- By Thomas Weaver
Departments / AlumniBiz
Mark DeMichaelis ’87
From the Canadian Maritimes to Florida, for grocery shoppers buying organic, pre-washed salad greens, Olivia is a sunny, pig-tailed cartoon character whose wide smile offers the assurance of quality and familiarity. To Mark DeMichaelis ’87, head of Olivia’s Organics, Olivia is “my baby”—the youngest of the UVM alumnus and his wife Kim’s brood of three and the only girl born in the extended DeMichaelis clan in forty years.
It’s apt that a family member represents the face of this brand, part of a larger parent company, State Garden, Inc., that has been nurtured by family across three generations. Giovanni DeMichaelis, Mark’s grandfather, sank their roots in the produce business when he emigrated from Abruzzi, Italy, making his living selling vegetables in the markets of Boston’s Faneuil Hall in the early twentieth century.
Seventy-some years later, Olivia’s/State Garden is not so far away, just three miles as the gull flies across the river in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Close in proximity, but far removed in scope from grandpa Giovanni’s one-man operation, State Garden has a 150,000-square-foot facility and approximately four hundred contracted employees in season.
Mark DeMichaelis says he stepped into the family business in 1987 after graduating from UVM with his degree in finance because his father was at a point where he could use help. “Let me try this thing for a while and we’ll see how it goes,” the new grad thought. Twenty-five years later, it’s going well and showing no signs of stopping. In 1995, his two brothers elected him CEO and president as the next generation of the family increasingly steered the business. “My main responsibility has been looking at where this company wants to be in five years. How do we get there? And who do we work with to help us get there?”
They’re well positioned to study making the leap from a regional business to a national one in that next five-year window, DeMichaelis suggests. That, to a large extent, is driven by the success of those salad greens graced by cartoon Olivia. But ask DeMichaelis four years ago if he would have thought that would be the case and he would have shared some serious doubts.
“When we steered into 2008, we were in the midst of the biggest expansion in our company’s history,” he says. “And, sure enough, everything kind of came unglued all at once that fall.” A guy who had invested in creating a line that put him in the high-end of the produce section just as many belts tightened would seem to have cause for worry. But the organic business kept growing at a 20 to 30 percent rate.
DeMichaelis sees that as being driven by many Americans’ move to eating healthier, desire to know where their food is coming from, and going organic. Growing up in a town that grappled with serious groundwater contamination and picking up on the Vermont land ethic during his UVM years have contributed to DeMichaelis’s own thoughts in this regard.
In step with their product, Olivia’s Organics rolled out a charitable foundation when the line began. DeMichaelis credits his father for the move as he considered his personal and professional legacy. His first rule—make sure the charities benefit children. Many of the organizations that receive support from Olivia’s are tied to food and agriculture, notably The Food Project in Boston, which creates gardens in vacant lots and gets inner-city kids involved with gardening.
That sense of family at State Garden also extends to DeMichaelis’s UVM blood. Mark Pins ’87, DeMichaelis’s neighbor in Harris Hall freshman year and friend ever since, has worked with the company for the past three years. Pins currently spearheads an effort that will bring new farming techniques to the 150 acres in Bowdoinham, Maine where Olivia’s grows much of their salad product.
Asked for a pocket-sized bit of business wisdom based on his own experience, DeMichaelis says, “Don’t compromise your values. Stay true to your family, stay true to yourself, and you’ll always be successful.”