Meet a Contributor: Kent Shoemaker, CEO, Lipman Family Farms

Kent joined Immokalee, FL-based Lipman Family Farms as CEO in 2010. He leads a company that began in the 1940s, when Max Lipman planted his first tomato. Kent and his team oversee a network of more than 30 locations across North America, including partnerships with smaller seasonal farms and sub-suppliers, to produce high-quality tomatoes and vegetables year-round. Kent came to Lipman Family Farms with extensive experience in the food business, including 25 years at FreshPoint/Sysco. 

Lipman Family Farms is a Center for Growing Talent by PMA Corporate Partner at the $10,000–$24,999 level. 

We asked Kent about great mentors and what they taught him. 

You’ve been at Lipman as CEO for seven years—what attracted you to the company?

I was working for FreshPoint/Sysco which is a large publicly traded company—an excellent one at that. I loved the people I worked with but had a deep desire to return to a family business that could be more nimble. Lipman was perfectly positioned for growth, and the vision of the family was compelling.  

You’ve spent your career in the food business. What are the top two or three changes you’ve seen?

My answers may confirm that I’m getting old! I started in January of 1985. Since then the fax machine has come and gone. Communication through the internet and mobile phones has increased exponentially. Food safety, sustainability and social responsibility were rarely discussed 30 years ago and now they are our focus.  

Thinking about the people you’ve worked with in the industry: What did you learn from your toughest boss?

I have been blessed with some great bosses. The toughest one taught me the power of open, honest communication. People deserve to know where they stand. They deserve to use their strengths and should never be defined only by their weaknesses. 

And what did you learn from your most challenging employee?

When a person tells you they are doing as much as they are capable, and they are not open to change, do not argue with them. If they lack the character, drive, people skills, intelligence or leadership talent the company needs for success, offer them some lovely departing gifts and help them find a new position where they will be better suited. It took me years to figure out I am not capable of changing people.  

Have you had a mentor at any point in your career, either formally or informally? What’s the most important piece of advice that person shared with you?

My first mentor in this industry is still my mentor today. Jim Schluraff (my father-in-law) started and built a distribution company in the 1970s and ’80s in Orlando that continues as a model company. His genuine care for people and his passion to do the right thing, no matter what, still guides my decisions. Jim is also a very funny guy who taught me that business without humor is just no fun!  

What guidance would you give a young person just entering the produce industry that would help them establish a successful career?

Do not focus just on making money and getting more power. Those objectives will not ultimately satisfy you, and they will come on their own if you are good. Learn something new each day. Find great mentors and stay in touch with them. Ask a lot of questions. Find ways to add value to everything you do. Be ready! The opportunity over the next few decades with be significant, but it will take skills that many who have been doing this for a long time do not have.   

Looking at Center for Growing Talent by PMA, what do you consider the critical role they play in the industry? Why do you and Lipman Family Farms support the organization? 

We support CGTbyPMA because it complements our company leadership develop programs by adding an industry-specific forum where our people network with the best and brightest this industry has to offer. We give as a company and I give personally. It’s a small way to give back to an industry that has been very good to Lipman Family Farms and to me personally.