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Recognition: Mike Aiton leaves legacy of 50 years of service

Like so many before him, Mike Aiton entered his food industry career rather inconspicuously as a box boy at his hometown grocer. But more than 50 years later, he has retired after leaving his mark on several different facets of the industry.

He begins his story as one of the first baby boomers to come into this world. “I was born nine months and one week after my father returned from World War II,” he said. He calls his childhood uneventful, as his dad was a “professional guy” making his living in several different industries over the years.AitonMike1991Mike Aiton

Aiton joined King Soopers in Colorado and began working his way through college as he pursued a journalism degree. But he kept getting more and more opportunities at King Soopers, while at the same time learning that journalism did not hold promise as a high-paying career.

Soon Aiton was working on special projects in the main office in a corporate environment. And he liked it. Among other things, he helped develop a training program for store managers and worked with operations to initiate UPC scanning when that technology was just starting to be introduced in the mid-1970s.

A turning point in his career came after several years in the main office, when he was presented with two distinct opportunities.

“One day the number two guy called me into his office and told me that he wanted me to go the International Baking Institute for a year-long program and then come back and take over bakery.”

At the time, King Soopers was a young company growing rapidly and there were many opportunities for advancement. That truism was illustrated two days later. “The president called me into his office and told me he wanted me to learn the produce industry and take my career in that direction.”

Aiton pondered the options and chose produce, reasoning, “Produce was a hands-on position and I liked that.”

He started as a produce merchandiser, even though “I didn’t know cabbage from lettuce.”

But over the next decade he became an expert in the produce industry and moved his way up though the various stops on the produce career ladder, eventually taking over the top position. He also got involved in industry organizations serving on the board of the Produce Marketing Association’s Retail Division and then on its main governing board.

“I had a great career and King Soopers was a great company,” he said. “We were the market leader owning about 50 percent of the Colorado market. During my time there we doubled in size.”

Aiton was an aggressive produce marketer always willing to try something new and be a distributor’s test market. It was in this realm that he met David Marguleas of Sun World.

“We worked together on the introduction of a number of Sun World’s new items and we were on the PMA board together,” said Aiton.

Somewhere along the line, Marguleas and the Sun World team began courting Aiton for a sales position with the California firm. The Coloradan did not jump at the opportunity. He was firmly entrenched at King Soopers and liked his job. And he had seven kids at home ranging from toddler to teenager. “I really had no reason to leave.”

But his wife was interested in getting out of the cold climate and they had both liked desert weather when exposed to it. “It took over a year, but finally I agreed. Ultimately I wanted to try something new and different.”

He joined Sun World as the 1980s were drawing to a close. For its part, Sun World was in the midst of pioneering the launch of several proprietary fresh produce items, including its own seedless grapes varieties, DiVine Ripe Tomatoes and Le Rouge Royale Red Peppers.

“They thought it was a good idea to bring a retailer to the supply side to help sell the products to other retailers,” said Aiton.

The company’s launch of these items over the years was very successful, however the firm didn’t do as well. “I did such a great job my influence took them into bankruptcy within a year,” he quipped.

Though Aiton wondered about his decision of a year earlier, he also quickly noted that he had no regrets. “I had the attitude that you can’t look back.”

In fact, he stayed with Sun World through those difficult times and for another 15 years after that. His forte was sales and marketing and he helped Sun World traverse some troubling times.

The next seminal moment in his life and career came in 2008 when he was diagnosed with cancer. He did all the various treatments, beat back the disease and resumed his Sun World career. But by the PMA Fresh Summit convention of the following year, Sun World was going through another restructuring and Aiton met up with some former Sun World colleagues who were running Prime Time International. One conversation led to the next and he joined Prime Time for the final phase of his illustrious career. Prime Time helped put colored peppers on the map.

“I’ve been here eight years and it was a great eight years,” he said. “This is a great company with great people.”

As he retires from the produce industry, Aiton expects this decision to hang up the spikes to be as positive as the others he has made throughout his career. “This is a real retirement,” he said. “I’m not going to be one of those guys that retires eight times.”

But he said leaving the people in the industry is the toughest part of retirement. He does not anticipate moving, though he said more trips to Colorado are certainly on the horizon.

“We are going to stay in the desert,” he said. “We like it here but we are planning on doing a lot of traveling.”

During Aiton’s career he was fortunate to travel all over the world but with seven kids in the fold, his wife wasn’t able to join him on those trips.

“Now it’s her turn,” said Aiton. “We have been on a few trips in the last two years, including to Europe. The Pacific Rim interests us so I think that might be first on the agenda.”

Looking back, Aiton said it is hard to find a segment of the industry that isn’t different than when he began.

“Everything has changed,” he said, noting that the number of items carried by a typical produce department has grown by at least 300 or 400 percent. He remembers items like the Hass avocado being very seasonal and now it is emblematic of the entire department, which is populated with year-round supplies of seasonal items.

But again he returns to the people, who haven’t changed as much as the product mix. “I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great people over the years,” he said.