Business

This born-and-raised SLO County cattle rancher found a perfect fit in Hearst Ranch

Ben Higgins, right, is director of agricultural operations at Hearst Ranch. Lindsay Miller, left, is the guest services manager.
Ben Higgins, right, is director of agricultural operations at Hearst Ranch. Lindsay Miller, left, is the guest services manager. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Ben Higgins brought a diverse background to his job as director of agricultural operations at Hearst Corp. — one that Steve Hearst said made him an ideal fit for the way the company continues to grow and diversify.

Higgins was born and raised in San Luis Obispo to a Swiss-Italian family that has been raising cattle around Cayucos and Cambria since the early 1900s. His grandfather was once a cowboy at Hearst Ranch and “tells plenty of wild stories about the place,” Higgins said.

As a San Luis Obispo High School student, Higgins often worked on weekends at family ranches. About the same time, he was given his first job from Jim Brabeck, CEO at Farm Supply — a job he kept while obtaining a degree at Cal Poly in agribusiness with a policy concentration.

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Still, Higgins never envisioned a career in production agriculture.

“My interests always tended toward policy, law and business,” he said.

After graduating from Cal Poly, he headed to Sacramento in search of a job in his desired field.

“I made cold calls. I knocked on doors. I slept on a friend-of-a-friend’s couch,” he said.

His tenacity paid off. He served for a year as director of public affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association, one of the largest agricultural trade organizations in the state. He was then promoted to executive vice president, a post he held for 2 1/2 years.

In 2006, Higgins was appointed by President George W. Bush as state director of the United States Department of Agricultural (USDA) Rural Development to manage delivery of more than 40 programs in areas such as affordable housing, renewable energy, infrastructure and local development. He said he was responsible for developing efficiencies that increased program activity to $550 million from $405 million, despite a static or even decreasing budget.

From 2009 to 2010, Higgins was chief operating officer for the California Rangeland Trust, the largest agricultural land trust that happens to be the organization that holds and supervises the Hearst Corporation’s conservation easement.

A year before his USDA appointment, Higgins married Rochelle, a marketing and advertising consultant. The first of their two daughters was born in 2006.

Eager to return to family-friendly San Luis Obispo County, Higgins took a position in 2010 as director of government affairs for Mainstream Energy Corporation in San Luis Obispo, the parent company of REC Solar and AEE Solar.

According to Lee Johnson, economic development manager for the city of San Luis Obispo and former CEO of Mainstream Energy, Higgins was a lobbyist also in charge of staying abreast of all legislation that could impact the solar industry. He noted that Higgins was responsible for arranging a key meeting between solar companies and Gov. Jerry Brown. Johnson praised Higgins’s management skills, interpersonal skills, strategic thinking and knowledge of the legislative process.

While employed by Mainstream Energy, Higgins was contacted by the Hearst Corporation when longtime manager Cliff Garrison announced his retirement in early 2013. Higgins’ combined experience in agriculture, conservation and solar energy “gave Ben a big edge,” Hearst said. “Ben was head and shoulders above the other candidates that we interviewed.”

Ben Higgins

Age: 38

Title: Director of agricultural operations for Hearst Corp.

Family: Wife Rochelle and two daughters, Audrey (10) and Mary (7)

Residence: A Julia Morgan-designed, Hearst-owned home at the beach near San Simeon Cove

Favorite Hobby: Off-road motorcycling

Favorite Apps: Google Earth, MotionX-GPS, TurboScan

Biggest Influence: “Great leaders. From Jim Brabeck (president and CEO of Farm Supply) when I was a young man to John Braly (former executive vice president of the California Cattlemen’s Association) and a host of other cattlemen and women around the state during the early part of my career, to Steve Hearst today. I’m inspired and motivated by committed, generous individuals who get it done for their families, their businesses and their community.”

Professional Affiliations:

  • Board of Directors, California Future Farmers of America Foundation
  • Member, California State Fair Agriculture Advisory Council
  • Leopold Conservation Award — Member, California Blue Ribbon Panel
  • Member, Cal Poly Animal Science Advisory Council
  • Tribune Top 20 Under 40 Winner in 2013
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