“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
One thing that has become evident over the course of this feature series is that no one's career path is ever laid out for them. That trend continues with Sudbury-born Jim Bruce who moved to North Bay when his father, a former member of the military was working at the Electrolux Company and was then stationed in North Bay.
Bruce is the owner of La Huerta Imports, which is responsible for the rise of avocados as one of the three most popular fruits in Canada. But he never envisioned he would ever be bringing passion fruits to his home country when he was playing hockey at St. Joseph Scollard Hall.
“I played at Scollard for five years and truthfully, I only went to school for two reasons; because my friends went to school and because I liked to play sports,” says Bruce.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to ever be a lawyer or a doctor or anything with a higher education qualification. Everything I learned, I learned by doing it, and not making the same mistake twice.”
After graduating high school Bruce went to Canadore College for a very brief time because he says, “I originally didn’t know what I wanted to do. Today, it is a lot easier for a student to incur debt toward their education. When I was growing up there wasn’t the ability to get those kinds of loans. Whatever your parents made, the government knew, and you got pro-rated to go away to school. I just thought it would be a waste for me to go to school when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”
Bruce went to work for Jarvis Clark for a short stint before deciding he was going to head south to Toronto; that journey would eventually lead him to Mexico to an avocado orchard.
“I started working for a company called Canadian Pittsburgh Industries (CPI),” says Bruce.
“They transferred me in the mid-70s to Calgary and after a few years, I bought into a glass company called Chinook Glass. I sold my shares in that company in 1983 and returned to Toronto in 1984 where I started with a company called Scantron Corporation. I left there in 1995 as the Vice-President of Canadian Operations. It was during that time that my cohort in California asked me to take a vacation with him down to Mexico where his parents owned an orchard and that’s where I was first introduced to an avocado.”
Bruce said the only reason he said he would go down to Mexico was that he had never been before, and he saw it as a holiday. However, it would turn into his greatest business venture.
“His parents didn’t speak a word of English when I got down to their orchard,” says Bruce.
“But they took this hard piece of fruit and I’m looking at it thinking ‘well that looks nothing like an apple.’ He takes the knife and he cuts it open and it's got this huge seed in the middle and then he scoops out the middle and says, ‘try it.’ I was just being polite because I really didn’t think I was going to be able to swallow it and I just thought, ‘who is going to eat this?’”
Bruce says he felt he owed his friend some effort to find out a little bit more about this strange fruit.
“Once I started doing my research, I saw that the government reports labelled it as the second fastest-growing fruit that was being imported into Ontario. That’s when I had thought that this might be something to look into. We talked, we bought a bunch of boxes and put the label Corona on the side, that was our first mistake.”
Bruce says they had no idea where they were going to sell the avocados and so they shipped them into Toronto to the Ontario Food Terminal.
“They were practically gone instantaneously, so I knew we could sell them. When the second shipment came in, I got a knock on the door at home from the sheriff and he gives me a cease and desist order on behalf of the Corona beer company. So we had to stop using that label and we just put tape over it and ordered new boxes. By our third shipment, I had figured the gig out and we started to go direct.”
Bruce adds, “It was honestly just being in the right place at the right time and willing to take a chance. We have around 50-60 tropical fruits that we import into Canada and avocados are still our biggest one. When we first started out, we were doing maybe one trailer of about 4,500 boxes every two weeks. Now, we’re doing 10-12 trailers per week and that’s just into Toronto, not counting western Canada.”
Bruce says the demographics of Canada certainly helped his business grow.
“Toronto has a very large number of new Canadians coming into the country, and so the population made that a viable market. Then when you get out to Vancouver, there are primarily new Canadians of Chinese and Japanese descent, and they are big avocado consumers. Especially when it comes to making sushi. If you eat sushi in Canada, I would venture to say that probably 70-80 percent of the sushi places use our product. It’s been a very solid business and just a stroke of luck.”
Bruce says the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t have too much of an impact on La Huerta Imports as he says when it comes down to it, “people have to eat.”
“I never had a fear that we were going to have a border issue when the pandemic started. Really, it’s a matter of changing marketing strategies in terms of switching our focus from the food services side and putting a little more attention into the chain stores side of the business,” he says.
Since this business started, Bruce says the avocado has become immensely popular around the country.
“The avocado is actually starting to push the apple from its number one marketing position as the top-selling fruit,” he says.
“Apples are number one, bananas are number two and avocados are currently number three. Avocados have all the right health benefits, which is a big seller. Then there’s marketing programs that are now being put out there by the growers and the packers that you can see on television. When you’re watching a hockey game you can see avocado’s being advertised behind the nets and that’s all being done by programs that we have set up out of the USA and Mexico.”
And the avocado is not Bruce’s only link to hockey as he is also the President and co-owner of the Powassan Voodoos hockey club of the Northern Ontario Hockey League.
“It’s extremely enjoyable being an owner of a hockey team,” says Bruce.
“It’s been fun, it wasn’t something that was on my bucket list, but its something that has been really enjoyable”
Bruce says he came into ownership after his high school friend and North Bay Battalion Team President Mike Griffin called him one day and said “I had heard a rumour that you were interested in putting a junior hockey team in the NOJHL.”
The Battalion had played their first season in North Bay and the North Bay Trappers had moved out of the city, so there was a void left for the NOJHL around the area.
But Bruce says, “When he called me, I actually wasn’t really interested, but someone must have put a bug in his ear and things just started rolling from there.”
The three Rivet brothers with Burger World at the time (Syl, Mark and Dan) said they would go in with Bruce. As well as his son Graeme Bruce and business owner of Lucky 13 Ray Seguin.
“NOJHL Commissioner Robert Mazuca came to our house to meet in person and we talked and my big issue was, ‘where were we going to play?’ and he said ‘I think I can get you into Powassan,”’ says Bruce.
Bruce says Mayor Peter McIsaac gave his support, and then got his council's support, and that all happened in June. Shortly afterward, (former) Head Coach of the North Bay Battalion Stan Butler gave them the name of Scott Wray (current Assistant Coach of the North Bay Battalion) who was living in South Dakota at that time, to be the Voodoos Head Coach.
Chris Dawson was then brought on as the team's General Manager and Bruce says, “We hired some other well-rounded, well-minded hockey people and we just went on a spree of finding hockey players.”
The team was a mix of local players and players from all over the country as well as the United States.
“We ended up putting a half-decent team on the ice that first year,” says Bruce.
“Then we started to figure it out and we’ve had some good success over the last seven years.”
Bruce’s philosophy is to have a hands-off approach to running the day-to-day on-ice part of the operation.
“The only thing we tell our staff is that we are here for one reason only, and that is to win. That’s what we attempt to do every year. We don’t get involved in who’s on the power play or where we think a certain kid should play, that’s up to our staff. We pay them to do that and we expect them to do that to the best of their abilities and at the end of the day, they will be graded on wins. And not win and loss record, we want to WIN.”
The Powassan Voodoos won their first NOJHL championship in April of 2017 as they swept their way through the playoffs going 12-0.
From avocados to hockey championships, Bruce reflects on two of his businesses ventures and says he wouldn’t have gotten there without being surrounded by good people.
“I had a lot of good people around me, I always have. I was fortunate to have a lot of good tutors in my younger age and in my other businesses. Maybe I was lucky to get with the right companies and meet the right people, but I was always fortunate that people took a liking to me and were willing to sit down with me and show me the ropes and I’m forever grateful for those people because I’m not sure where I would be without them.”
In part two of this feature, we’ll look at Bruce’s ownership of Average Joes and his ownership of racing horses.
If you have a story idea for Jobs of the Future, send Matt an email at [email protected]