In the latest iteration of FoodNavigator-USA’s What do you do interview series, we talk with the boss of organic ancient grain specialist Ancient Harvest about the challenges of long-distance (work) relationships, his move from banking to CPGs and what it takes for a product to hit it big.
Tell us what you do as CEO of Ancient Harvest.
I set the strategic foundation for the company and ensure that we stay true to our brand values in everything that we do, from products and advertising to sourcing and purchasing. I also spend a great deal of my time determining what our next areas of growth will be, and how we plan to innovate to meet consumer needs.
How did you get into the food industry? Tell us about your background.
About 30 years ago, I began my career in relationship banking working with companies a lot like Ancient Harvest. When I decided I wanted a change from my career in finance, I went back to school to earn my Masters in Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson Graduate School.
I started my food industry career working for Nestle Foods in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I worked with Nestle for 10 years before I was fortunate enough to be recruited to Boulder, CO, to work for Celestial Seasonings. After a few years, I left Celestial Seasonings to hone my skills in marketing and business development for a start-up commerce site, then went on to serve as president of a backpack and apparel company, and founded a strategic consulting firm specializing in growth strategy, innovation and positioning for consumer packaged goods brands.
Eventually, I found myself back at Celestial Seasonings as the chief marketing officer, but a little over a year ago, after gaining many years of experience in general management, marketing and finance, I left Celestial Seasonings to serve as CEO for Ancient Harvest.
What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts about your job?
The best part of my job is building one of the best teams in the industry. Ancient Harvest has a great culture, and the most fabulous group of committed team members I have ever worked with.
One of the most challenging aspects of my job has been maintaining the strong relationships Ancient Harvest has nurtured in South America over the last few decades. The tremendous distance between Boulder and Bolivia along with the language barrier are the biggest obstacles, but it’s important to continue fostering the relationships the company has built with our Bolivian farming communities in order to maintain a steady source of high-quality supply of our flagship ingredient, quinoa.
The incredible growth in the popularity of quinoa has created fantastic growth potential along with a lot of competition in the market. As a leading brand producing organic, gluten-free quinoa and pasta products in the US, maintaining category leadership in those core categories while introducing new organic, gluten-free, ancient grain products to the market is another challenge that keeps our team on our toes every day.
If you could have one do-over in your entire career, what would that be?
While I had a great time and learned a lot during my time in banking, I know that starting my career in consumer food and beverage product marketing even earlier would be my do-over. I love this industry and my job a great deal!
What does it take for a product to hit it big, as quinoa has in recent years?
There are a few elements that need to be in place for a product to hit it big. First and foremost, the product has to deliver on a consumer need. As an ancient grain, quinoa provides an unadulterated, organic (non-GMO) product that has all nine essential amino acids, which makes it a complete source of plant-based protein.
Another major component to ensuring a product’s success is the ability of a product to allow the consumer to truly see and feel the results they are seeking. Quinoa, a naturally gluten-free grain, is safe for to those who suffer from celiac disease, but also satisfying to others who either have gluten sensitivity or are simply choosing to live a healthy lifestyle. In speaking with our consumers, we consistently hear that they feel lighter and more energetic as a result of adopting a gluten-free lifestyle.
Has working in the food industry changed your own food philosophy at all?
My years in the food industry have taught me many things. Most importantly, the food industry is still a people business. Relationships are formed and opinions are generated based on how you decide to act as a company and at home. Being honest, transparent and willing to make sure that there is a way for everyone to benefit have been my keys to success, and concepts that I try to teach the people I work with.
Consumers want to connect with brands that stand for something other than just a product, whether it’s the story of the brand’s foundation or the efforts brands are making to give back. At Ancient Harvest, we support the Bolivian farming communities that we work with. We assist the farmers in achieving organic certifications and offer programs that educate the farmers on using efficient and sustainable farming practices to protect the land they own and cultivate.
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