Jackie’s pearls that others did not?
LR: We paid $211,500 for three strands of fake pearls at the Jackie O auction in 1996. The only thing I wanted in the Sotheby’s catalog was the pearls. They were the icons of the icon—she wore them everywhere. I felt we could reproduce them and people could own a symbol of American royalty. The reproductions sold very well around the world, and today they’re in the Smithsonian—we returned them to the nation. Something happened about two weeks before the auction that solidified the concept. The Smithsonian had a traveling exhibition of Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. I stood in front of that display, and I actually felt chills. I said, “My God, if I feel this, other people must feel it.”
JD: So your intuition there worked, just as it did with the pomegranates. Are there things that bombed for you—and what did you learn from those mistakes?
LR: I remember when we first bought Teleflora, I made a very expensive mistake when I produced a brochure with the slogan, “The way America sends love.” The bouquets and prices I pictured could not be duplicated by the florist—they were too expensive. I had relied on people I thought were in touch with the marketplace. In the end, I had to throw them all away after we got hundreds of screaming calls from florists. I have never again been unprepared or taken anyone’s opinion without finding out if they really knew their facts.
JD: Teleflora, Pom, Franklin Mint, Fiji Water—I’m trying to see what the common thread is among these four things, and it’s not obvious. Is there something you look for when you acquire a company?
LR: They’re all marketing-driven companies that bring nice things to people. The Franklin Mint brought joy to millions of collectors around the world. Of course, the biggest part of our portfolio, which most people don’t even realize, is the farming operation, and that is a different dynamic altogether. We grow the finest crop trees in the world. That’s all Stewart. He understands the science of farming and crop yields, and we have the most wonderful people working for us in the San Joaquin Valley.
JD: With Teleflora and Fiji, I see opposite extremes in approaching the public. The first is to recognize what the public knows it wants and supply that, and the other is to recognize what the public doesn’t yet realize it needs.
LR: It was Stewart’s decision to buy Fiji. I was dismayed, because I didn’t think there was any difference between Fiji and all the other waters. I never drank a lot of water. When I did the research, I found out this water fell as rain before the industrial revolution, and it was safe in an underground aquifer. I brought this unique selling proposition to the people. With Pom, I knew that if people realized what the fruit could do for them, they would be attracted to it. So I don’t try to be ahead or behind, only to market a company that has true value in what it sells. I don’t believe in hiring celebrities to represent your brand. If your brand doesn’t have intrinsic value, then no amount of PR is going to help you.
JD: There are noises about Fiji Water: Should one be shipping water from Fiji to the United States? What about the effect on the environment from the transport? Is this a luxury? And what about those poor people in Fiji who need water for themselves...or the perfectly good Los Angeles tap water?
LR: The Los Angeles water supply is quite compromised with arsenic and pharmaceuticals. If somebody has a compromised immune system—from HIV or cancer, perhaps—they can’t drink tap water. I can taste the chlorine. However, most bottled water is not consumed instead of tap water—it’s consumed instead of soda or other beverages with high fructose corn syrup. We live in a mobile society, and the lion’s share of bottled water is consumed on the go. If I could build a pipe into every mouth and deliver that water directly, I would. But Fiji has gone green. We’ve invested in reforestation projects in Fiji that offset carbon emissions by 120 percent, reduced the plastic in our bottles, switched to biofuels and eliminated trucking across the U.S. by taking ships through the Panama Canal. We’re also using wind and solar power in our plants. Fiji is this pristine environment, untouched by man, on the edge of a rainforest. That’s where the aquifer is, so that’s why the water comes from there.
JD: You and I are both involved with conservation organizations and are trying to find ways to make it worthwhile for the people of Fiji and New Guinea and Indonesia to maintain their rainforests. How large is the watershed you have to keep protected and not deforested as a source of Fiji water?
LR: We protect the Sovi Basin, which covers about 50,000 acres, the largest remaining rainforest in the South Pacific. We’re doing that in perpetuity with Conservation International. We’re also protecting the watershed that surrounds our facility.
JD: So in a sense you’re operating your business in 80 square miles of a national park, and you’re making it worthwhile to the people.
LR: We have brought water to 100 villages in Fiji, and more every day. In many villages, we are the largest employer. We represent something like 3 percent of the GDP. If we weren’t there, that economy would fall. We’ve built schools and set up programs for medical care. Through our carbon-offset program with Conservation International, we’re actually replanting their rainforest.
JD: The Fiji story ties in to questions of the role of big businesses in the environment and sustainability. When I first got involved in World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, I thought of big business as destructive to the environment, but there are also big businesses that are among the most constructive forces. When a big business decides it wants to do something right, it has the money and power to do it.
LR: I see really hopeful things happening. The Internet is a powerful tool for consumers to scream back at businesses that are making our children obese, giving them cancer and diabetes. I couldn’t live with myself if my companies were doing damage to the planet. And I am not alone. One reason we’re so popular with the buyers at Wal-Mart is because we have the biggest solar field in the Central Valley in California to generate power for our nut-processing plant. They love the fact that we have green certification in our offices and we’re always pushing to be greener. They want a good price, but they also want you to be a good citizen.
JD: You certainly think a lot about sustainability.
LR: It’s my number one issue. I could never vote for a candidate who wasn’t green. I want to give back, to leave the planet better than I found it. We give $1,000 to every employee to give to the charity of their choice, as long as it’s a legitimate 501c(3) charity.
JD: Do you do much advocating in the business world, trying to convince companies that are not doing it well to do things better?
LR: I don’t walk around with a sandwich board, but I’m trying. Stewart and I have had a very low profile all of our lives, but with my book out now, I have a lot to say, and I really want to help small businesses stay afloat during this time.
JD: The book is a new direction for you. When we met, you were not out there in the public, apart from your businesses. Who do you hope will read your book, and what will they take away from it?
LR: I’m amazed at the crossover of people who like it. I’ve given it to young people in college, and they find great direction in looking for jobs and figuring out what kind of companies they would like to be with. I’ve given it to heads of big companies—the Lauders of the world, Michael Milken and even Rupert Murdoch—and they have really loved the book and feel that it’s valuable for their employees to read. And so my goal is to help people think of business in a way that’s easy and clear—and not be afraid to promote their ideas.
JD: What would you like to be doing 10 years from now?
LR: I never make long-range plans. It’s a flaw, I’m sure. When I was a child, I planned on going to art school for years, but that didn’t happen. That was the last time I made long-range plans. I do strategic plans in business, but for myself, I kind of ride the wave. When you have five children and four grandchildren and a demanding husband, making plans is really silly. I simply try to make the most of every opportunity.
JD: Do you have an unfulfilled ambition, perhaps an idea that’s been rattling around in your head for years?
LR: I’m lucky because I’ve been able to manifest my dreams in business pretty well. I have tremendous hope for the future of this country. I really think it’s a level playing field today, but it has to come down to each of us doing our part. I believe we are in for a sea change.