Bill Charbonneau and the Tree Top Company

Take a look into Bill Charbonneau’s creation of the apple juice company, Tree Top.

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.



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