Along with his four siblings, Geoffrey Cutler represents the fourth generation of Pennsylvania’s Ball-Cutler family in its 72-year-old legacy, the Philip G. Ball Company and Race-West.
A produce company with roots that predate the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression, Philip G. Ball Company/Race-West is now led by Harris Cutler, president and CEO of the Clarks Summit, PA-based produce house. Working alongside Harris is his wife, Janice, as director of human resources. And the couple’s five children are part of the company as well.
Geoff, Marcus, Joseph, Charlotte and Maxwell each work in different aspects of sales. Geoff told OnionBusiness.com he is the “onion brother.”
He said, “I started my full-time career with the company on May 15, 2007. I’d graduated college the Friday before, and I came to work on Monday.”
Geoff had worked at the family business in his youth, holding a position he called “master paper shredder when I was 15,” but he ultimately brought valuable self-gained experience to the position he now holds.
“While I was a student at American University in Washington, D.C., I interned for the USDA as a research assistant in the economic research service. And I was an inspector aide at Hunts Point for a summer – I wanted practical experience. I always wanted to ‘earn my stripes’ and pave my own path,” Geoff said.
The stripes came through a variety of lessons, one of which he learned at that first job from his father.
“My brothers and I wanted to work at the family business, and our dad said for us to put on a shirt and tie for the job. We came to work in T-shirts and shorts, and he had us shredding paper. I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, and he said to put on a tie. I did, and I’ve been wearing a tie ever since.
Geoff not only wears his tie with distinction, but he also bears his family’s name with pride.
“Our family started produce brokering in the 1940s,” he said of the business evolution that resulted in Race-West. We still do brokering, but we now do more distribution, primarily focusing on our core four items, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, and carrots. We’ve handled onions since the company’s inception in 1944.”
The full story goes back to Philip G. Ball, who was born in 1900 in New Jersey and who started out in textiles but moved into produce with his brother-in-law in 1926. In the 1944 Philip opened Ball Brokerage, and in 2016 the company continues to work with shippers and customers from those early days.
Philip Ball’s son-in-law, Philip Cutler, was a brilliant physicist and served in the special projects unit in U.S. Army during World War II. After the war he helped his father in his struggling butcher business. When his father, Meyer Cutler, sold the butcher shop and retired, Philip Cutler accepted the offer from Philip Ball to join Ball Brokerage in 1950 and became well known and respected in the produce industry for his work ethic, integrity and innovation.
Philip Cutler purchased Ball Brokerage in 1967, and in 1973 he founded Race-West Company, expanding the produce brokerage business into retail, foodservice and contract growing with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada. The company moved from Scranton to Clarks Summit, PA, in 1988 and later added Sparky’s Transportation Corp., named for Harris Cutler’s brother, Daniel, who died in a car accident in 1992.
Philip Cutler passed away in 1983, and in 2005 Harris became president and CEO of the three companies. Further expansion came in 2011 when Marcus and Geoff opened an office in Riverdale, New York.
As part of the Millennial generation, Geoff has a unique take on the produce industry that comes partly from his own observations and partly from the heritage passed down to him. Above all, he has a deep respect for those whose hard work precedes his own.
“I’m so thankful for those in the onion industry in particular who’ve seen me as someone young and eager to learn and work. I’m thankful this community has let me in,” he said of the onion industry. “There are so many friendships and working relationships I enjoy in this onion community, and I want to thank every single person in this business. As a young 22-year-old, I was thankful in the beginning for the opportunities from growers and buyers who allowed me to get involved. My brother Marcus and I made the decision we’d be the first ones on the job each morning and the last ones to go home, and no one would work harder than we did,” Geoff said.
He continued, “It’s a challenge in today’s world. Some people in my generation seem to feel almost entitled, but I think the biggest contribution we can make is to embrace the experience of being in the business and say thank you to the people who give us the chance to succeed by being great. Yes, we’re trying to make it better, but at the end of the day we need to do our part and show the previous generation the respect it deserves. Those people worked very hard to get where they are, and someday we’re going to be the ones who are passing these generational businesses along.”
Respect, he said, isn’t something that comes necessarily with age.
“We need to earn it.”
In the onion industry, Geoff said Millennial influence, especially in technology, does have its place. “It has made the onion business a lot ‘smarter’ than it used to be. People are getting so good at produce, and the margin for error is so small since the bar has been raised so high. Farmers have gotten really good growing and packing, and receivers have shown brilliance in every part of their day. Trucks are good and getting better. We feel like we need to be at our absolute best every day.”
Change and technology, he said, have come “hand in hand,” and in 2016 “we get almost twice as much work done through technological multi-tasking. We have GPS, email, and texting. It all allows us to do so much more. My dad is a champion of social media, too. He tweets and uses Facebook to share everything that he is doing in his business life. I’m just along for the ride when it comes to social media.”
He does, though, see tremendous progress through a Millennial/changing generation lens when it comes to onions.
“I think with the demographics changing, onion consumption is ready to go crazy,” Geoff said. “America is really a collection of demographics, and people bring their eating habits with them when they come here. A lot of people coming here now are big consumers of onions. Americans are seeking flavor and see nutritious produce as a key to better health. Americans will increase their consumption of our onions in the future”
Reds, whites, sweets and yellows. Race-West has them all, along with organics. And Geoff Cutler is ready to work them all as he looks to the future.
“I believe the onion business as a whole is reaching a crossroad,” he said. “I see e-commerce as the next big thing, especially in the major cities. It’s a critical time right now, and the onion business can stay close-knit – a family – or go corporate. With so much of the business getting consolidated and moving to the internet, we risk losing the identity of the onion business. Onions haven’t gone corporate so far, which is good. I’ve found that promoting our growers’ stories is crucial to continuing the legacy of the onion business. I’m really a reflection of the growers and buyers that I deal with, and promoting their history and journeys through the produce business keeps the personal element of the onion business intact. It allows them and us be proud, and it’s important to be proud of the work we have all done together.”