In Memory of
James Lawrence Nolan
"Honesty, humor, loyalty and unquestionable integrity"
Jim Nolan was an icon within the fresh produce trade for over 30 years. He died suddenly of a heart attack on March 2, 2008 at the age of 61. Though his name may not be familiar to some, in his industry it has long been associated with honesty, humor, fierce loyalty and unquestionable integrity.
It was, in fact, these characteristics that finally led him to file a civil lawsuit against Ocean Spray, the company where he was domestic and international sales manager of the fresh fruit division until his early retirement in 2001. Jim died before the trial ended, but his wife Theresa kept up the fight to ensure Jim's determination to see justice done in their case was realized.
The “whistle-blower” suit alleged that Ocean Spray, which commands nearly 80% of the fresh cranberry market, violated anti-trust laws in 2000, circumventing Nolan in order to do so. The events following the alleged violation were described by trade publications as containing “so many twists and turns, it could be a movie.”
Bill Martin, wrote in The Produce News in 2007 about the trial saying, "In short, it’s about two people who say they tried in good faith to follow a company’s board-endorsed, written policy on antitrust compliance that its employees and sales agents are compelled to sign and agree to abide by under penalty of termination, imprisonment and fines for failure to do so."
Though the last years of Nolan’s life were almost literally consumed by the lawsuit, which stemmed from the adherence to principle that he was so well known for, he may be most remembered for the highly-acclaimed sense of humor that made him a favorite speaker at Ocean Spray’s annual national meetings, and frequently won him standing ovations.
According to a trade report after a 1993 meeting, “the 17-year Ocean Spray veteran had them rolling in the aisles with his dry delivery and witty remarks about what can happen when there’s not enough of a good thing [cranberries] to go around. He used a mock graph to show the number of times he has been ejected from irate retailers’ offices.” Nolan also related a variety of death threats he’d received when cranberry crops failed to meet retailers’ demand, and described having been chased by a machete-wielding customer who was enraged at the season’s shortfall.
“To be honest,” he once remarked, “the only thing I ever did in my life that was less pleasant than making trade calls under these circumstances was the time when I let a group of fellow students at the University of Oklahoma talk me into joining them on a rattlesnake hunt.”
That university is in fact where Jim Nolan received a BA and MA in journalism before beginning what seemed to be a promising newspaper career. But as he transitioned from a job as the editor of a daily newspaper in Missouri to Eastern regional manager of The Packer, a trade publication for the produce industry, he inched closer to the almost complete career change that would cast him as a player in the industry rather than merely a commentator.
As Nolan explained to one audience, “I joked to some former high school classmates whom I hadn’t seen for 20 years that the reason I left journalism to take a job peddling fresh cranberries was because I’d been in a bad accident and sustained some permanent brain damage. That backfired when these people, who knew nothing about the produce business, thought I was being serious.”
When he was being serious, Nolan’s contributions to the produce business were significant. He played a major role in helping Ocean Spray enter the fresh citrus market in 1984, and was later instrumental in increasing cranberry distribution in European markets.
Grant Hunt, whose global distribution company is an industry giant, had this to say about Nolan on the occasion of his 2001 retirement: “The fresh cranberry industry has weathered more than its fair share of storms of controversy, but throughout all the battles, one truism remained. The industry always kept its respect for Jim Nolan and the principles for which he stood. He was loyal to Ocean Spray to a fault and made every effort to protect the brand with retailers, even when he had to personally suffer the slings and arrows of the attacks on the company from the trade. Jim always put the success of the growers ahead of personal success with his career.”
Nolan did suffer slings and arrows—as well as machetes. But as he once commented only half-jokingly, “if you’re not willing to die for your company, then you shouldn’t be working for it in the first place.”
In May of 2009, a jury in Plymouth, Massachusetts vindicated the Nolans' battle to adhere to the highest eithical standards. The 13-member jury awarded them one million dollars in damages. That judgement was later raised to two million dollars by the judge presiding over the case.
The long fought case inspired Theresa Nolan to use some of the proceeds from the lawsuit to build awareness of the critical need for ethics in business and the workplace. The James and Theresa Nolan Family Foundation is the realization of that goal.