Bill Charbonneau and the Tree Top Company

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Photo courtesy of The Goodfruit Grower (May 11, 1978)

In the Hollywood film Jerry Maguire (1996), actor Tom Cruise, who portrays an abrasive, hard-bargaining agent representing professional athletes, barks out his trademark clincher: “Show me the money!” This soon became a popular phrase. Long before the movie, William Henry “Bill” Charbonneau, the legendary, roughshod “founding father” of the Tree Top fruit processing cooperative, had made a similar money-on-the-barrel-head phrase the centerpiece of his business affairs: “I want my money!” During the 16 years that Charbonneau owned and ran the firm as his private domain, before it became a cooperative in 1960, his accounts receivable seldom went 90 days – many less than 30 days – and a fiscal year ending with even a single bad debt (in one case, only $256) was indeed unusual. On the other hand, he might occasionally be slow to pay some legitimate debts, not out of neglect, but depending on how well he regarded the person to whom he owed money. Above all, Charbonneau was a shrewd businessman with his own set of strict principles.

A stickler for the integrity and high quality of any product connected with his name, Charbonneau had, in a previous job, regularly checked the stated weights on the bathroom paper cartons he sold, and with righteous indignation returned the lighter ones to his employer, a forest products company. At his own firm he was an old-style, hands-on executive, keeping a close watch on every phase of management and production. Once, when an obedient floor manager, following Charbonneau’s specific orders, reported the possibility of a flavor problem with a batch of apple juice, the boss tasted a sample and ordered the whole lot in the 5,000-gallon holding tank dumped down the sewer. At that time the plant might turn out about 10,000 gallons on a big day. Not surprisingly, Bill Charbonneau was often described as a driven perfectionist.

Many of Charbonneau’s closest associates regarded him as eccentric, but they invariably expressed their admiration, even awe, for his business acumen. If he was working in a room with 20 others, it was said, one person would probably get along with him, and even then arguments might flare up. Charbonneau’s intense personality sometimes defeated his best-laid plans. In dealings with orchardists and fruit warehouse operators, for instance, he often “turned them off” and made them resist, if not reject, his otherwise well-reasoned proposals. Toward such detractors, according to his philosophy, he only felt required to send out the periodic checks he owed them when he got good and ready to do so, and they deserved nothing more from him. Whatever might have been said about his personal traits, however, Bill Charbonneau was regarded as a tough, successful businessman, with exceptional organizational talents and an expansive vision of the important role he could achieve in fruit processing. And most important, his word was his bond; straight talk was his strong suit.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906, Charbonneau headed west seeking financial opportunities as a young man. He worked at various sales jobs in Southern California and then in Portland, where he was employed by a beverage company that sold various soft drinks including fruit juice. Although his sales record was outstanding, Charbonneau felt uneasy about selling the firm’s fruit drinks because they contained mostly artificial flavoring. His experience in Portland, however, did give him an opportunity to size up production and marketing activities in the beverage field. As a result, he started looking around for a “sleeper” fruit drink that had promising sales potential and would not mislead the consumer about its quality, or more specifically, its “purity” and authentic “taste.” In 1944 this pursuit brought him to the Yakima Valley apple country in Washington where he found exactly what he wanted.

Apples can be grown in most parts of the Pacific Northwest, but the cultivation of these fruit trees has especially flourished in the deep, sheltered Yakima and Wenatchee valleys along the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. Running north-south from Canada down into northern California, the towering Cascades constitute the most visible geographical feature of the region. A series of snow crested volcanic peaks, including Mount Rainier, the tallest at 14,411 feet, and St. Helens, which spewed thick layers of ash over a wide area when it erupted in 1980, give the mountain range the appearance of a long, jagged backbone outlined on the horizon. Nature also bestowed on the region the Columbia River, which begins in Canada and whose tributaries flowing from Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington make it the mightiest waterway in the western United States.

Nestled in “rain shadows” of the Cascades, which block out the moisture-laden clouds passing overhead from the Pacific Ocean, the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys share a protected, moderate climate, but are relatively arid. Both valleys are blessed, however, by rivers headed down them to the Columbia that provide plentiful water for the irrigation of apple orchards. Apple growing on a major scale began to the north in the Okanogan country and, more recently, in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project of central Washington with its deep, fertile soil and irrigation water from Grand Coulee Dam. Other important production areas in Washington include Lake Chelan, Spokane, and the Skagit Valley.

By the time Bill Charbonneau arrived in the Yakima Valley in 1944, the federal government had long since taken over many of the private irrigation systems, constructed after the arrival of the transcontinental railroads in the 1880s and 1890s. Several other water supply projects had been built in Washington, which resulted in a great expansion of apple growing, particularly along the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range. Not surprisingly, packing and marketing facilities had grown up apace.

Women on line. Photo courtesy of the Tree Top Inc. Historical Files.

In his ambitions to become part of this scene, Charbonneau could have faced a formidable obstacle. Although it was now the last stages of World War II, national business and financial activities still remained under tight wartime controls, sometimes making credit difficult to obtain. Charbonneau undoubtedly had some savings and may have recently received an inheritance – the stories vary – but he probably “jawboned” most of the financial arrangements for his purchase of a small apple juice concern, Pomona Products Company located in Selah, the bustling fruit handling center just north of Yakima. Clifford C. Ross was a major stockholder in this firm and also operated a comparatively large apple drying plant in Selah, which the Tree Top cooperative later bought. Under different ownership, Pomona Products had moved from Yakima into the “Kerper warehouses” at the south end of Selah’s “Fruit Row” in June 1936, and had never been really profitable.

For Charbonneau, as the novice owner of a struggling processing plant with aging machinery, it was a daunting challenge, especially in the uncertainties of a wartime economy. But at least he now had a chance to try out his ideas, and to accomplish something on his own without a boss looking over his shoulder. By a stroke of luck, since he was determined to market a product of the highest quality but lacked the experience to do so, Charbonneau sought the professional advice of a skilled scientist, Dr. Alfred M. Neubert, who had a staff position with the Fruit and Vegetable Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at nearby Prosser. Neubert specialized in fruit as well as vegetable processing, and had done research on these operations as practiced in Switzerland, an Old-World pioneer in making apple juice. Cliff Ross had employed Neubert, probably as a consultant. The shared expertise of this knowledgeable scientist undoubtedly helped Charbonneau understand the essential technicalities of his new trade. Some accounts also mention that a “chemist,” Carl Weisbord (or Weisbrod), who learned apple processing in Germany, had worked for Pomona Products at Selah. He also may have helped Charbonneau get started. A quick learner, Charbonneau soon began planning to make his company “bigger than Minute Maid,” the most popular postwar orange beverage.

Some tough times lay ahead. After the end of the war, Charbonneau systematically replaced all of the old plant equipment and, in 1946, changed the Pomona Products name to the Charbonneau Packing Corporation, although he kept using the New West label. At first he sold a blend processed from Red Delicious and Jonathan apples or Red Delicious, Romes, and/or Winesaps through established brokers to markets in only Washington, Oregon, and Montana. In 1949 cider was added to the lineup, particularly at Halloween. Over and over, Charbonneau hammered away on the necessity of high quality, and that quality also meant cleanliness. His pure, flawless juice, as advertised, had to taste exactly like fresh apples, not like the “belly wash” of his competitors. There were absolutely no excuses if it failed that test.

Such decisions and the implementation of them involved relatively simple management skills, but there was one problem that baffled Charbonneau, and that would eventually lead him to sell his company to a cooperative. In fact, this difficulty has plagued Tree Top throughout its history, and has played an influential, if not decisive, role in most of the firm’s setbacks and major policy shifts. Not surprisingly, then, this everlasting headache is a major theme of the Tree Top story.

Supply, supply, supply – of raw products, mainly apples – that was what Charbonneau and his successors could never control with any certainty. The main objective of the orchardists in Washington was to grow most of their fruit for the fresh-apple market, and the more the better. During the packing phase in the warehouses, however, sorting took place that removed the “culls,” or “sortouts,” which in size, shape, or color failed the grading standards for shipping as fresh apples, and which were made available to the apple processors. Two groups of processors –the juice makers and those plants that produced dried fruit – vied for the lowest grades. The dryers usually had a wider range of selection at the warehouses. A juicer such as Charbonneau, because of competitive pricing, had “to make something out of nothing” by taking the leftovers. Actually, to the growers, culls were often regarded as refuse, which they paid to have hauled away and dumped.

In short, Charbonneau and the other processors were seen by many in the apple industry as something like scavengers, who, lurking at the bottom of “the fruit chain,” could not enjoy the respect of the fresh-apple trade. If such vagaries as hail, frost, insects, and disease made the growers nervous about the volume their orchards would produce every year, this concern was magnified tenfold for the processors, who always got the short end of the crop. For example, Charbonneau, encouraged by a big apple crop in 1950, expanded from the Northwest into the northern California market area. After initial success, he had to withdraw because a disappointing harvest in 1951 provided only enough culls to supply established outlets with apple juice. As already pointed out, this dilemma would remain as a perpetual challenge for Tree Top. Or, to see it another way, Charbonneau’s remarkable success in creating a demand for apple juice often outdistanced his ability to obtain sufficient raw material for processing.

After conducting a name contest among his employees, Charbonneau introduced Tree Top as his main brand in 1947, running expensive ads in the Sunday supplements of Seattle and Los Angeles newspapers that depicted “New West-Tree Top Apple Juice.” Consumer response soon clearly indicated, however, that Tree Top alone provided much greater brand recognition. New West remained on the label in smaller letters until 1951 when a new format appeared with “Charbonneau Tree Top.” Significantly, after expensive ads ran in the Seattle and Los Angeles newspapers, a short apple crop made it impossible for the company to deliver enough products to satisfy the demand of these markets.

Despite ups and downs in the supply pipeline, increased sales became an obsession of the restless Charbonneau. Until 1955, he depended largely on regional brokers to establish new markets and promote sales. Then he became convinced that recent tree plantings and other conditions would increase the supply of raw material for processing and thus permit considerably more production. He next went to Los Angeles and hired his company’s first sales manager, Ernest L. “Ernie” Stafford, who was already employed in a similar capacity at the company’s local broker. This was an excellent choice for Charbonneau’s challenging expansion campaign. A whiz-bang salesman, Stafford had long experience in the grocery store business, including the Safeway chain in Phoenix and Tucson. He had also worked in advertising and sales management for a Los Angeles coffee, tea, and spices manufacturer whose marketing territory covered five western states. Stafford already knew the Tree Top products line, and realized that additional advertising was essential as the next step.

Bill Charbonneau shared in this opinion. He believed implicitly in the power of advertising and was ready to spend large sums on it. The Seattle consulting firm chosen for this assignment pointed out the main difficulty in such a promotional campaign. Because orange juice was the national favorite, it was first necessary to promote apple juice itself as a desirable beverage, and then to tout the “brand personality” and virtues of Tree Top among its apple beverage competitors. And since there was no outstanding name and little advertising involving that fruit drink, it would be relatively easy to make Tree Top number one in the field. The best way to do so, as determined by research, was through television commercials aimed at mothers and children in afternoon shows.

Charbonneau focused most of his advertising budget for 1956 on three markets, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Arizona. Twenty-second animated commercials appealing to children focused on the Tree Top brand name with jingles such as “We pick, pick, the pick of the crop from the top, top, top of the tree.” To sway mothers, the messages emphasized health benefits and taste appeal, and that the best apple juice must logically come from where the best, most famous apples grew–obviously Washington state. Some of the visual images were furnished by the Washington State Apple Commission, a notable instance of cooperation since that agency did not always sympathize with Tree Top’s later activities. The initial television ad campaign of 1956 paid off handsomely with a sales revenue increase of 61 percent over the previous year.

Such impressive success called for more television advertising, particularly in 1958 to the spring of 1960, when the targeted places included Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and Billings. For example, using the same programs and format introduced in 1956, the firm ran 85 ads from late September to early December 1959 on three Los Angeles television stations. The commercials concentrated on such afternoon kids’ shows as Popeye, Sheriff John, Bozo the Clown, and Brakeman Bill’s Cartoon Express. Special commercials featuring apple cider ran for two weeks before Halloween. Charbonneau reveled in the dividends of television exposure. If his annual net income happened to be $500,000, he might immediately start planning to spend half of it on advertising for the coming year, despite warnings about the continual problem of raw product needed to match the ad campaign.

In 1959, “Brakeman Bill” on KTNT-TV, Seattle-Tacoma, promotes Tree Top cider during the Halloween season. Photo courtesy of the Tree Top Inc. Historical Files.

It was this reality of supply, supply, supply that determined a major transition for the company. Charbonneau concluded that any large increase in tonnage of the raw product must come from around Wenatchee. Consequently, he began planning to build a new processing plant there on 12 acres he already owned adjoining the railroad. It was another example of vintage Charbonneau hubris. When Wenatchee officials caused red-tape delays, he indignantly told them off and bought land on the edge of nearby Cashmere for his facility, which was completed in late 1959. This property had no direct access to rail transportation, but Charbonneau disliked railroads anyway and avoided using them for shipments whenever possible. The main trouble, however, was that for three years Tree Top could not get enough processor apples to meet the product demand created by its highly successful advertising program.

Charbonneau’s managerial style during the 16 years before he sold out to the Tree Top cooperative was freewheeling and unhindered by stockholders or a board of directors. It was his company, and he ran it as he pleased – a situation that explains many curious as well as humorous incidents. A firm believer in efficiency, Charbonneau commanded a tight operation with a lean staff. His office was in the plant building. For the most part, his regular office force only consisted of a stenographer, a bookkeeper, and Louie Hauser, in charge of billing and shipping. Sales manager Ernie Stafford and field agent Garfield C. “Gar” Barnett were in and out of the office. That was about it for the Charbonneau company’s executive headquarters.

Louie Hauser was on the job five or six weeks before he actually met the boss, and then only in a brief encounter. In the same vein there were no staff meetings, and if Charbonneau wanted to discuss salaries or another matter, he would summon the individual out to his big Lincoln Continental for a parking lot conference, or perhaps drive around for a while, and then buy the person a cup of coffee. To keep employees on their toes, he might deliberately make a mistake and see if they caught it. It was not unusual, however, for him to reward loyal workers at the end of a successful season by taking a large group of them on special excursions, such as a deep-sea fishing trip.

Although floor managers kept the plant operations running, Charbonneau spent much of his time checking on production activities. Abrupt and impulsive, he might “jump down the throat” of a worker or fire someone on the spot without much of an explanation. Ernie Stafford frequently had heated arguments with him, usually about ways to increase production, because of the sales manager’s compulsion to sell more apple juice than was ever available.

Not surprisingly, Charbonneau disliked the Teamsters union, which at some point had gained a foothold in his domain. He firmly believed that unions, besides undermining an owner’s authority, took a big bite out of an employee’s salary with little in return. Since he offered relatively high wages, good benefits, and, selectively at his discretion, substantial annual bonuses, Charbonneau considered a vote for the union as a sign of personal disloyalty to him.

This brand of fierce pride also extended to the marketplace. For years Charbonneau refused to cooperate with distributors who wanted their own separate, or “private,” labels displayed on products manufactured by Charbonneau. When a national grocery chain giant demanded an individual label, threatening to remove Tree Top apple juice from its shelves all over Portland, he resolutely refused to back down, and suffered the consequences. It took real “guts” to make such a decision, knowing that it would result in the loss of substantial sales. But Charbonneau, the driven perfectionist, apparently viewed his proprietary stand on the label issue as part of his determination to personally guarantee the purity and taste of anything connected, even indirectly, to his name. After a few years, reportedly because of customer demand, the grocery chain started stocking the Tree Top brand again.

Undoubtedly, Charbonneau had his eccentricities, but he took a clearheaded, practical approach to solving the crucial problem of a reliable supply of apples. At that time, the supply pipeline started with the growers, who might consign their fruit to a broker, but they usually brought it to a warehouse, which, after sorting and grading, sold most of it to fresh-apple vendors, leaving the leftovers to the processors for juicing or drying. Charbonneau felt that he and the growers had a common adversary in the warehouse operators, who, as he saw it, had often treated him unfairly and charged the orchardists excessive fees. He planned to bypass the warehouses and go straight to the orchardists with a deal they could not refuse. He would sell his processing company to an organization of growers commonly called a cooperative, and they would own and operate it, as well as agree to provide an adequate supply of raw product. This idea was the genesis of the Tree Top Inc. cooperative.

As already shown, Charbonneau was a man of strong feelings, who expressed his views openly and in the most explicit terms. The formation of agricultural cooperatives had a long tradition in the United States, becoming especially prominent during the Populist Movement of the 1890s when farmers felt threatened by “monopoly capital.” In Washington, fresh-apple growers had organized successful cooperatives that opened lucrative national and international markets. In Charbonneau’s case, however, he disliked the term “cooperative,” much less the traditional meaning of the concept, believing that it suggested ties with socialism and thereby endorsed mediocrity as a substitute for the superior qualities of private corporate ownership. He developed a preference instead for the creative term “togetherness,” which simply envisioned bringing together hundreds of growers in a common cause. Paul Fountain and Robert F. Brachtenbach, respectively Charbonneau’s tax advisor and lawyer, soon learned to steer clear of any reference to a “cooperative.” In fact, they probably suggested the idea of “togetherness,” creating the term. Charbonneau’s decision to sell his prospering company was not made in a hurry, nor without legal advice. And, a family tragedy helped him make up his mind. He had made long-term plans for his older son, “Bill Jr.” (William H. Charbonneau III), to take over the apple processing company, and for his younger son, Donald, to assume management of the family’s orchard in the Yakima Valley. In 1953, the idea of “togetherness,” creating the term.

Photo courtesy of Tree Top Inc. Historical Files.

Charbonneau’s decision to sell his prospering company was not made in a hurry, nor without legal advice. And, a family tragedy helped him make up his mind. He had made long-term plans for his older son, “Bill Jr.” (William H. Charbonneau III), to take over the apple processing company, and for his younger son, Donald, to assume management of the family’s orchard in the Yakima Valley. In 1953, Bill Jr. died in a mid-air plane collision while serving in the U.S. Air Force. The father was devastated by this loss and never completely recovered emotionally. Without the designated “heir apparent” to step into his shoes, Charbonneau was inclined to look for other options. In one way or another, however, it always came back to the supply pipeline difficulty. Long a keen observer of the orange juice business, he had made a trip to Florida in the late 1950s for a firsthand investigation and consultation with leaders in that industry. He returned with the conviction that, like the Florida citrus processors, the only way to assure a reliable supply of apples was to involve the growers in the overall operation. And the only way to do that was to guarantee them a specific price for their fruit and pay the money up front. At that time, a cash advance in apple processing was unheard of – growers usually had to wait several months to get their money. Charbonneau had even more revolutionary proposals up his sleeve, as he would soon reveal.

First, it was necessary to formulate the legal framework. For that complicated task Charbonneau employed the young Selah lawyer, Robert F. Brachtenbach, who would later serve as a state representative and chief justice of the Washington state supreme court. Charbonneau became convinced that the success of the new venture depended on his remaining as its manager, and Brachtenbach included in the final contract an ironclad clause to that effect, which withstood several court challenges to break it. Partially to satisfy Charbonneau’s disdain for the concept, and even the word “cooperative,” Brachtenbach did some creative legal footwork, which appeared in the new firm’s articles of incorporation. He structured Tree Top ostensibly as a private corporation, but, in the provisions involving future stockholders, also as a potential public cooperative.

Not surprisingly, there were some attractive tax advantages for a corporation that also operated as a cooperative. These possibilities were certainly not overlooked, since the Olofson accounting firm, where Charbonneau’s financial adviser Paul Fountain was a member, had thoroughly researched this beforehand. Thus the firm became Tree Top Inc., which would lead to endless questions over the years about why a grower-owned agricultural cooperative would have “Inc.” tacked onto its name like it was a Wall Street corporation. As it turned out, the provision that guaranteed Charbonneau’s continuation as manager would draw the most attention. In fact, this provision would later lead to such intense friction between Charbonneau and the cooperative’s board of directors that, amid recriminations, he was, in effect, fired from the firm he originally created.

In the “tentative plan” Charbonneau presented in the spring of 1960, he elaborated on his proposal to sell out to the growers. Instead of emphasizing the perennial shortfall of apples for processing, he took just the opposite tact, declaring that the current year would see “unmanageable surpluses,” which would only increase in succeeding years. The logical solution for this unusual “problem,” he said, was to see it coming and get “a fresh new horse to help carry Washington apples to market and one that the grower can ride to the bank with a feeling of confidence.” In brief, Charbonneau’s main pitch stressed the role of the suppliers and how they would reap the lion’s share of the profits in the new venture.

More specifically, the Charbonneau Packing Corporation would transfer all its stock to a new firm called Tree Top Inc. for a price of $1,732, 000, to be paid over a 10-year period or less. The sum of $126,000 in “equipment contracts (2-year term)” had been deducted from a grand total of $1,858,000. In a breakdown of the selling price, accounts receivable and product inventories came to $473,000, and the Selah property and machinery amounted to another $545,000. For the Cashmere plant, only the machinery was included at $290,000, although Tree Top would hold an option to purchase the building and property.

A category entitled “Intangibles, goodwill, trademarks, etc.,” was valued at $550,000. This item drew a great deal of comment. In the first place, it was said, the abrasive Charbonneau had no good will, and secondly, the Tree Top brand name was not worth that much. In the latter case, the critics were dead wrong because the Tree Top trademark alone proved to be worth far more than a half million dollars, supposedly the total amount Charbonneau claimed he had spent on advertising in recent years. “If we’d had to start from scratch,” said an astute insider with the cooperative, “we’d never have made it.”

Then came the clinchers in the whole deal. No interest would be charged on the sale price for the first five years, and thereafter a rate of 5 percent. Funds to pay off the debt would be obtained through binding 10-year contracts with the growers, who would agree to furnish apples to Tree Top for a guaranteed minimum price of $20 a ton. This promised minimum seemed like “pie in the sky” to skeptics since culls had seldom, if ever, brought more than $5 a ton in the past. Whether the tonnage price was $20 or more in a given year, however, $5 per ton of the amount would be reserved to pay off the debt to Charbonneau. When Charbonneau was paid in full, the suppliers might eventually receive a refund of the yearly $5 per ton deductions, recorded for each of them as individual purchases of capital stock. It was a brilliant plan, mainly because the grower-owners of the cooperative, without any financial liability to themselves, could go into business with virtually no down payment and a built-in way to liquidate the balance.

Charbonneau would hold mortgages on the property and machinery, but probably his main financial security resulted from the requirement that Tree Top employ him as manager for the 10-year period it owed him money, or for less time if he was paid off. His rather handsome salary at the time was $24,000 per year. Under the ironclad provision fashioned by lawyer Robert Brachtenbach, Charbonneau would have “full management” of Tree Top operations, with its policies determined by him, including marketing, production, personnel, and most of the advertising. On one hand, Charbonneau’s almost complete control could be viewed as pure self-gratification. But it could also be seen as protection of the sizable debt owed to him by the cooperative. Regardless, the 12-member board of directors, made up of 6 growers from the Wenatchee area and 6 from around Yakima, was left with only routine duties. In fact, since Charbonneau regarded the directors as little more than figureheads, he was on a collision course with them from the start.

Incredibly, Charbonneau had to sell the growers on the good deal he was giving them. Even though he considered his proposal as “an idealistic approach” and in the orchardists’ best interest, he was forced to conduct an arduous campaign to convince those same suppliers to sign up in contracts undergirding the whole grand scheme. In a series of meetings, usually held in Grange halls, up north in the Wenatchee area and down south in the Yakima Valley, he made the case for “togetherness” to the frequently unsympathetic listeners. All too often he heard them say, “Fine, but it won’t work.” Actually a talented group of his associates, including Brachtenbach and Fountain, made the pitch, while, because of Charbonneau’s volatile nature, he remained seated in the front row of the audience.

In one incident at the Nob Hill Grange near Yakima, Charbonneau’s associates were at the front making the presentation with charts and graphs when a grower at the back of the room stood up and raised his concerns about the risks involved. From his front-row seat in the audience, Charbonneau jumped up and heatedly responded, in effect, that his proposal would save growers from exactly those risks. It was at such gatherings up and down the state that north-south sectional differences became apparent. Strangely enough, Charbonneau’s single-minded proposal brought two different reactions. To the north in the Wenatchee area and the Okanogan country, the audiences were more favorably disposed to his “togetherness” ideal because the growers there had more experience with cooperatives, and therefore placed more trust in the concept and its objectives. Down south around the Yakima Valley, orchardists more likely valued their independence and regarded cooperatives as having a socialistic connotation. And these two apple-growing sections had not only a sense of competition, but also suspicions about each other, a situation that would surface occasionally in the future causing difficulty for Tree Top.

Cover courtesy of Washington State University Press

The first 12-member board of directors organized Tree Top as a Washington corporation on May 10, 1960, and, two days later, the articles of incorporation were approved by the state supervisor of corporations. On July 1, 1960, the Charbonneau Packing Corporation ceased to exist and Tree Top Inc. took its place, even though the grower response, as measured by the tonnage of apples pledged to the new firm, had been less than enthusiastic. Charbonneau had specified that the contracts must guarantee 30,000 tons for processing before the transaction took place, but sign-ups had materialized for only 20,000 tons. He chose to overlook this shortcoming. With this point in mind, the question naturally arises as to Charbonneau’s basic motives in the “togetherness” project.

On one hand, as he claimed, he was idealistic and generously charitable on behalf of the orchardists. Or, he might have used the growers to stabilize the supply pipeline, at least partially for his own sake since he became the general manager, or CEO, of the new firm. About this time he reportedly had received at least two offers from privately owned concerns to buy him out with cash on the barrelhead and at higher amounts than the Tree Top purchase price. Supposedly, Charbonneau had turned down these offers because, as a part of his legacy, he wanted to leave his processing operations in the hands of those who deserved them most; that is, the growers. Significantly, rumors also circulated that he was worried about a personal health problem, which might help explain his concern with such idealistic values. Whatever the case, it seems altogether possible that this shrewd businessman did have a genuine soft spot in his heart for the orchardists, or at least he looked with more favor on them than on the warehouse operators or other prospective buyers.

More from Tree Top: Creating A Fruit Revolution:

Reprinted with permission from Tree Top: Creating A Fruit Revolution by David H. Stratton and published by Washington State University Press, 2010.


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