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Intertwined: Col. John Tree has blended his civilian and military lives into two successful careers

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a regular series of articles that will highlight the unique capabilities that Air Force Reservists bring to the fight every day. Make sure to check out future issues of the magazine for more Profiles in Leadership.)

Most Air Force Reservists lead a double life. They have their full-time civilian career and part-time military career, and they keep the two separate. Then, there are Reservists like John Tree, who manage to intertwine their civilian and military careers in a unique way that is beneficial for both their civilian employer and the Air Force.

As a civilian, Tree has carved out an extremely successful career in the food industry, holding key positions with companies like Procter & Gamble and Kellogg's along the way. For the Air Force, Tree has built a successful career in the logistics field, reaching the rank of colonel and culminating in his current position as the senior Reservist to the director of resource integration at the Pentagon.

Combining his functional experience in marketing and brand management gained from the food industry along with 24 years of experience in logistics and acquisition management with the Air Force has led Tree to his current civilian position as chief executive officer of Raymond Express International, a global leader in produce and the perishables shipping industry.

"We procure and ship produce to Asia, where we then merchandise it in grocery stores," Tree said during a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles office, "so it's the perfect blend of food marketing and logistics. I've primarily had a logistics career in the Air Force and a food marketing career on the outside, but there had always been a firewall between the two. What I find enjoyable about running Raymond Express is that it's food marketing and logistics all in one company. It kind of brings both of my careers together as a capstone."

Looking back, Tree said it's interesting to see how his two careers have mirrored each other and benefited each other over the years.

"I was able to manage two careers with both of them progressing at about the same pace," he said, "and I always felt like there was some good cross-pollination going on.

"I took some of the best practices from my civilian employers like P&G and Kellogg's and brought them to different military jobs I had. For five years, I was at AFMC (Air Force Material Command) headquarters as an acquisition IMA (individual mobilization augmentee), and during that time, I got to work with a lot of senior leaders and share with them some of the things I was learning on the civilian side. They found this to be quite useful, and it helped shape some of their business processes for the command.

"Then I got to be a squadron commander at Charleston (Air Force Base, South Carolina) for three years, and I was able to take a lot of the leadership I learned in command and bring it back to my civilian life. The command experience made me a much better civilian manager."

Tree commanded the 38th Aerial Port Squadron from 2005 to 2008.

"Throughout my career, it's gone both ways," he said. "I think I've been a better Reservist because I've had a meaningful civilian career, and I think I've been better in civilian life because I've had a meaningful military career."

It hasn't always been easy. As the CEO of Raymond Express, Tree has to travel to Asia on a regular basis, and it's nearly a six-hour flight to the Pentagon whenever he has to perform his Reserve duty. Add in a wife and five kids ranging in age from 2 to 15 and the fact that Tree was recently selected as a member of the board of directors for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, and it's hard to find enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to get done.

"It definitely gets a little crazy at times with scheduling everything," Tree said. "Traveling to Asia and back and forth to the Pentagon requires a lot of collaboration. The best part about traveling these days is that with iPhones and the FaceTime app, I get to video conference with my wife and kids every day. It really makes me feel more connected to the family and alleviates some of the stress of being away, especially for the younger boys who don't understand where I've gone or when I'll be back."

Tree brings his vast military experience to work with him every day at Raymond Express, and he brings his vast civilian experience with him to his military career and to the AAFES board of directors meetings.

"It was a huge honor to be appointed to the AAFES board," he said. "AAFES has a very talented management team, led by a civilian CEO. My business experience and background help me make meaningful contributions to this $10 billion-a-year company with stores across all Army and Air Force bases worldwide."

Tree was an Air Force brat growing up. His father was a career Air Force fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Vietnam for a year.

"There were six kids in my family growing up, and I was the oldest son," he said. "For as long as I can remember, my dad told me I was going to the Air Force Academy, whether I wanted to or not. That's probably not the best sales pitch my dad could have given me, but, happily, by the time I graduated from high school I had developed my own desire to go the Academy as well. I enjoyed my time there, graduating in May of 1990, and have been in the Air Force ever since."

Tree spent seven years on active duty and then made the switch to the Reserve. Along the way, he earned a master of business administration degree in marketing from Chaminade University in Honolulu and a master's degree in economics from the University of Oklahoma. He served as an assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble and a senior brand manager and then a marketing director at Kellogg's. He went on to create a national beverage company and become the president of a regional granola company and then serve as president of Caymen Ventures, a firm focused on identifying middle market companies for sale in the consumer goods, food and beverage, logistics, and supply chain sectors. Backed by private equity sponsors, its due diligence efforts culminated in a successful transaction of Raymond Express International in Feb 2013, which he then joined as the CEO, moving his family from Chicago to Los Angeles.

As a Reservist, Tree has held positions as a traditional Reservist, an Academy liaison officer and an IMA. In his current position, he back-fills for the director of the Air Force's Resource Integration Directorate, which is responsible for Air Force logistics, installations and mission support long-range planning, strategic support planning and associated policies. The directorate prepares, executes and manages programs totaling $21 billion annually for aircraft, missiles, munitions, equipment, vehicles, infrastructures and facilities.

Tree likes to tell young Airmen who he comes in contact with that it's possible to have success in both the military and in civilian life.

"As I mentor a lot of younger Airmen, both officer and enlisted, the biggest thing I realize when I look back is that I have been better at both sides because of the other side. The burden and challenges of being in the Reserve and trying to coordinate everything is definitely worth it because it will make you better. Not only do you get a chance to serve our country and work with very talented professionals, but you also get tangible skills that are valued on the outside. You become a more interesting person. When people tell me that maintaining two careers is too hard or it's too much to do, I try to share this perspective with them and hopefully motivate them to keep at it. For me it has definitely been worth it."