Mark & Brian Nicholson ’94

Generations & Innovations

from the Cornell Alumni Magazine

Mark and Brian Nicholson ’94 are the third generation managing Red Jacket Orchards, their family’s 50-year-old fresh fruit juice company in Geneva, New York. When the brothers entered the business, with B.S. degrees in pomology and agriculture business management and marketing, respectively, the family had just begun making apple and fruit juice blends to supplement their seasonal cider making.

“We started out as a niche market,” said Brian, company president. “Now we are in the process of bringing fresh back to the juice shelf.”

Sales of their fresh-pressed juices and fruit nectars have increased 25 to 50 percent annually for the past several years. And a new 22,000-square-foot kosher and LEED-certified juice processing facility symbolizes their vision to build Red Jacket juices into a national brand, a strategy built on years of experience with direct-to-consumer sales at the New York City Greenmarket and the Geneva farm store.

“Years of feedback from customers helped us prioritize the freshness and flavor of the juices over more commercial attributes,” said Mark, company executive vice president.

The juices get their freshness from a traditional “rack and cloth” pressing process, no added sugar or concentrates, no heat pasteurization, and minimal filtering. It sounds simple, but Mark and Brian have fine-tuned the process by working extensively with the Cornell community.

“The Cornell network is a big part of our success,” Brian said. “We’ve benefited from being near the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, both through education and ongoing collaboration with scientists on product development. The NYS Food Venture Center helped us perfect this product—we wouldn’t be where we are without their expertise.”

This fall, Red Jacket will reach out to its newest generation of customers through a student ambassador program on six New York State college campuses, including Cornell. Ambassadors will give away free samples and promotional items, creating awareness of Red Jacket’s all-natural juices.

He’s Got The Juice

By Metta Winter
2004, Office of Public Affairs, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University

Brian Nicholson ’94 followed a roundabout path back to his family’s fruit farm. It’s a good thing he did, because his experience in marketing, branding, and sales is paying off for Red Jacket Orchards.

A glance at the sales staff biographies on the Red Jacket Orchards Web site makes you think there was a conspiracy at work. Brian Nicholson ’94 finds that funny.

In fact, Nicholson says, it’s downright shocking (and, he quickly adds, rewarding) that he, his brother Mark ’94, and sister Amy May ’98 are back on the family payroll. Mark is vice president of Juice Works, and Amy May is co-market manager for New York City Greenmarket operations.

“I was a business administration/marketing major and, although I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was very solid in my thinking that there was no way I was going back to the farm,” says Nicholson, the first to return and the only one whose role allows him to work where he can watch their tree fruits grow.* “Going to Cornell had exposed me to a lot of metro New York people, and I thought there had to be something better out there than the blood, sweat, and tears of farming!”

Yet it seems, looking back, that everything Nicholson did, all those experiences that he described feeling at the time as “a natural fit” were actually a setup. A setup so that not 10 years later, he’d be back in Geneva, N.Y., with the skills to make a unique contribution to a family business his grandparents started 40 years ago.

The path back home began with Nicholson’s first job out of Cornell, when he became marketing manager for Langeveld Bulb Co., an international flower bulb company. Although headquartered in Holland, half of the members of this family-owned agricultural business worked out of New Jersey. They employed a very aggressive marketing style that allowed Nicholson to put into practice some of the most advanced concepts he’d recently learned in Warren Hall.

One day Nicholson would be doing grunt work (shelving tulips and paper whites in, as he describes it, “mom and pop Agways in train-stop towns throughout Pennsylvania,”) but the next he’d be back at headquarters logging into Wal-Mart’s mainframe computer where he could check the sales performance of every Langeveld bulb placed in 800 Wal-Mart stores throughout the United States.

To trust vendors enough to give them direct access to sales data, store-by-store on an hourly basis, was a revolutionary concept that Wal-Mart pioneered, Nicholson recalls. It was a lesson in the power of retailers partnering with suppliers.

“By being allowed to manage the details of your own product line in the store-knowing what’s selling and what’s not and figuring out yourself how to address that quickly-you’re in a position to maximize everybody’s return,” Nicholson explains.

Later, as an account supervisor for the New York City advertising agency Jordon, McGrath, Case and Partners/Euro RSCG, Nicholson learned another valuable lesson: the power of integrity. In managing the Bounty paper towel account, Nicholson says he became schooled in how Procter & Gamble developed trust with its business partners, worldwide.

Then came the clincher that would eventually land him back by the shores of Seneca Lake. Nicholson fell in love. “The work at JMCP was so much fun because our product was ideas,” Nicholson recalls. “Suddenly I saw how much I loved the creativity involved in branding.”

Meanwhile back on the farm, Nicholson’s father Joseph Jr. was experimenting with a new product-fresh pressed juices made with whole fruit-that offered wholly new possibilities for developing the Red Jacket brand. To survive in agriculture, you have to differentiate yourself from the crowd by constantly reinventing yourself, Nicholson explains. When his grandfather bought 500-acre Red Jacket Orchards in 1958, the land was planted in cherries, which he eventually replaced with apples. Fourteen years later, when Joseph Jr. returned to the farm, he began experimenting with other fruits: notably flavorful varieties of plums, including Greengage and Mirabelle, prized in Europe but unavailable in the United States, and apricots, thought to be impossible to grow on the East Coast. (During the peak summer months, 1,200 pounds of Red Jacket apricots are sold every day in Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket.)

When Nicholson returned to become vice president for marketing and sales, the juice line was so new that the labels were being printed on the office computer on sheets of address labels. Now there are eight varieties, including rhubarb apple and strawberry apple sold in 80 of New York’s finest gourmet stores and down the coast to Florida through the upscale retailer Whole Foods and Fresh Market.

To Nicholson, a brand is a living thing with which people have a relationship. Like a friendship, that relationship grows and changes over time, and people judge it based on the quality of interaction over time.

“The name, the label, the taste of the product is something more than a commodity like sugar, which is just sugar,” he explains. “I have this opportunity to take what has been my family’s brand for 40 years and make it mean more to people in a positive way. And that’s the challenge, it’s also the fun.”

Mark, based in Washington, D.C., heads up sales for Red Jacket’s growing juice division. Amy May is developing new value-added products through her contacts with consumers in New York City.