Melanie Foster: Raisin to Believe

Although Melanie Foster has lived in California’s Sacramento Valley all her life, her influence reaches around the globe.

As distribution and transportation manager for Sunsweet Growers Inc., she is one of the people responsible for making sure that much of the world’s supply of prunes and other dried tree fruits reaches customers.

“I handle all the contracts, compliance reviews, and inventories for our public warehousing operations,” says Foster, who reports to Sunsweet’s director of supply chain.

With two direct reports—a transportation coordinator and a public warehouse coordinator—she develops strategic relationships that guide the movement of product from processing facilities to storage and out into the market.

A grower-owned cooperative with about 400 members, Sunsweet represents more than one-third of the worldwide market for prunes, processing approximately 50,000 tons each year. It also produces dried cranberries, apricots, and other fruits.

Along with the dried fruit processing plant at its Yuba City, Calif., headquarters, Sunsweet operates a juice bottling facility in Fleetwood, Pa., works with co-packers, and supplements its production with some imports.

Foster has seen a lot of fruit up close since she started with the company in 1989.

“For the first six years of my life at Sunsweet, I dried prunes,” she says. As manager of the dehydrator in Yuba City, she also doubled as a field representative, visiting farms to get an idea of how much fruit they would be able to deliver.

Foster moved into logistics when, looking for a change, she took a job as a supervisor in the shipping department. While there, she made her mark as a champion of electronic information.

“When I joined the shipping department, they used a computer only to generate bills of lading,” Foster recalls. She started creating spreadsheets to replace other paper documents.

Two years later, she moved up to shipping manager. “I managed the dock crew and office crew,” she says. “I also scheduled trucks, and if it came to throwing cases of fruit, I did that too.”

When Sunsweet moved its headquarters from Pleasanton, Calif., to Yuba City, Foster accepted a promotion to her current position.

Instead of dealing with day-to-day freight moves from one facility, she became responsible for Sunsweet’s company-wide strategic relationships with transportation and warehouse service providers.

That meant learning the ins and outs of intermodal and international transportation. “Every year we face a different challenge,” Foster says.

Competition for capacity, which pits Sunsweet against shippers of fresh fruit and seasonal merchandise, poses one challenge.

So does the occasional labor crisis at the ports—most memorably, the West Coast lockout of 2002, when Sunsweet had to find alternative ways to get its products to overseas markets.

Not only couldn’t it load freight onto ships in Oakland; the company couldn’t even get its fruit to on-port rail terminals to ship it to the Port of Houston.

“We trucked the fruit toa port or container yard in the Midwest that would put it on the train,” she says.

Fortunately, these measures saw Sunsweet through the crisis. “We were able to work around most of it,” she notes.

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