By the time Joel Silva was in high school, he could play almost every Eagles song on the guitar. He entered college as a music major and was sure he had the talent to go far as a performer. But then he had an epiphany. “There were guys who were ten times better than me, and they were struggling to find gigs,” he recalls.
The realization set Silva on a new path. Although music would always be a hobby, it wasn’t the right career. He pivoted to another passion—finance—and has spent the last thirty years accruing international experience at big firms and leading corporations.
Silva inherited both talents from his father, a self-taught musician and certified public accountant. For the young Latino, music was a way to preserve culture. He grew up in south Texas, just fifteen miles north of the Mexican border, speaking English as his native language but with grandparents who only spoke Spanish. Silva, who also spoke Spanish at an early age, says he felt torn between two cultures and was determined to stay connected to his elders through their language and love of Mexican music.
Today, Silva is corporate controller and chief accounting officer at Calavo Growers Inc. (CVGW), the publicly traded food products company best known for jump-starting the California avocado industry nearly one hundred years ago. He’s thriving in a role that brings together the unique blend of global expertise he’s built over three decades.
Silva passed the CPA exam in 1982 and started his career at the legendary accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, where a rigorous training program gave him a solid foundation on how to manage people, mentor staff, deal with conflict, and manage client expectations. Silva was working on midsized projects when he got his big break. The head of the firm’s banking practice called to inquire about his Spanish language skills. Silva admitted that he hadn’t spoken much in his secondary tongue recently but received an important assignment nonetheless. He was to be on a plane for Mexico City the next day.
When the plane landed, Silva met his boss and learned that Arthur Andersen had acquired the third-largest Mexican financial group as a client—and proceeded to take them public in the United States after others had tried and failed to accomplish the feat. The firm’s leaders asked Silva to stay in Mexico and manage projects across Latin America, an opportunity that required him to draw upon his childhood experiences between two cultures. “It’s important for a global professional to navigate culture successfully and recognize when things need to be done differently outside the US,” Silva says. Although he was used to brief business meetings, he learned to appreciate doing business in Mexico, where negotiating only happens after a three-hour lunch with two tequilas and two beers.
After fifteen years at the firm, Silva found the perfect opportunity to combine his passions for music and his heritage when Universal Music Group tapped him to be its CFO for the Latin American region as it expanded into new markets. This opened new possibilities in other businesses, and Silva later worked at Jafra Cosmetics, where he worked with a boss who eventually brought him to his current company.
Calavo Growers went public in 2002 after eighty-plus years as a growers’ cooperative. Each year, the company sells millions of pounds of avocados grown in California, Mexico, and Peru. Twenty years ago, its leaders established a foods division that produces guacamole in Mexico. In 2012, Calavo acquired Renaissance Food Group, which sells freshly cut fruits and vegetables as well as prepared meals. Calavo’s yearly revenue tops $1 billion.
As corporate controller, chief accounting officer, and corporate secretary, Silva handles all global accounting matters, corporate controls, compliance functions, taxes, and cash management. While it might not seem obvious, Silva says there’s a direct connection between music and finance. “Good musicians learn how to improvise and be creative on the spot, and I’ve had to do that in business,” he explains. Members of his high-powered finance team are called upon by their counterparts in marketing, sales, and operations to come up with solutions.
For Silva, accounting goes beyond numbers on a spreadsheet—it’s a creative pursuit. He’s demonstrated the importance of this philosophy recently as he’s worked to help Calavo navigate difficulties related to tax audits and rulings regarding the company’s status as a maquiladora in Mexico. Calavo disagrees with certain assertions by the Mexican tax authorities regarding its operations, and Silva is working to find a path forward that will be acceptable to both Calavo’s board and Mexican tax authorities under existing legal and tax structures.
In 2021, Calavo announced Project Uno, a plan to restructure the company and rationalize operations to improve results, profitability, and efficiency. Silva is helping unify operations across three business units and has prepared by reorganizing his own department. In 2022, he’ll finish moving the accounting system into the cloud and will work to start upgrading an aging ERP system.
Silva says each day is challenging but rewarding. Although Calavo is facing some major challenges, he’s in a place to use his financial and cultural expertise to find the right path forward. He ends each day at home with learning a song on the guitar or playing the baby grand piano in his living room. It’s similar to being at work—he just has to rely on his training and experience and trust intuition to take over.
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