By Lea Hart
When he enrolled in North Carolina State University’s College of Management, Daniel Malechuk (’03) didn’t picture himself working in the food industry, but he couldn’t be more proud today of his role in the future of sustainable farming.
Malechuk was named CEO of Kalera in 2019. Based in Orlando, Florida, Kalera grows leaf plants – mainly lettuce – in a vertical farming system inside clean room facilities. That means no pesticides or genetic modification, and the process uses five percent of the water that traditional farms use.
A video on Kalera’s website notes that 80 percent of land suitable for farming in the U.S. is already in use. Due to the growing population, it’s expected that the U.S. will need to produce 70 percent more food by 2050.
What’s more, the video goes on to point out that 95 percent of U.S. produce is grown in Arizona and California, and can take weeks to reach the consumer. That depletes vitamins, increases the risk of spoiling and the risk of contamination. Kalera’s approach localizes farming, bringing the product closer to the community.
From dreams of working in the sky to a career working for the planet
Malechuk enrolled at NC State with dreams of being an aviator. He was the recipient of a prestigious Park Scholarship and began a major in aerospace engineering. However, he enrolled prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and felt, post 9-11, that an aviation career didn’t look as promising.
At the same time, a mentor of his in the College of Management (now Poole College of Management), Professor Art Padilla, regularly encouraged him to consider a business degree instead. When he made the switch, Malechuk said he knew he’d made the right choice.
“I fell in love with the business degree,” he said.
Upon graduation, he went to work for Aldi USA as a district manager and quickly climbed the ladder to become director of corporate buying. While Malechuk didn’t plan to work in the food industry, he said he was excited by the management profile and career opportunities that it presented to him at such a young age.
His next role took him around the globe as vice president at Keysource Foods, a seafood company. He saw shrimp harvested in Vietnam and traveled on mussel boats off the coast of Ireland.
What’s so unique about a business degree and what I love about it is, it can open so many doors; it is one of the broader degrees
“What’s so unique about a business degree and what I love about it is, it can open so many doors; it is one of the broader degrees,” Malechuk said. “I don’t think I could have appreciated how true that is.”
During that time, Malechuk and his family had the opportunity to live in Apex, NC and he never forgot the Wolfpack, enjoying season tickets to athletic events.
He was recruited from there to run the retail division for Shamrock Foods, and his family moved to Arizona. During his time there, Malechuk pursued his executive MBA from the University of Arizona.
When the opportunity at Kalera presented itself, Malechuk admits he had never heard of vertical farming before, but he jumped at the opportunity for many reasons.
“This was a really exciting opportunity to, one, do something so cutting-edge, and two, to have that first opportunity to be CEO,” he said.
While his title is CEO, Malechuk calls himself something else most days.
“Right now, I call myself a farmer,” he says with a laugh.
But it’s fine with Malechuk, who ties it back to NC State’s roots as an agriculture school.
“I’m excited about feeding people,” he said. “It’s a noble cause and a great reason to get up in the morning.”
Demand and growth mean opportunity at Kalera
It’s also a great time to be leading Kalera. The company has a fascinating history. Its founders had initially worked on several different projects, including being a part of a sustainable city located in Florida, before pivoting to focus on indoor farming.
“Historically, produce is farmed outside,” Malechuk said. “It’s susceptible to weather, fires, contaminants and more – it’s been a challenge.”
As sophisticated as the supply chain has become, he points out that there is also the issue of transporting and delivering it.
By growing produce locally, Kalera changes that business model. The company is currently expanding rapidly with facilities up and running in Orlando, FL and Atlanta, GA , where they have produced 12 times more leafy greens than the entire state of Georgia produced a year earlier. They’re expanding to Houston, Seattle and Honolulu to name just a few other locations, and recently took the company public on the European stock exchange, with plans for a NASDAQ IPO in the U.S. in the future.
I can’t imagine not having exposure and access to culture, people, learning and new experiences. I don’t know that I could have appreciated how much a business degree could give me those opportunities.
It’s been an opportunity for Malechuk professionally in more ways than one. The company was very small when he joined, and he’s had the opportunity to build a team and a culture from the ground up.
“It really has challenged me in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s been a lot of neat and unique opportunities.”
Though it’s a very different path than the one he envisioned as a high school graduate enrolling at NC State, it fits Malechuk’s personality. As someone who has always had a sense of wanderlust, his various roles have taken him through all 50 states and 67 countries. While it’s not as a pilot, it still provides the same sense of satisfaction.
“I can’t imagine not having exposure and access to culture, people, learning and new experiences,” he said. “I don’t know that I could have appreciated how much a business degree could give me those opportunities.”
Tying it all back to NC State
Malechuk says his degree from NC State has been critical to his current success. He concentrated in marketing in his undergraduate, and said he’s applied everything he learned at NC State at some point during his career. And that includes experiences outside his degree framework as well.
“I don’t know that there was anybody that enjoyed their time at NC State more than I did,” he said.
He took extra Physical Education courses just because he enjoyed them, including scuba diving, and even put that to use during a business trip.
Malechuk was active with the Park Scholars. He calls that experience life-changing, noting the doors it opened and the opportunities it provided for mentorship and relationship-building. He’s hired and hopes to continue to hire NC State students and Park Scholars at Kalera as well.
He was president of the Bragaw Hall Council, served as a resident advisor, was active in the Catholic Campus Ministry, and participated in intramural sports, to name a few other activities.
“Through all of those things, the friendships that you develop and the maturing that you go through – that’s equally as important as the degree,” he said. “It helped me understand how to multi-task and become a dynamic leader in multiple different avenues.”
Malechuk and his wife of 15 years live in Florida currently with their four children, three girls and a boy.
While he is clearly invested in his career, Malechuk is also a big believer in balance and works as a team with his wife in that respect. He strives for balance among what he calls “the five F’s:” faith, family, friends, fitness and finances, saying he always tries to be cognizant that putting too much into one takes away from the others.
He and his family are active in their Catholic Church, and Malechuk enjoys fishing and boating. He got certified in Scuba Diving through NC State, still loves to travel and loves being active.
And, though he didn’t become a career aviator, he has his pilot’s license and enjoys flying.
While he’s committed to Kalera right now, Malechuk hopes things may come full circle one day in the future.
“I would love, perhaps someday, to become a professor in the business school at NC State,” he said. “I’d like to have that same experience of mentoring and leading students that I received, and to replicate what I had from some of the great professors there.”