When Tom Nassif was hired by Western Growers Association in 2002 as president and chief executive officer, he had the perfect skill set for the job.
Longtime board member Pete Pasquinelli of Pasquinelli Produce in Yuma, AZ, opined that Western Growers “got a twofer” referring to Nassif’s ability to handle the business side of running a large organization as well as the issues aspect of the position. Right off the bat, it was his business acumen that was sorely needed.
“I was surprised by the financial shape the organization was in. Very few people knew it… not on the staff nor on the board,” Nassif said.
But Nassif quickly tapped into his ability to run a company and righted the ship. He worked with the board to jettison some financially failing programs and tightened the budget belt. Over the past two decades, he has helped develop an innovative and financially secure regional trade association with a national presence.
Nassif came to the position with a resume profiling a fascinating career that spanned a couple of continents and several industries. He worked in the United States and Northern Africa; lived in the East, West and Midwest United States; worked as a lawyer, businessman and diplomat; lived a spiritual life and founded a church.
Thomas A. Nassif was born in Cedar Rapids, IA, in July of 1941, and lived there for the first decade of his life. His family had emigrated from Lebanon to the United States, first coming to the East Coast before relocating to Iowa largely because it had a Lebanese community large enough to support two people. In the early 1950s, the Nassifs move to Hollywood, CA, where Tom graduated from high school and then went on to Los Angeles State College, receiving his degree in business in 1965. That was followed by attendance and graduation from California Western School of Law in 1968.
Nassif began his law career in Los Angeles, but he and his wife, Zinetta, soon moved to California’s Imperial Valley, a better place to raise their family. It was in the early 70s that the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association hired the young lawyer to represent the association. For more than a decade, he was on the front lines of the labor battles with the United Farm Workers representing growers.
In late 1980, after President Ronald Reagan was elected, a well-connected Republican friend asked Nassif to join the Reagan Administration. He was initially reluctant to join the new administration and disrupt his family life and career.
“Then I was offered the position of deputy chief of protocol for the White House where I’d be greeting all of the leaders and high-level people that would come visit. That was just too interesting to pass up,” said Nassif.
The family, which included the Nassifs’ two children, moved to Washington, DC. Within a couple of years, another great opportunity arose and Nassif became acting chief of protocol and then deputy assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian affairs in 1983. Two years later he was selected by President Reagan to serve as ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco. He and his family moved to Morocco, and he stayed in that position until the end of Reagan’s term.
“We were very successful in getting everything done that was asked of us (in Morocco), including restoring diplomatic relations with Algiers and ending the war in West Africa,” he said calling the experience one of the highlights of his life.
He then came home and took a position as chairman of a company working on developing oil and gas pipeline properties in North Africa. He stayed in that position for six years before switching careers again to work on the development of the Calexico (California) East Point of Entry on the Mexico/U.S. border.
In 2001, Nassif was asked to interview for the top staff position at Western Growers. At the time, the search committee had been charged with “looking outside the box” as they contemplated potential candidates. Nassif’s depth of experience checked many of the boxes that were on the committee’s wish list, and the position also checked many of the boxes on his wish list for future employment. He took the position on Feb. 1, 2002, serving for 18 years before retiring Feb. 1, 2020.
By the end of his first year in office, the necessary steps had been taken to address the financial issues, and running a fiscally solvent organization has been at the top of his agenda ever since.
During his Western Growers career, it is the association’s culture that he both inherited and honed that will be his most enduring legacy. He noted that Western Growers is a “top roots rather than grass roots organization.” The board of directors is made up of company owners and CEOs. They are the people that run companies and quickly make decisions. That structure was instrumental as Nassif and his staff tackled emerging problems and launched new entities.
Under his watch, Western Growers greatly expanded its business in the agricultural insurance world with additional products, and became a contractor under the Affordable Care Act working with small business firms. The association took the lead in the development of solutions after the 2006 E. Coli outbreak tied to spinach and has led the charge in ag innovation.
The battle to achieve immigration reform has been the source of Nassif’s biggest frustration and, ironically, possibly his greatest success. Under Nassif, Western Growers has been leading the charge for immigration reform, and the creation of regulations that would establish a legal workforce for production agriculture. That outcome has not yet been achieved, though Nassif remains optimistic that it will come to fruition and his work on the issue for Western Growers is continuing even as he leaves his post.
He calls the effort in 2013 that saw the Senate pass an immigration reform bill with bi-partisan support one of the most rewarding moments during his Western Growers career. He has long been credited with spearheading that effort and being the difference-maker in getting the Senate bill passed. Unfortunately, it was killed in the House.
An additional business direction for Western Growers under Nassif came earlier this decade when it launched the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. The center is a place for ideas to incubate and for thinkers to work on solutions for the industry’s most challenging problems, such as a shortage of labor and water.
Another success story from the early days of his Western Growers career was working with the association’s contract lobbyist to write the act that eventually led to the inclusion of a Specialty Crop title in the Farm Bill. That also led to another Nassif initiative, which was establishing full-time representation in the nation’s capital for the association.
As Nassif was preparing to exit the Western Growers center stage, he said it was the relationships that made the job, both with staff and industry members. He was reluctant to single out the few at the expense of the many, but he did say he formed an extremely close relationship with his first two chairmen of the board — A.G. Kawamura and Edwin Camp — as he traversed the early days of his presidency. He also mentioned longtime top lieutenant Matt McInerney.
“Matt and I developed such a great relationship and respect that I expect to endure long after I leave the office. There are a lot of people on the board and on the staff that have been very special but I just hate to name names as I will leave out too many.”