St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2021

Mark Jansen ’90 is leading the world’s largest almond producing company.

Mark Jansen ’90, photographed at North Fork American River near Loomis, California, by Frederic Neema / Polaris

Mark Jansen spent part of a 2010 family vacation in Mexico pondering what might be next for him, career-wise. At the time, he was president of global foodservice for the Schwan Food Company in Marshall, Minnesota.

“When you’re busy working, sometimes you need a break to pull your head above the clouds and think,” he says. He filled five pages of paper with detailed descriptions of an imagined, ideal next step — the type of company, his role in it, its culture and location, that sort of thing.

Like any good businessman on vacation, he called in to check his messages, listening to a headhunter asking him to interview for the chief executive officer position of Blue Diamond Growers, a California-based almond growing cooperative that is the world’s largest tree nut processing and marketing company.

The offer checked all of the boxes on Jansen’s list, so he and his family soon relocated to Sacramento, California, where he began his tenure as Blue Diamond’s president and CEO.

“This sounds really New Agey, but it was almost as though I called the job,” says Jansen, who is no stranger to the branded retail and foodservice business. “After years of working on pizza, pies, and ice cream, I was compelled to encourage people to consume a more healthful product.”

With its line of products including many varieties of snack almonds, Nut Thins gluten-free crackers, and almond milk, flour, and protein powder, Blue Diamond is an industry-leading $1.6 billion global branded food manufacturer, cooperating with more than 3,000 small, multigenerational farm families and employing 1,800 workers in its processing facilities.

“As CEO, I have a servant-leadership mindset, to step in where help is needed, to figure out how to create additional opportunities, solve problems, and bring people together to work more effectively,” Jansen says. “So much of being a CEO is about communicating the vision of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

While he’s cognizant that sales and profitability are the key metrics of success at any business, Jansen notes that those aren’t the measure of his own achievements. “I like to think about the enduring changes we’ve made to ensure the vitality of the business,” he says. “Whether it’s the products we’ve launched or the farmers we’ve kept going or the diversity we’ve brought to our leadership, those are the things that matter and that will have a strong ripple effect.”

The beauty of St. Olaf’s diversity of classes is that they create varied pathways for learning. Across the spectrum, I learned how to adapt and how to work well with other people, all while developing strong communication, writing, and analytical skills.

In April 2021, the Sacramento Business Journal named Jansen one of the region’s Most Admired CEOs. His executive commitments have included leadership roles with the California Chamber of Commerce, including chairing its Executive Committee, International Forum, and Audit Committee. He is on the Board of Trustees for the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council, chairs the Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership, and serves on the Almond Board of California. Jansen also serves on the Advisory Council for the Presiding Bishop of ELCA, and is on the board of Gemini, a signage company based in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, that is owned by his college roommate Frederick Oss ’90.

Prior to Blue Diamond, Jansen’s career included nearly 10 years at Schwan’s and marketing stints with Pillsbury, Edison Brothers Stores, and General Mills. He has led brand growth for Haagen-Dazs, Betty Crocker, Totino’s, Red Baron, Freschetta, and Wolfgang Puck, among others. He earned an economics degree at St. Olaf and an M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.

Jansen notes that his education at St. Olaf laid the foundation for his success in business, molding a nimble and fluid mindset that taught him to be comfortable with ambiguity. “My experiences at St. Olaf exposed me to different ways of thinking,” he says, which prepared him to work alongside people with diverse skill sets and life experiences, from farmers and food scientists to creatives, financial advisors, and operations and plant managers.

“I was drawn to St. Olaf because of the idea of studying abroad and because of the opportunity to study multiple subjects, from chemistry to economics to international relations,” says Jansen, adding that he was later surprised at how much he also enjoyed classes in religion and psychology. He spent a semester studying East-West business relations “during the early days of perestroika” through a DIS program in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jansen and his wife of 27 years, Carolyn, are proud that their children — Holly ’17, Lindsey ’21, and Noah (possibly ’27) — are following in the St. Olaf tradition.

“The beauty of St. Olaf’s diversity of classes is that they create varied pathways for learning,” Jansen says. “Across the spectrum, I learned how to adapt and how to work well with other people, all while developing strong communication, writing, and analytical skills.” Jansen’s passion for marketing was noticed by Professor Kathy Gardner Chadwick, who stoked that interest.

Those skills were enough for Jansen to get his foot in the door at General Mills, where he landed his first job as a marketing analyst. “I had a basic understanding of computers and data analysis, so General Mills took a chance on me,” he says.

That first position set the trajectory for Jansen’s 30-year career in marketing and the retail food industry. “Over time, you discover what you enjoy doing, what gets you excited to go to work each day,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate through the vast majority of my work experience to be eager to get to the office. I don’t even mind being woken up in the middle of the night thinking about something, whether it’s a challenge or an opportunity. That’s what keeps me going.”