Sakuma reaches outside family to replace retiring CEO

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Steve Sakuma, shown here in 2014 at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington, Wash., has retired as the company's CEO. Former Oregon Cherry Growers general manager and chief financial officer Denny Weeden will take over.

The leadership of Sakuma Brothers Farms examined itself and decided to hire someone from outside the family to guide the berry grower and processor through challenging times, the company’s fourth-generation leader, Steve Sakuma, said Wednesday.

“We looked at where we are and where we want to go,” he said. “We said, ‘We can’t fix this internally.’”

Danny Weeden, former general manager and chief financial officer of Oregon Cherry Growers, took over from Sakuma as CEO on Feb. 23.

He’s the first person from outside the Sakuma family to head the business, which traces its roots back to before World War I on Bainbridge Island. The family has been farming in the Skagit Valley since 1935, though during World War II family members were either interned with other Japanese-Americans or serving in the U.S. military.

The change comes as the business continues to be embroiled in sometimes-bitter labor battles waged on several fronts. The state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 17 on whether the company’s piece-rate workers should be paid separately for rest breaks. Farms groups and labor organizations hope for different outcomes but agree a ruling will have broad implications for the agricultural industry.

Sakuma said the labor strife didn’t influence his decision to retire. At age 67, he said he looks forward to spending more time with his family and, in a way, making up for lost time.

He will remain chairman of the board. “I don’t know if you ever retire from a family business,” he said.

He said he won’t interfere with Weeden. “I will make sure I won’t cross those lines,” he said.

He said he expects a family member to someday lead the company. “That is our long-term vision. That’s why we made this short-term decision,” he said.

His son Ryan is president of farm operations, but there is no plan of succession, Steve Sakuma said. “He has the right name. He needs to get the level of experience, and he has to perform. It is a business.”

Sakuma said the company searched hard for a CEO before settling on Weeden, who has decades of experience in Northwest agriculture. Weeden spent more than a decade with the cherry growers’ co-op.

“He has the family values we felt were very important,” Sakuma said. “He understands who we are and who we are trying to be.”

One issue facing Weeden will be finding enough workers. The company has encountered opposition to hiring foreign seasonal workers on H-2A visas.

Sakuma said the company will not bring in foreign workers this year, partly because of the opposition and partly because wages mandated by the H-2A program drive up labor costs.

Last year, without H-2A workers, the farm was short of pickers, he said.

The company hopes it can raise a workforce of about 350 domestic workers through aggressive recruiting, Sakuma said. “That’s our No. 1 priority.”

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