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How Baby Food Maker Plum Organics Scaled Up Without Giving Up on Social Responsibility

Meghan French Dunbar April 4, 2015

‘Plum Organics, based in Emeryville, California, is on a mission to provide healthy, organic food for babies and toddlers nationwide. After being acquired by Campbell Soup Company in 2013, the company has quickly scaled to become one of the largest organic baby and toddler food brands in the US. Not only is the company a certified B Corp, but it legally became a Benefit Corporation after its acquisition – proving that mission-driven businesses are finally getting a seat at the table with larger organizations. Plum is a shining example of how a company can marry purpose with profit and not only maintain its core values after being acquired, but make an even larger impact by being part of a larger corporation. We spoke (and maybe even shed a tear or two) with CEO Neil Grimmer and Head of Mission Victoria Fiore about the company’s acquisition and its goals for the future.

 Neil, will you tell us the story of starting this amazing company?

Neil Grimmer: I have a very nontraditional business background; I have an undergraduate degree in fine art – specifically conceptual art – and a graduate degree in design. After design school, I went to IDEO, a design and innovation firm, and spent seven years there. While there, I started leading projects for McDonald’s, Pepsi, and a number of the big food companies trying to help them figure out what the future of food was, especially in relation to health and well-being.

This was 2000 to 2006, and a lot of these companies had what they would characterize as “fun-for-you foods,” and they were starting to come out with “better-for-you foods,” which were sort of big versions of the fun-for-you stuff. But there weren’t really any “good-for-you foods.” While I was working to really understand what “good-for-you” would look like in the context of some of these big companies, I had an epiphany. It was based around this idea that no matter what kind of food you create for some of these bigger food companies, if you don’t have a good company that lives underneath it, it’s not going to work. When you think about the early 2000s, you had Clif Bar and Patagonia really starting to push on these ideas and codify them into their businesses. Now we have stuff like B Corp that can help us solidify these notions, but, at the time, they were very emergent ideas. And I was completely transformed by them. You have to start with the building blocks – the culture, the company, the mission – to be able to create that end product to which people say, “Yeah, that’s healthy for me.”

Soon after that epiphany, I had the opportunity to jump from IDEO to Clif Bar, which was really practicing a lot of this stuff. I led strategy and innovation there for about a year and a half. The CEO of Clif Bar, Sheryl O’Loughlin, and I then spun out to start what is now Plum, and it was based on this set of building blocks and learning experiences that made us say, “Look, we want to create a company focused on better food for kids, but we want to do it with great design and sustainability in mind.” We really started to build it out like many of our peers and the brands that we love and respect that are probably also in this magazine. We wanted to build a foundation and demonstrate that business can do things radically different from the old guard, and that it should be a hallmark of the new economy in that it has purpose and profit intricately linked together.

That was the genesis for why we started what we started. We wanted to create an innovation engine that completely disrupted the market.


Will you talk a bit more about those sustainable business practices and your values and mission as an organization?

NG: Early on, we set a lofty goal that we wanted to be in every high chair and lunchbox in America. If we had a healthy product at either one of those two feeding occasions, it meant there would be less of the bad stuff, and we would actually materially be able to change the way that kids eat. Along the same lines, we realized that we’re not only selling baby food, but we’re actually shaping little palates for life. If we could introduce kids to the really good stuff at an early age, there’s an imprinting that happens where you can actually get them to start to love foods that you’d typically see “picky eaters” rejecting. As you start to think about the issue that we have of toddlers and then kids not adopting healthier foods, a lot of it starts from the first foods that we’re feeding our children.

One of our partners, Dr. Alan Greene – author and leading pediatric nutrition expert – started doing a lot of work around understanding the dynamics of palate development from the very first stage. His research found that typically parents will try to feed their kids foods like spinach only one or two times. If Johnny doesn’t like it, Johnny rejects it, and parents have this assumption that, “Well, he’s just not wired to like it.” What Dr. Greene unpacked in his research is that if you can break through the threshold of those two to three tries and expose your child to spinach six to ten times, there’s an 70 percent higher likelihood that they will adopt spinach in their diet as they grow up!

When we started thinking about that, we said, “OK, that takes our mission and our aspiration and our purpose of getting the very best foods to kids in the very first bite and puts some real teeth behind it – we can actually take action against that.” So, you’ll see that in many of our products, we’ll have spinach show up in two to three to four formats for an infant or a toddler to eat in a day, so they get repeated exposure to those tastes and we can build it out over time.

We’ve grown to become the number one organic baby food company in the United States, which has been incredible, and we have also been able to equally elevate our mission. Our food philosophy has driven our mission, and as we started getting broad penetration in most retailers around the country, we felt like we had checked off one part of our mission, which is giving all American families a choice for an organic option and having it available anywhere they go shopping for their kids’ food. At the same time, we realized that there were millions of kids that actually weren’t getting proper nutrition in this country and didn’t even have the opportunity to walk into one of those stores and buy an organic option or, in some cases, weren’t able to go in and buy any option. As we started really unpacking this, we realized that one out of five kids in America go hungry every day – roughly 16 million little ones in this country.

I remember sitting in a meeting with one of the largest national hunger organizations in the US and I asked the question, “Has anyone designed a product specifically to address the nutritional needs of hungry children, more specifically infants and toddlers, in the US?” And a woman from the organization basically said, “No, that’s an interesting idea, but partner with us and we’ll take your donations and we’ll translate it into food offerings.” We stepped back and said, “We could certainly donate money to organizations, but what would be more powerful is to take our innovation engine and actually create a new product that is designed for donation that includes macronutrients and is made with little ones in mind.” Our product, the Super Smoothie, is the result of that effort.

Originally, we launched Super Smoothies as a product exclusively to donate to little ones in need, but we kept it broad enough that it could be a great snack for kids or adults, because when you’re dealing with the issues of hunger and food insecurity throughout the country, you want it to be as accessible as possible.

Soon after launching this program, we donated about 500,000 Super Smoothies to select nonprofit partners, including Convoy of Hope. We started telling Target about this program and Target fell in love with the idea and so we co-created this notion of a buy-give program for every four pack of Super Smoothies. We pay for this out of our own budget. We took a quarter of a million dollars out of marketing and said, “Let’s do this instead of buying more advertisements.”

I think it was very successful for both the community that we were serving and for our employees, but it grounded us as a company, too. We now feel like we are holistically addressing this issue in a more meaningful way. It’s been cool to have this as a creative engine for our company around how we can marry the purpose and the profit of the business together.

Let’s dive into Plum’s acquisition by Campbell Soup Company, especially your decision to incorporate as a Benefit Corporation after you were acquired.

NG: In 2013, we were north of $80 million in sales. We had skyrocketed. We were one of the fastest-growing organic brands in the country. We were seemingly on everyone’s radar. There were a lot of mergers and acquisitions happening in the health and wellness space. I was probably spending 40 percent of my time fielding inbound inquiries from both national and international food companies and private equity investors. It was getting to the point where we had a fiduciary responsibility to address some of these things and look at some of our options. But, for me, I was far more focused on how to deliver on our mission, which is getting into every home in America. We felt like speed was a part of our drive from day one, thinking, “The faster we can build this company, the faster kids will have access to better food.”

Through the process of getting all of these inbound inquiries, we got exposed to Campbell. I had breakfast with Denise Morrison – the first female CEO of this 147-year-old company – and it was amazing. It was one of those moments where you realize that behind all of these big brands, there are people – and in this case an amazing person. Denise was just really wonderful. I sat down with her and she said, “I have two daughters and they have kids and my grandkids are not Gerber babies, they’re Plum babies.” She literally told me the story of how her daughters were raising their children on Plum and how she deeply understood the role that we were playing in young families’ lives. The business discussion certainly came up at some point in time during the breakfast, but we spent most of our time talking about the mission of the company, our shared interest in innovation, and how if you innovate in a way that fits with people’s lives, you can actually impact lives in a broader way. I left feeling like that particular company represented a different kind of dynamic for Plum and it ultimately was the choice that we made. As you can imagine, it was a very tumultuous process. There was a lot going on – within a one-month period, Happy Baby sold to Groupe Danone, Ella’s Kitchen Group sold to Hain Celestial, and Plum sold to Campbell. Having spent time with Paul from Ella’s Kitchen, who’s become a good friend of mine, we both felt like being acquired really gave us the opportunity to expand our missions.

Soon thereafter, I was sitting in a room with Mark Alexander, who was the President of Campbell North America at the time. This was day one with my new boss, and I have to say I was wicked nervous because I hadn’t had a true boss in a bunch of years. Mark was great though. We talked about the philosophy of keeping Plum distinct and whole and separate from the core, but also ways to leverage the core of Campbell to help drive our mission, productivity, and the business. On my punch list of things to discuss was becoming a Public Benefit Corporation . In this meeting, I started to describe what a Public Benefit Corporation was and why it was critically important to Plum. Mark did a lot of listening and head nodding, and at the end he said, “Well, it sounds very consistent with how you would have run your business if you weren’t owned by us, and it seems very integral to your mission, so let me take this back and connect with Denise, and we’ll get back to you.” Literally a day later, Denise and Mark called and said, “We’ve got a ton of questions, but we love this idea so let’s try to figure it out.” Three weeks later, we had new bylaws written for the company and we were a founding Public Benefit Corporation alongside our friends Method, New Leaf Paper, and Alter Eco. It was incredibly exciting.

To me, what it signified was that there’s a new kind of relationship that’s happening between big and small companies. I think we see it as an opportunity to take all of the things that we do that are fundamental to our business and bring those to the bigger organization – being a challenger brand, having mission and purpose at the core, and, quite frankly, having the bigger company help us grow and expand and scale in a way that allows us to deliver the quality that we need to deliver to families in this country. It’s different from acquisitions in this space 10 years ago when I think there were a lot of examples where it didn’t work very well, like with Kashi and Kellogg. I think there was a lot of disregard for the cultures and the purpose that were behind those brands and the big companies thought of them more as food product in a package. Now, there’s a new awareness that all of these things are actually in the DNA of what makes sustainable brands successful.

Could you speak to some of the challenges that you’ve faced with being acquired? For other mission-driven companies that are considering doing it or are in the process of doing it, what advice would you give them?

NG: I’ve always talked about speed being essential to us. When you work with a much bigger organization, regardless of who it is, it takes longer to get things done. You have multiple connection points – you have connections within different departments and then layers within those departments. When we were untethered, we were a very decisive decision-making organization. We’d do things quickly and get stuff done in a pretty meaningful way. So that’s been one thing that we’re kind of wrestling with. Some of those things, however, are really quite positive for our business. We now have more processes around operations, quality, and finance, which are the foundations of the business, and they’re making us a better company. While we can’t move as quickly as we would like, those kinds of foundational things are really helpful.

In terms of advice – what got us to where we are today is not what is going to get us to the next level. You can’t keep working on the engine while you’re racing around the track; you have to actually stop and build a different kind of vehicle that allows the company to scale.

Also, make sure that your values are locked into the core of the business. Whatever your fundamental business is about – the products you’re making or the services you’re providing – make sure that your mission is at the core of that so that if you deviate from your mission, you’ll be deviating from the value proposition of your brand. I think that’s going to be the hallmark of the new economy.

From a leadership perspective, do you feel that you’ve had to make any decisions for the sake of the business that haven’t been in line with your values?

NG: Never. Never. Businesses are dynamic. You’re always playing around with tension points, but we have never made a decision that has felt inconsistent with our values as a company. I think one of the things that we talk about a lot with Campbell is – and I think this is why there’s a new awareness around these kinds of partnerships now than there used to be – if we take steps in our business that erode the DNA of the company or that challenge our fundamental values, it will translate into lost profits. It will generate a loss of consumer faith and trust, which always leads to the slow decline of a brand. We have a shared value of always doing the right thing from a business ethics standpoint, but all of the other components of what we do at Plum that make us an authentic brand are all integral to our overall business performance. We try to make sure that those things are so linked together that if the brand lost its way, it would also lose its consumer base.

We have to ask about it – Campbell has a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. And you as a Benefit Corporation have a legal responsibility to your stakeholders. Do you ever foresee a conflict?

NG: No. I go back to what we do as a company. We drive shareholder value, full stop. The work that we do here is driving a deep, loyal, passionate consumer fan base, and that is driving shareholder value. I don’t actually see those things going against one another. Not only that, but Campbell actually does a lot of work to tackle hunger in America, as well. There’s a lot of alignment of values between our organizations around where we put our focus.

‘If we take steps in our business that erode the DNA of the company or that challenge our fundamental values, it will translate into lost profits.’

“Business needs to be personal in order to make the social and environmental changes that we need.”

What have been the unexpected benefits of being a part of Campbell? I know that Campbell has a CSR program. Have you been able to strengthen your sustainability practices as a result of the acquisition?

Victoria Fiore: In terms of sustainability, it’s been a big help. Dave Stangis is renowned for being one of the thought-leaders who’s doing the really tough job of getting into a big corporation and shifting things. It’s much easier to have a CSR job when you’re working for a values-based company, but when you’re working for a company that’s a little bit more traditional, it’s just remarkable work to create change. He has done a ton of work on environmental impact. His research has been really helpful to us, because here it’s just me and my colleague Becky who are trying to figure all this stuff out in terms of how we do it at scale, but we now have this huge resource center that’s been surprisingly beneficial.

Also, Campbell’s CSR department does a ton of work around hunger, and it specifically focuses on the communities where it has a presence. Camden, New Jersey is one of the poorest communities in America, and it’s where Campbell’s headquarters is. It has a ton of influence there with the nonprofit community, and we’re partnering to see if we can leverage some of Campbell’s resources to get some food in the communities that we’re helping.

I feel like a lot of people see an acquisition as selling out, but it seems like it’s actually amplifying your impact. Do you feel the same way?

NG: I do. I think that it’s a meaningful story that needs to be told, because it’s not a popular idea right now. I think we all have stories that we tell ourselves, and they help us simplify a very complex world. The reality is, the world is complex, relationships are dynamic, and, in our particular case, we’re intentionally not having that classic story of a corporate buyout – we’re both Campbell and Plum. We’re actively working to reinvent that story and that narrative.

With your values at the core of everything, was it difficult to choose the investors that backed you when you started Plum?

NG: Actually, we put a lot of thought into that, and we made a little framework that we used to help us because we had never raised money before. We didn’t know how to do it at all. But early on, we said that we needed to make sure that we didn’t lose sight of the fundamentals when we were trying to raise money. I think of it as the Maslow’s hierarchy of socially minded business when it comes to investing.

At the base , it is all about getting cash into the organization in exchange for equity in the business. That’s usually where any conversation starts with investing. For us, it was about connections (the second level) – for example, “in your network, who do you know and how can they help us amplify our business?” The third level is where we were looking for people that could coach us. We’re young executives and we thought we had some potential, but typically you hear about these stories where investors say, “We’ve been around the block 50 times, we know how this thing works, we’ll give you money but we want to call the shots in the business.” We said, “Look, our intuition tells us that we could probably lead this business to success, we just need your support and coaching. Take those 15 years of experience and those 50 times around the block and help us be better executives.” Then, the last and top level is culture. This is where we said, “Are you willing to get behind a mission-driven organization and make the tough choices, for example, taking a quarter million dollars out of marketing and putting it into a product that’s going to be donated? And are you willing to invest in people?”

This hierarchy has been really helpful, and we had the good fortune to have had enough business traction that we were able to transact at the higher levels of the pyramid, whereas oftentimes if a business is struggling or failing, you’re transacting on that lower level of just getting enough cash. For any entrepreneur in this space, you’ve got to find the right partners.


On the personal side, what’s inspiring you guys right now? What keeps you going?

NG: I’d start with the people and the culture. We built a company where we all wear our hearts on our sleeves as a company. You have to take almost a personal orientation to business, sort of defying the logic of, “Hey, it’s not personal, it’s just business.” We think that’s complete bullshit, and we think it needs to be turned on its head. Business needs to be personal in order to make the social and environmental changes that we need. When you take that orientation and you get a hundred plus people that are aligned in the same way, amazing friendships start to form.

For example, we got an email from a family saying, “We know a family that has a child who has terminal cancer that has been using one of your products that has been discontinued. He literally won’t eat anything else. We’ve scoured the retailers in our neighborhood to find all these products, but they’re running out, and he’s running out of his supply. Can you help us?”

Immediately, we reached out to the family and to the mom, Jacki, and said, “We heard about your story, and we’re going to reach out to our retailers to see if we can find more of these morning mashup products.”

Honestly, we were all brought to tears on this thing – it was pretty emotional. I said, “OK, we’ve got to find more products out there, but we’ve also got to do something more – this is why we’re in business. We’re in business to solve this problem for this little boy.” I think we all kind of just stepped back and were like, “This is absolutely what we do. This is why we do it.” The team rallied, and Ami was kind of the quarterback on this thing. We got our head of operations to see if we could get pouches donated, production time donated, and raw materials donated. Our art designers stepped up and said, “We’re going to create a unique package for Harlan.” His name was Harlan the Hero, and he had been surviving brain cancer for a number of years. At this point, I think they didn’t know how much time he had left, but he was in the later stages of his fight with cancer. Literally everyone stepped up; our production partners, our packaging partners, and our raw ingredient partners, within two minutes of hearing this story, said, “We’ll totally help out,” and we ended up creating 5,000 custom Harlan’s Oatmeals – we renamed the product – and on the back there’s a little love note from the company.

Anyway, this story has an incredibly sad ending: he passed away before he could receive his shipment of these. But I think, for us as a company, it really kind of codified why we’re in business – we’re in business to do this, right? The community reaction to it was very personal, and they were like, “Wow, it’s amazing to see a company actually be a human being.” Even though it was really a tragic story, I think it’s given our company a level of focus and commitment to the mission that we’re on in a very tangible way beyond making products for retailers.

VF: We ended up creating a really strong friendship with the family. Because Harlan never actually got Harlan’s Oatmeal, we continued to produce it, and we said, “We’ll figure out what to do with it later.” Within the past month, we ended up working with Jacki, Harlan’s mom, on this. We said, “We want to keep Harlan’s story alive, so you tell us what charities you want us to donate the product to.” She wanted it to go beyond North Carolina, where they’re from, and go across the country, so that she felt that his story was being told. We picked a handful of charities around the country and delivered the pouches. We wrote a note about why we were working together and called up folks to make sure that the products had arrived. People were just blown away by Harlan’s story and the fact that kids could know his story now by enjoying these pouches. It was pretty amazing.

NG: Good is contagious. When you do good things in the world, it inspires other people to step up and do good things. When I think about what we’re in business to do – we’re inspiring good in the world.

Climate Action / Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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