Califonia Bountiful

Helping hands

Apr./May 2012 California Bountiful magazine

Mentors provide entry-level employees room to grow.

Fazia Williams, above, and cousin Sabrina Salzone, below, have blossomed at Kallisto Greenhouses in San Bernardino County with guidance and training from owners Jim and Kathye Rietkerk.

Sabrina Salzone and Jim Rietkerk

When Sabrina Salzone immigrated to the United States from Guyana, she knew nothing about tropical plants. At 18, her work experience was limited to some office work in her home country and a short stint at a fast food chain when she reached California with the rest of her family.

She heard about a part-time opening at Kallisto Greenhouses, an indoor tropical plant company in San Bernardino County, and soon had an entry-level position in plant propagation.

"After a few days, I thought, 'I can't do this,'" Salzone said. "It was tedious and physical work and I wasn't used to that."

She was about to give up, but stuck it out, in part due to the encouragement she received from co-owner Jim Rietkerk, who convinced her to eventually seek a position in sales. Twenty-six years later, Salzone is still at Kallisto—as head of sales.

"I didn't have much experience," she said. "I learned everything from Jim."

Salzone represents many other immigrants who came to this country—looking for better opportunities—and were lucky enough to find a supportive environment where their hard work and determination to learn could flourish. She said the time and energy invested in her by Jim Rietkerk and his wife Kathye makes her feel like an integral part of the 36-year-old company.

"I feel valued," Salzone said. "This is where I'm staying."

When Salzone's cousin Fazia Williams came to California a couple years later, Salzone encouraged her to seek a position at Kallisto as well.

"I didn't know anything about plants, but I really liked it," Williams said.

She also spent time in propagation, then learned computer skills so she could move into a position in accounts receivable. Under the tutelage of Kathye Rietkerk, Williams began to blossom.

"If you knew me 20-something years ago, I was so shy, so quiet. I didn't talk," she said. "But I started dealing with the people and interacting and moving into sales. I never thought I'd be where I am today."

Brothers Pablo, Robert and Ciro Camargo have worked with Joe Valente, left to right, at Kautz Farms in San Joaquin County for more than 20 years.

Williams handles sales in the greenhouse, providing plants for interior landscape designers and florists, and buys other plants from different growers. She says she thrives on the customer interaction and being able to provide them with unusual specimens they may not have seen before.

"I love this job; I tell the customers I'll probably be here till I'm 80," Williams laughed.

Kathye Rietkerk said her company's success is directly linked to the success of her employees.

"These two employees (Williams and Salzone) put their full attention on learning and improving their skill set and figuring out a way they could fit into the company, grow inside the opportunities that were presented and advance to positions of responsibility," Rietkerk said. "Both contribute a vital part to our success."

From left, Pablo, Ciro and Robert Camargo work on a tractor in the Kautz Farms shop.

Hands-on learning
Joe Valente, manager for Kautz Farms in Lodi, knows the value of providing opportunities for his employees—whether it's teaching them how to weld, drive a big truck or run a grape harvester.

"Whatever it takes to improve their life ... if we treat them right, we know they're going to stay," Valente said.

That's exactly what happened after Robert Camargo started at Kautz Farms in 1987 as part of a field crew. He recognized a place where he and brothers Pablo and Ciro could advance into more skilled positions and be able to provide better opportunities for their families.

"When we started, we didn't know much about tractors, about forklifts," Camargo said. "We learned that all here."

Robert moved from the field into the shop and is now head mechanic for the grower of 7,500 acres of winegrapes and stone fruits. Ciro and Pablo attended truck-driving school to receive their Class A licenses. Depending on the season, they can be found hauling grapes or material for road repair, moving equipment, fixing trucks or replacing tires.

"We don't have a lot of job descriptions," Valente said. "Everyone does what needs to be done. It's like a team—like a family here. We all work together."

The Camargo brothers also attended night classes in their early years at Kautz Farms to learn how to read and write English.

"After working 10 hours, going to school for two hours at night ... it's hard to be away from family," Robert explained. "I'm still trying to learn. That's why we push and tell all the kids to try to do the best they can."

Nurturing success
Hard work is something Sal Soriano knows well. At age 16, with no English skills and without a high school diploma, Soriano followed his father to California from Mexico. His father had worked at Monrovia in Azusa since Soriano was in the fourth grade and helped him get a position on a pruning crew for ornamentals and perennials. That's where Soriano found his love for horticulture.

Thirty-seven years later, after working in nearly every possible job in the company, Soriano serves as vice president and nursery coach for Monrovia at the Visalia location he helped build from the ground up.

Sal Soriano, in blue shirt, started at Monrovia 37 years ago and now serves as vice president and nursery coach at the 1,000-acre Visalia location he helped build from scratch.

"When we came, the site had no plans, nothing," recalled Soriano, who also serves on the board of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. "We had to build from scratch. So we were digging trenches, developing buildings, pulling electrical wire, you name it, we had to do all that before we could start producing plants."

Soriano became vice president of Monrovia in 2001 and now oversees more than 725 employees who grow camellias, citrus, deciduous shrubs, evergreen shrubs, ferns, grasses, perennials, azaleas, roses, trees and vines. Along his journey, Soriano obtained an associate degree in horticulture from the College of the Sequoias.

Soriano, standing third from left, helped organize a company soccer team 20 years ago to help build camaraderie.

"I enjoy working with plants and learning about them—how to prune them, when to prune them, when they set flower buds and when they should be in full bloom," Soriano said. "All of that has been fascinating to me."

He credits several mentors at Monrovia with opening new career opportunities for him and pushing him to complete his education. And now, he provides that support to others.

"It's not bad to start from the bottom, to learn how the company functions, its environment," Soriano said. "They (new employees) will be able to tell if that's an employer they want to be loyal to and support."

He also encourages people new to this country to seek out networking opportunities such as English classes and sports teams. He helped organize a Monrovia soccer team about 20 years ago and credits the experience with building a sense of camaraderie among fellow immigrants.

"When people are taken care of, they don't just turn around and take off—people stay," Soriano said. "There are hundreds of people who stay here (at Monrovia) for a minimum of 10 to 20 years. Sometimes it isn't easy, but people can tell when they are recognized—it doesn't have to be something huge—and they give you results."

Trina Wood


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