When you step into the offices of Oregon Fruit Products in Salem, you will find a conference room named to honor the Gehlar family that founded the company in 1935 and operated it for three generations.
The company now is owned by the Maletis family, who have deep roots as local business owners in Oregon going back four generations.
Taking a heritage company into the future while honoring the Gehlar family legacy is one of the reasons the Maletis family and Oregon Fruit Products were chosen as winners of the Business Renewal award in Oregon State University’s Center for Family Enterprise’s 2022 Excellence in Family Business Awards.
When the Maletis family purchased Oregon Fruit Products in 2011, the intent was to build on the Gehlar’s work and create new fruit products that are relevant to today’s consumers. The company’s staple, canned fruit, had been slowly declining.
“We felt we needed to move into new categories, segments, customers and channels,” said CEO Chris Sarles.
Sarles has worked with the Maletis family for more than 25 years. Sarles was part of Columbia Distributing, a well-known distributor in the alcoholic beverage industry that the Maletis family previously owned. Their working relationship provided a framework for a developing a new strategic plan at Oregon Fruit Products.
Sarles and his management team presented their ideas to the board, which includes Ed and Cyndy Maletis and their three sons, Andy Maletis, Bryan Maletis and John Maletis.
The board provided feedback and guidance.
“But it really didn’t end up very far off of what we had presented,” Sarles recalled.
Oregon Fruit Products continues to innovate and find new ways to bring fruit to life. A few examples include jarred red tart cherries in juice for healthy snacking, canned dark sweet cherries and blueberries in juice for healthier baking options, Fruit in Hand dragon fruit and strawberry watermelon for the food service industry, and fruit items for the fermentation industry.
Management considers input from customers, employees and the owners. The Maletis family allows the company to be professionally managed while providing feedback and support, which creates loyalty, trust and growth, which they have done in other enterprises they have owned. In the last decade, Oregon Fruit moved into a new facility, sales have increased and many new jobs have been added.
“The way that the Maletis family operates, the values that they live every day, makes you proud to be a part of the organization,” Sarles said.
Sarles appreciates the approach the Maletis family takes as owners of a portfolio of businesses that includes Oregon Fruit Products, Quatris HealthCo and Portland Bottling Co. As parents, Ed and Cyndy Maletis successfully introduced their sons to the family businesses. All three remain involved and provide input on how to grow and develop the businesses.
“I place a high value on the fact that all three have a voice in Oregon Fruit Products and are involved,” Sarles said. “But they do it from afar rather than diving into the business. That’s a credit to Ed and Cyndy.”
Ed Maletis says he hopes that his sons will continue the family business legacy.
“We are simply stewards of a particular point in time of these companies,” Ed Maletis said. “Our family legacy is about caring about the community that we live in and the people that work with us.”
Absent the pressure of making quarterly earnings, Sarles doesn’t face the same pressure as publicly traded organizations. The family’s vision of a long-term, successful, multi-generational business allows management to take chances along the way and to consider the impact on the community and employees, and not just the bottom line.
“Make no bones about it, the Maletis family is definitely interested in growing the business in aggressive ways year after year to ensure profitability,” Sarles said. “But their approach really allows us to pause and think about certain decisions differently.”
Sarles feels it’s an honor to carry the values of a family-owned business forward.
“We’re getting to build on it in the next chapter while respecting the legacy of the work done before us,” he said. “My desire is that we will become a more significant player in our category and that people will look and say, ‘I know Oregon Fruit Products. That’s a really good company.’”
To learn more about the Excellence in Family Business Awards, visit us at the Center for Family Enterprise website.