Brendan O'Donnell

GLOBAL CATEGORY DIRECTOR OF NUTS AT TOMRA FOOD

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the AgSnacc Podcast where we take a look at careers in agriculture and the journey toward those careers. I’m your host, Erin Gorter, and we hope you enjoy this tasty AgSnacc. 

 

Erin Gorter: 

So we're here today with Brendan O'Donnell, global category director nuts at TOMRA Food. Good morning, Brendan.  

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Morning.  

 

Erin Gorter:

Morning. So we always start off here with just a little bit of a description of what your job is and what kind of a typical day looks like for you. 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Yeah, sure, I don't really have a typical day, which is one of the things I love about my job. It's always changing. So within Tomra, my job is, I am responsible for our entire global nuts category. So that means I might be spending time with people in sales, maybe in service, maybe in r&d, maybe in engineering. I'm also responsible for managing our handful of global key accounts. So you know, large, you know, global accounts. And then also representing Tomra at various, you know, trade shows and conferences and things like that. So it really varies a tremendous amount from day to day. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So what does tomra do in general? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Tomra is an optical sorting company. Optical sorting is, think of it like a, you know, a large stainless steel machine, where you have a food product and, at least in my case, let's think of something like almonds flowing through this machine kind of like a waterfall. And then you have different types of optics. So it could be a camera, it could be a laser, it could be even an X-ray, where you're analyzing these almonds as they're going through the machine, and you look for the defects. And if you see a defect, you can blow a little puff of air and knock that bad nut out of the stream. So that's basically what the optical sorting business is. Of course, it's much bigger than that. And we have a recycling division that works on plastics and glass. And we've got a mining division that finds diamonds, in mines in Africa and other parts of the world. So there's all different types of this business. But for me, specifically, it's food and nuts. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Awesome. So all kinds of crazy stuff. So reflecting back on kind of how you got to this point, tell us a little bit about your high school experience. What were you involved in, other than just going to school, that you think kind of helped you get where you are today? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Well, you know, it's funny because everybody's experiences are different, and I don't know if all of the experiences that I had necessarily lined up to help me get where I am today. I was really involved in music in high school. And I played, I was playing the trumpet, and I was in the jazz band and the symphonic band and the concert band. And then I played with the orchestra when they needed a trumpet, and I played for them, you know, when they do the musicals and stuff like that you play in the pit. So I did a lot of music stuff. But then, you know, outside of that, like if I were doing work, my dad was always involved in the dairy industry. And so the summer after, oh, I'd say between seventh and eighth grade probably, is when I first started volunteering at the dairy. And so you know, I would say I was working, but really, you know, you're volunteering when you're that young. And I would continue to do that for all of pretty much all of the summers through high school. So working on a dairy, you know, getting up at 4 a.m., or whatever, when all the rest of my friends are sleeping in. But that was a really interesting experience for me. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Do you still play music now? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Every once in a while. The trumpets are hanging on a wall so they're more of a house decoration than they are of a musical instrument. But every once in a while, you know, we pull them out and start playing again. 

 

Erin Gorter:

I know what you mean. My husband played conga drums in high school so we have like, sets of conga drums that are more decorative than useful.  

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Yeah.  

 

Erin Gorter:

So, when you were in high school, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Well, I didn't really know. But, you know, my experience around the dairy, and then you know, also, when I was at the dairy, I ended up getting involved in some various research projects, because this was at the UC Davis dairy. So I grew up in Davis. So this was not at, you know, some commercial dairy, it was at a university dairy. And that meant that some of the things I was involved in were based on research. So you know, somebody would be teaching me how to, you know, draw blood from a cow. Or we'd be learning about various nutrition research and why I need to make sure that this cow was only fed this particular food. So some of that meant that I was doing a lot of work with large animal vets, and so from probably most of my high school age, I thought I would want to be a dairy vet because those are the people that I was around. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Everyone wants to be a vet when they're younger and they’re with animals. Yeah. So then after high school, kind of what did you do? Did you go to college? What are kind of some of your key work experiences and education experiences that got you to this point. 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Yeah, so I did, I went to UC Davis. And since I was looking at potentially a career in a large animal vet, I was really trying to decide between, you know, and it's funny because growing up in Davis, it was like, well you don't want to go to UC Davis, because you live in Davis already. Even though it's a fantastic university, a fantastic school. So I was looking at other places, too, but I still wanted to do animal science. So really, in the end, it came down to do I want to go to University of Wisconsin, or UC Davis. And, you know, in the end, I decided that, well, I didn't necessarily want to be living in my parents house. I didn't, I also didn't really want to be, you know, 2000 miles away. So yeah, so I went to UC Davis, studying animal science, I continued to volunteer. Well, actually, at this point, it was paid, in some of those laboratories that I worked at in high school. So I did that throughout college, and I worked in these various laboratories. I worked in the department of immunology, which was interesting because you were doing plating. So you'd be, you know, plating bacteria in a culture and putting it in an incubator, and then, you know, counting the bacteria that's in it. And it was just really an interesting experience for me to see this kind of lab work. But throughout that time, I started taking all the classes to be a vet. All the animal science classes to be a vet. And by the time I got to organic chemistry, I was pretty sure I no longer wanted to be a vet. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Same, same. 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

And you start and you start spending more time with vets. And you start to realize exactly what the job is. And I think once you start to understand the depth of the job, and what's involved in it, then you start to look at, what do you really enjoy? And is this something you really want to do? So in my third year at UC Davis, I tried to figure out, okay, well, if I don't want to be a vet, it probably doesn't make sense for me to do animal science. But I still really love agriculture. And I really love learning about ag business and economics. So how do I do that and still graduate in less than eight years or something? So I talked to a, one of our counselors at Davis explained basically that, and they said, well, let's look at the agricultural systems and environment with communications degree. I said, the what? It’s this really long name. But basically, it just means that I keep all my Animal Science credits, they still count. And I can take some more economics classes, some more business classes, and I can still graduate, essentially on time. And so that's what I ended up doing. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So then, after you graduated, what did you do with said degree?  

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Right. So one thing I'll say about, throughout college, you know, working in the lab, for a few, you know, over the year, and then even over the summer, those kind of transitioned into different internships. And I think internships are absolutely critical to trying to figure out what you want and what you should do. So I would strongly encourage anybody as they're, you know, especially as they're entering college, or you know, even in high school, to be trying different things. So if you really think that the animal science is for you, spend some time working in a lab, work on a dairy. The next year, maybe do something else. And so for me, I ended up working for a lobbying group that was also for the dairy industry. But I really got a taste of what it's like for these guys to be working with politicians. And you know, how they influence the politicians to be drafting bills that are in the best interest of the dairy industry. That was really interesting to me. So immediately after college, I took an internship, again, an internship right after college, I didn't go straight into another job. But I took an internship with the US Dairy Export Council in Washington, DC. So I moved to Washington, DC, which was an amazing experience. You know, and being young and single, you're able to just kind of go see all the museums and whatever you wanted. All the museums in Washington DC are free, by the way. So if you're there, you just go and you just go on the weekends and you just take the subway, which they've got a really nice Metro subway that's clean. And you get to experience all of these, you know, really interesting things that are there in Washington. And the US Dairy Export Council was doing promotion for the dairy industry. So basically trying to promote the US dairy industry to other countries, which was also really interesting. From there, I took my first real job with Hilmar Cheese Company here in California. And I was a lactose production supervisor, which was really interesting. I knew at that point that I loved working with people, and that I wanted to do some sort of sales or marketing or something that involved people. And Hilmar basically said, yeah, we think that's great. But if you're going to be doing sales, you need to understand the product. So they said, so you're going to be a production supervisor. So now I'm in operations, which is totally different. Which, you know, you have a team of people, you've got one person running this equipment, another person running that equipment, and you've got this goal, at the end of the day of, you know, producing this product or so many pounds of this product by the end of the day. And that was really hard for me, I needed more of that, you know, interpersonal interaction. The rotating shifts were really hard. So I'd work day shift for one week, and then I'd work swing shift for another week, and then I'd work graveyard shift for another week. And that really just kind of took a toll on me. So after a couple of years of doing operations, and not getting into that sales role that I really wanted, I finally just said, forget it. And I took a sales job that was like, bottom of the barrel, like just basic experience kind of sales job. It was a 100% commission job. So that meant if I didn't make any sales, I earned $0. And the sales were not easy. It was door to door business to business, selling basically credit card machines. And it was it was one of those things that, you know, I did it because I saw some of the jobs that I wanted, where they wanted somebody to do sales, but every single one of those jobs said must have sales experience. Like well how do I get a job in sales if in order to get the job, you have to have experience? And sometimes in order to do that, you have to take the job, that's door to door zero, you know, $0 one week, 100% commission just to get that experience, and I would not trade that experience for anything. I mean, what I learned in that job, and learned how to take no, you know, nine times out of 10, maybe more than that, maybe 95 out of 100 times you hear no. And just keep going and keep going and try to maintain a positive attitude. That experience helped me tremendously throughout the rest of my career. So even though I only did that for a year and a half, or about a year and a half, that experience really helped me build the rest of my career where I started moving into sales. 

 

Erin Gorter:

I work sales, too. I do think that's kind of a valuable experience to have being told no repeatedly and just knowing that's like a part of your job. Like, oh. 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

And it has to be, and you have to get comfortable with it. You have to get comfortable with being told no most of the time. And to and to be able to maintain a positive attitude after that is not natural for most people. It's really hard to do that. I mean, you get told no, no, no, no, no. And eventually you just feel like beaten down, you know, you've totally lost your will to move forward. And you have to learn to get past that and to bring a positive energy and a positive attitude to every single interaction you have even after going through that. So that's been I think, something that's helped me a lot. 

 

Erin Gorter:

For sure. And so, how does that kind of connection now or, I mean, how did you get to this position now as a global category director? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Yeah. So I went basically from that to a, I had a actually a family friend had recommended me for a job. So I really owe him a lot to get me in the door for an interview. And but this was an interview with Anheuser Busch, you know, makers of Budweiser, but at the time, they had a lot of agricultural properties as well. So the job was as a sales manager at Pacific International Rice Mills Inc, which was a rice mill owned by Anheuser Busch. And Anheuser Busch is the largest user of rice in the United States. Rice is used as an adjunct in both Budweiser and Bud Light. So it makes sense that they owned actually a couple of different rice mills, one in Arkansas, one in California. So this would have been in 2007. And around that time, actually Anheuser Busch was a really wonderful company to work for. And you would get, you know, free tickets to SeaWorld because they own SeaWorld, and you would get a beer card so they give you like a little credit card that, and then you get an email once a month that says, hey, we put another $50 on your credit card, we'd like for you to bring beer to the next gathering or party that you go to. And for this month, you know, please buy Bud Light lime and talk about these points of why this is such a great beer. So every single employee within Anheuser Busch became kind of an ambassador for the brand. And it brought a tremendous amount of pride in the company that you're working for when you do that. So I really loved working for them. Unfortunately, they were bought out by a Belgian slash Brazilian company called InBev, which was, which operated at 180 degrees different mentality for how to do business. So InBev, as a company, was about twice the size of Anheuser Busch. And the marketing budget for Anheuser Busch, now remember, they're half the size of InBev, the marketing budget for Anheuser Busch was 10 times larger than the marketing budget for InBev. And they understood that in order to, you know, to be profitable, and to make money in the beer business, especially in the United States, you had to spend a lot of money. And you had to, you know, spend money on the beer cards and get your employees to do this kind of stuff, and, you know, spend money on Super Bowl ads and all of that. So anyway, long story short, there was a big conflict of the way to run a business. It became a place that was not very fun to work. And eventually InBev sold the rice mill to Bungie. So in a period of three, three and a half, four years, sitting at the same desk in the same office, I had three different employers. So it was Anheuser Busch, and then it was InBev, and then it was Bungie, and then I was feeling like it was time to get out. And, so another company came along, a family owned company, also a rice company in California called Sun Valley Rice. And they offered me a position as vice president sales at Sun Valley Rice, which, you know, for me felt like a, you know, a big step up from sales manager at Anheuser Busch. And it was a fantastic position for me. So, I learned a lot more about branding. You know, Anheuser Busch was more about, number one most important thing was make sure you supply the brewery with rice, and you sell the rest of the rice and sell it to, you know, wherever you want, or, you know, Costco or do whatever, you know, you sell the rice. But number one most important is we have to supply the brewery. And then you went from that to a company that's really more focused on the brand. And, you know, really long term relationships with customers and, you know, really building those relationships over years, and you know, a lot of loyalty and that type of thing. So it was a fantastic opportunity for me at that time. 

 

Erin Gorter:

And so your position now is still in sales, correct?  

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Kind of, yeah, that's one of the things that I think is so interesting about it. A part of my role is in sales. But ultimately, it's to maintain our business in the nut industry. So that means that part of my role is working with our engineers and with our r&d department, and talking about what technology they're developing, and how that could impact the nut business. So yeah, my role is still sales. And I still do sales. But it's also quite a bit more than that today. 

 

Erin Gorter:

And so, and you've kind of, you've been able to kind of blend what you've learned about sales. And then also it sounds like you're kind of science background from working the dairy and the lab. But you've also been able to maintain that interpersonal communication, which is something you've brought up is what you need to find a job enjoyable is to have that interaction with other humans. I'm guessing based on what you said that kind of your favorite part about your day is that you do get to work with people and every day is different.  

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Yeah.  

 

Erin Gorter:

What is probably the most challenging part about your career? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Oh, that's a good question. Well, I suppose there are always challenges, no matter what you're doing, no matter what. So even if you're in your dream job, which I would consider this to be my dream job, like, this is perfect for me. You know, I'm working in all these different parts, I'm able to kind of set my own schedule, you know, I do essentially what I want. That's what I feel is in the best interest of our business. And I love that, I love the freedom. I love the flexibility. But even when you're in your dream job, you have problems, you have challenges that you have to overcome. And there are days that are really hard. I'd say some of the hardest days would be launching a new piece of equipment into a customer's facility. It's the first one, and there's all kinds of problems. And you've got to figure out how to get an engineer from the other side of the world over to this customer immediately. And this relationship that you spent years building with a customer is now coming to a head. The customer is angry, they're frustrated, they feel like, you know, maybe you're not watching out for them. So you know, things like that can be really hard. And trying to navigate through some of these problems where, you know, sometimes there's not an easy solution to these problems. And so trying to maintain those relationships and trying to, you know, repair the relationship and get things back where they need to go can be a challenge. That's probably the, you know, I've had that happen to me a few times. And that's, that's my least favorite part of my job. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Understandable, but you're probably really prepared for those parts, because you work those sales positions early on and were told no all the time. So you've built some resilience. Yeah. So in the business of producing, managing and marketing the distribution of food, you've mentioned, rice, you've mentioned, cheese, you've mentioned nuts, but what is your favorite agricultural commodity? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Well, yeah, it's very difficult to pick a favorite out of those, I would say that, that as of today, I have to go with nuts. And if I were to, you know, specifically try to pick a few, I'd say some of the nuts that we produce here in California, so almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and you know what I think is so exciting about it is that there's so much innovation happening in this industry right now. And it seems like, if you were to go back 10 years ago, there was no almond milk, there was no nut based cheese, you know, all these other like non dairy alternatives. Protein powder, you know, like a nut, protein powder, almond oil, or walnut oil, you know, some of these things are really booming. And one of the things that's most exciting to me is seeing the demand around the world for these products, and seeing the way that, you know, nuts are primarily consumed by countries that have money. They're consumed by the middle class. So when you look at the growth of the middle class, in India, and in China, and in other parts of the world, and how much they value nuts, it becomes really exciting to think about what the future of this business will be. And you know, whether, you know, whether you're a person that eats meat, or doesn't eat meat, or is vegan, or is flexitarian, you know, whatever you're changing your diet up, no matter what, you seem to see that there are people that are looking for more of these plant based protein food products, even if you eat meat. You know, like me, I meat. I also have, you know, more days, maybe one or two days a week where I don't eat meat, and that's okay now. You know, whereas before I would never do that. Would be, you know, got to be one meal a day has to have it. Now, it's kind of like, yeah, you know, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But that's kind of a global trend that you're seeing where people around the world are doing more of that. And they're looking for that protein source, something that they love, and is delicious, and is also good for you and is also, you know, has a lot of different health benefits. So that's, that's one of the reasons that I get so excited about the nuts industry. 

 

Erin Gorter:

That's awesome. So this is the last question. We'll end it right here. It's the most important question. If you could go back and tell 16, 17 year old Brendon like the greatest piece of advice, what would it be? 

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

It'll be okay. That's what I would say. Because it's so, you don't know what you want to do. And you feel all this pressure into you have to know what you want to do. And you don't, you don't have to know. And all you can really do is just work hard, you know, do what you can, you know, focus on the things you can control, and let go of the things you can't control. And I think that would have helped me a lot, especially, you know, you think about how stressful it is, you know, taking SAT’s and applying to colleges and, you know, you start getting worked up over it like, well, whatever happens here is going to determine the rest of my life. And no, you know, it doesn't, what determines the rest of your life is are you going to continue to have a strong work ethic and work hard and, you know, try different things and, you know, try to find what really motivates you and moves you and makes you excited about your career. Like that's, I think that's probably the most important and I would love to be able to go back and tell myself like, it's gonna be okay. You know, relax, you know, can you you're doing the right things. You're working hard. You don't have to know everything right now you don't have to know exactly what you need to do. But you know, try different things, find things that are exciting, and just start moving towards that path of things that are more and more interesting. And eventually it'll all work out. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Excellent advice. So again today we have Brendan O'Donnell, global category director nuts at Tomura Food. Thank you, Brendan.  

 

Brendan O’Donnell:

Yeah, thanks a lot, Erin. 

 

Thank you for listening to this AgSnacc, a production of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in collaboration with the South Coast Region Agricultural Education Consortium. For more information, please visit our website at www.agsnacc.com. That’s www.a-g-s-n-a-c-c.com