Blue Diamond Growers president and chief executive officer Walt Payne is retiring from the Sacramento, Calif., cooperative effective January 2001.

Payne came to Blue Diamond in 1973 from Exxon Corp. with a Stanford MBA in marketing and finance. Almond crops then averaged 150 million pounds. The 1999 crop was a record 830 million pounds.

During his tenure, the cooperative's return to growers has gone from $64 million to $257 million. Member equity has grown from $26 million to $86 million. Membership now totals almost 4,000.

Today almonds are California's largest and the nation's sixth largest food export.

Payne leaves in the wake of a record crop that boosted sales by nearly 30 percent. Exports are ahead in every major market, including China which quadrupled its purchases.

Payne said he is "very optimistic" about the future, especially in the export market where international trade barriers continue to fall.