Award-winning industry legend sums up 40 years in natural distribution

Award-winning industry legend sums up 40 years in natural distribution

From college to a lifelong career at Tree of Life, Greg Leonard shares what has changed and what he hopes for the future of natural products.

Greg Leonard knows a thing or two about distribution in the natural products industry. In December 2012, the executive vice president of independent retail sales for Tree of Life received the Southeast Natural Products Association President's Award, which recognizes achievements of long-time members of industry.

Leonard's 38 years of experience spans industry's visionary beginnings to mainstream acceptance of natural products. From straight out of college to a lifelong career at Tree of Life, Leonard shares what has changed and what he hopes for the future of natural products.

newhope360:  What has your career path in naturals looked like?

Greg LeonardGreg Leonard: I came into the natural products industry by joining Tree of Life straight out of college in 1974. In those early years, Tree was a small natural food distributor with sales of around $2 million a year.

From 1975 until 1986 I was the company's director of purchasing, which included buying bulk foods. In the mid-80s, I transitioned from purchasing into a number of marketing roles, including, vice president of merchandising where I was responsible for the development and marketing of Tree of Life's company-owned natural and organic brands.

In 2006 I assumed leadership for Tree of Life's Natural Channel Sales Team, a role which continued until I was named EVP of independent retail sales in January of 2012 for KeHE Distributors (Tree's parent company).

newhope360:  What is it like to receive the distinguished President's Award?

GL: It was a great honor and tremendously gratifying to know that my work has contributed in some way to the development of the natural products industry.  I'm proud of what this industry has accomplished and I have much love and respect for the retailers and suppliers who have been part of this journey.

newhope360:  What has been most surprising to you about working in the natural products industry all these years?

GL:  Two things. First, it's the incredible impact that the work of the entrepreneurs and visionaries who pioneered this business has had on our current understanding of food and wellness. Second, it's that many of the values that drove the growth of this industry in its early years still remain relevant today.

I'm thinking about the process of creating value through collaboration and personal relationships, and that many of us are still motivated by work that has a higher purpose than just the financial reward.

newhope360:  Tell us about a time when you knew the industry was expanding or reaching an exciting tipping point—what was that like?

GL: I could give you many "tipping point" stories because during the past 40 years the natural products industry has hit multiple tipping points. One of my favorites recalls the mid-to-late 1980s when organic food began to evolve from just being a bulk ingredients business (brown rice, hard winter wheat, baking flour, etc.) to the introduction of a huge wave of new organic packaged goods.

For example, until 1986 there was no pasta sauce made from organic tomatoes. The older pasta sauces were just "all natural." By the end of the '80s, thousands of new consumer packaged goods made from organic ingredients were filling the shelves of natural food stores across America. Today, organic food continues to be one of the essential drivers to industry growth.

newhope360:  If you could describe the feel of the natural industry in a couple words, what would they be for each of these decades?

GL: '70s:  Youth, idealism

'80s:  Emerging professionalism

'90s:  Change, scale, winners and losers

2000s: Natural products go mainstream

2010s: The next wave—Non-GMO Verified

newhope360:  What are you most excited about for industry's future?

GL:  At its core, the natural products industry has always stood for food quality and wellness. Our growth from the small cottage industry that we were in the '70s to the mature, innovative contributor to food trends that we are today is because we've always been at the leading edge of emerging consumer trends around wellness, authenticity, food quality, the environment and the ethical treatment of animals. Those same drivers exist today and will likely continue well into the future. Good merchants and on-trend products will continue to win in this marketplace.


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