Startup Kalahari Biltong brings in ‘hired gun’ CEO to speed scaling process, navigate crowded category

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Startup Kalahari Biltong brings in ‘hired gun’ CEO to speed scaling process, navigate crowded category

Related tags Biltong Meat snacks

For most company founders, the thought of handing over – or even just sharing – control of their startup with an ‘outsider’ is a non-starter, but bringing in a ‘hired gun’ who knows the industry ropes can help a young brand scale successfully more quickly, according to the team behind Kalahari Biltong.

“There comes a point in time when, as a founder or co-founder, you have to have some honest internal discussions … about the reality that there are only so many hours in the day and a lot of things to juggle – especially as a company grows. And if you have big aspirations … it is not a bad thing to evaluate and see you might need help in certain areas,”​ Tyler Noyes, one of three co-founders of the meat snack company Kalahari Biltong, told FoodNavigator-USA.

He explained that after three years of building Kalahari Biltong with his co-founders Brett Johnston and Robinson Ginsburg, the trio realized they needed “outside help”​ to bring their company up to the next level. After a thorough search for someone who has “seasoned, savvy expertise and knowledge,”​ but also “would mesh with us from a values and vision basis”​ Noyes said the team is excited to welcome industry veteran Chris Hickey to the fold as the company’s new CEO.

“From day one, there was an instant connection with Chris that we felt and … we really believe a partnership with him will help give us better odds of achieving our goals and aspirations for the company,”​ Noyes said.

Hickey said he also felt a “visceral connection”​ to Noyes, Johnston and Ginsburg, which he noted is rare in situations where a company is looking for a “hired gun,”​ but which he also said was a key factor in his decision to take on this position.

“A common mistake that people like me, hired gun CEOs, often make is we can get too pragmatic about these opportunities. And what I mean by that is, sometimes it is really easy to say, ‘the task is to take company A from point B to point C and we are going to exit for D,’ and if you think about it that way, I think, you kind of lose from the outset,”​ Hickey said.

He further explained that when everyone on the team shares an authentic and sincere passion for what the company is trying to achieve, the synergy will help fuel success faster. For example, he noted, the strong connection he already feels with the founding team gives him the confidence to immediately open his broader network to them.

“I have only been emboldened by our experience so far and what that allows me to do is bring to this company and to this partnership all the strength of my 15 to 20 years of relationships that I have developed prior to this experience… and I am willing to open up my network to … really help this business grow quickly,”​ Hickey said.

Balancing passion and pragmatism

While a shared passion was a unique draw for both men, they also realize that pragmatic experience is still essential. And Hickey brings that in spades.

Prior to joining Kalahari, Hickey was the CEO of the nutrition bar company No Cow and the protein powder brand The Isopure Company – both high-growth and disruptive businesses operating in crowded categories.

He explains that the lessons he learned in those roles will serve Kalahari well as it seeks to disrupt the already crowded meat snack category by bringing in a traditional South African twist on jerky that is air-dried, which means it has a higher protein content and less sugar than many of the more conventional American counter parts.

“Tyler and I are really optimistic that 2019 is going to be the year of biltong, but for Kalahari to win within that, it is incumbent on us to build a really meaningful brand that people and partners want to be associated with. And that is not dissimilar to world of bars, which is an ultra-competitive category, and certainly the world of protein powders, too,”​ Hickey said.

He added, “the category dynamics are pretty similar – all our high growth categories with lots of great brands and competitors, and that means the onus is on us to kind of build our brand uniquely within that space and really strike a chord”​ with consumers.

Three steps to success

To do that, Hickey said the company will focus on three distinct strategies in the coming years.

“Priority one is you have to build your brand and because this is a relatively nascent category with low awareness, we are going to have to focus on education and great partnerships,”​ he said.

The second step will be to increase availability across different channels, including the natural, convenience and online channels.

“We need to be where people are looking for these types of products, and we have a commitment to each of those retailers to build velocity through thoughtful programming,”​ Hickey said.

And finally, he said, “further down the road, we are excited to build a platform behind Kalahari and we have got some pretty exciting and very disruptive innovations that we are already thinking through at this stage.”

He added, “what is coming next is going to be really, really exciting and we think truly game changing. So, we don’t want consumers and our partners to think about Kalahari as a three SKU business. It is starting out that way, but it is sure to flourish from there.”

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