Can't Give it Up

IGSA Russet Aristocrat Bob Wilkins

Published in the August 2014 Issue Published online: Aug 10, 2014 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 2347 time(s)
"Potato lifer. Bob Wilkins has been intimately involved in the potato industry since coming to work for GPOD of Idaho in 1973.
"Load ‘em up, move ‘em out. GPOD of Idaho ships fresh Idaho potatoes from one end of the country to the other.
"His story. Wilkins shares his experiences with Potato Grower editor Tyrell Marchant.
"Natural growth. Wilkins has seen GPOD of Idaho more than double its output since he first came on.

If you’re ever driving down 17th Street in Idaho Falls, Idaho, stop by Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. You’ll get a good pulled pork sandwich, and, if you’re fortunate, maybe meet owner Bob Wilkins. He’ll greet you with a firm handshake, a warm smile and a quick laugh. Even if you’re only just making his acquaintance, you’ll fast get the feeling that you’ve known the man for ages. Perhaps the warmth comes from the decades Wilkins spent forging professional—and, often, personal—relationships with folks not only across the fresh-pack potato sector, but throughout the entire produce industry.

After graduating high school in Washington State and serving four years in the U.S. Navy, Wilkins wound up in Stockton, Calif., where he studied accounting at Humphreys College. He was hired out of school as an accountant for General Potato and Onion Distributors (GPOD) in Stockton, a hiring that ultimately shaped Wilkins’s career and life.

When GPOD partners Fred Thompson and John Gellings opened up a potato packing warehouse in Shelley, Idaho, in 1973, Wilkins moved to Idaho and became the office manager. He and Jalna Searle (honored as the 2009 Russet Aristocrat) manned GPOD of Idaho’s front office for years, he as accountant and she as receptionist. “We just kind of gradually moved on up the ladder, so to speak,” says Wilkins.

Soon, Wilkins and Searle were both working sales, and when Thompson and Gellings’s share of the company came up for sale in 1989, he and Searle were prepared to take the chance to become partners in GPOD of Idaho. “I became general manager in 1989, and Jalna became the sales manager,” Wilkins says. “Jalna and I managed the place right up until she retired [in 2000], then I retired from here in 2007.” Wilkins has discovered that retirement doesn’t fit him particularly well. Though he and Jalna Searle both remain partners at GPOD and attend those meetings, he found himself craving something to do.

So he and his wife of 24 years, DeAnne, opened up Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Idaho Falls in 2012. “I tried retirement, didn’t like it,” he says. “DeAnne said I was getting boring.”

DeAnne is probably the first and last person to attach that adjective to Bob. He has spent most of his life deeply involved in the goings-on of the potato and produce industries. Wilkins’s first tour of duty was with the IGSA Traffic Committee, on which he served for four years. That was followed by stints on the IGSA Board of Directors, the United Fresh Fruit & Produce Association’s Board of Directors and the Idaho Potato Commission, among others. All told, Wilkins has well over 20 years of service to the industry in volunteer and leadership positions.

“Most has been particularly in Idaho,” he points out. “It afforded me a lot of opportunities to meet people and promote Idaho, yet it also gave me a good insight on what goes on, not just in this industry, but other industries as well. A lot terrific people are out there in the produce industry.”

Wilkins believes that the primary reason for GPOD of Idaho’s massive success has been an ability to earn trust from everyone the company does business with. That trust has expanded across the country—they’ve been shipping three to seven railcars of fresh potatoes a day to New York City markets for decades now. “GPOD has always had a terrific reputation,” he says. “We’ve always tried to put out a quality package, and that quality just means so much—even more important than the variety, really.” Speaking of variety, Wilkins is a Russet Burbank man, and he’s proud to be one.

“There’s a lot of different varieties beinggrown now,” he says, “but we here at

GPOD have always been Russet Burbank people. Anymore, I can see the value of adding variety, because being a fullservice supplier can be important. It really works out great for us, though, to just have Russet Burbanks, that one variety.”

Burbanks have treated Wilkins and GPOD of Idaho well over the years. He estimates that the company has doubled its capacity over the years, and current general manager Kevin Searle and his management team are in the process of making a few expansions now.

“It’s a great industry; it really is,” Wilkins muses. “You take care of it, it takes care of you.” No one will argue with him on that point. The symbiotic relationship Wilkins has enjoyed with the fresh potato industry is clear to see.

It’s been good to him, and he to it. For his many contributions to the industry, Potato Grower and IGSA are proud to name Bob Wilkins the 2014 Russet Aristocrat.

“One day, I’m gonna re-retire,” Wilkins says.