Natural Foods Merchandiser logo

Fleming means business

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

22 Min Read
Fleming means business

Jan and JerryFor natural foods distributor Jerry Fleming, July in Las Vegas can only mean two things: the an?nual National Products Assoc?iation conference and show, and his wedding anniversary. In the early 1980s, he decided to celebrate both events by taking his wife, Jan, out to a posh Vegas restaurant for a meal of veal with julienned vegetables in a brandy sauce.

"I tasted it and tasted it and tasted it," he says, still remembering the blending of flavors more than a quarter-century later. "And then I said, ?I can fix this; I can emulate this.' And I went home, and I did.

"But I used chicken because it's cheaper."

Out of all the stories this quintessential taleteller has told since he learned to talk nearly 70 years ago, the veal-in-Vegas vignette may be the most illustrative of Fleming's approach to life.

First of all, a man who has spent almost all of his adult life as a natural foods distribution company executive was eating veal. While attending a health foods show. With his military brush haircut left over from a teenage stint as an Army Special Forces member, a volatile temper, a propensity for swear words and a tendency toward sarcasm, Fleming will never be mistaken for one of the many quietly earnest vegetarians who got into the natural foods business for altruistic, save-the-planet reasons. "Over the years, I've watched my diet and tried to eat well, but health foods has never been a lifestyle with me so much as a business style," says Fleming, who loves to cook but is just as likely to stock his pantry with Bisquick as with Bob's Red Mill Buttermilk Biscuit Mix.

Then there's the veal taste-testing exercise, which illustrates Fleming's determination, perfectionism and fascination with problem solving—even when he's supposed to be spending a relaxing evening celebrating his anniversary. This is a man who once cased his local supermarket and developed a computer program that detailed what was in each aisle—all to help his wife shop. "She was the only person I knew who went to the supermarket with a pick list," Fleming says proudly. "She never had to double back to find anything, and she always knew what was on sale."

Finally, there's the decision to swap the pricey veal for the economical chicken. One of the things Fleming was best known for throughout his 39 years in the naturals industry was his business sense. During a career that included management jobs at distributors Landstrom Co., Collegedale, Tree of Life and Food for Health, and manufacturers Mrs. Denson's Cookie Co. and Nature's Way, he developed one of the first computer ordering applications in the distribution business and devised innovative ways to cater to retailers. He schooled so many employees in the business of natural foods that they formed an ad hoc club called "Jerry's Kids," using the lessons they learned from Fleming as they worked their way up to executive positions throughout the natural products industry.

"Jerry brought a level of professionalism to this business that wasn't there before," says Dana Wilson, one of Jerry's Kids and director of nonperishables for Sprouts Farmers Market, an 18-store chain in Arizona, Texas and California. "When Jerry first started in the industry in the 1960s, it was pretty young and unsophisticated. He brought a lot of structure, organization and planning to the industry."

But while it's easy to categorize Fleming as a tough and demanding businessman, he is far from one-dimensional. There's his multifaceted intellect, for example. An avid reader, he's taught himself everything from carpentry to Plains Indian lore. "It doesn't take long to realize that Jerry's the smartest guy in the room," says Bill Crawford, director of retail custom programs at New Hope Natural Media (the Boulder, Colo., parent company of The Natural Foods Merchandiser), and another of Jerry's Kids. Adds Eric Hinkefent, a Jerry's Kid and president of Oklahoma-based Akin's Natural Foods Market, "Jerry's an intellectual—not a glass-house type, but more of a real-world type. He's as comfortable with a truck driver as a CEO."

And then there's Fleming's capacious heart. Hidden under a stereotypically gruff exterior, it's what keeps him from being the Gordon Gekko of the natural products industry, casting people aside in his quest for money a la the character in the movie "Wall Street."

"Jerry doesn't always drag out the best side of himself and show it to everyone," says Rick Thorne, former chief executive of Tree of Life and Fleming's boss in the late '80s. But those who know Fleming best understand that he is a man who cares not only about his biological family, but his business family as well. Spend more than a few minutes with Fleming, and he will bring up his wife or his three children or seven grandchildren. He may joke that his recent 50th wedding anniversary was a "milestone to Jan and a millstone to me," yet he has made sure his wife and children have worked with him through nearly every stage of his career.

Fleming's business heart belongs to retailers, particularly the small retailers. "He'd do anything for those retailers, sometimes even when he shouldn't have, like letting people's credit go too long. He was always willing to help when he could," says Gary Hume, who worked with Fleming at Landstrom and is now executive vice president of Nutraceutical International Corp., a Park City, Utah-based supplements manufacturer. Fleming often served as a liaison between distributors and retailers during his eight-year stint on the NPA (formerly National Nutritional Foods Association) board. "I got along as well with the independent retailers as anyone in this business because they knew I cared about their business," he says. His services to retailers included everything from building display cases in stores at his own expense to heading up NutriValue, a national association of independent retailers Fleming formed in the 1990s to offset the buying advantages mass marketers had with distributors. "He was very focused on the retailer, very focused on our success, very responsive to us," Hinkefent says.

Adds Dale Bennett, a friend of Fleming's for more than 30 years and the former owner of Chamberlin's Market and Café in Florida: "He's just a caring person and a great businessman who is loyal to the industry and loyal to the independent stores."

High school sweetheartsLearning the drill
Fleming was born in New Orleans in 1938, but grew up in San Francisco. As a teenager, he had already planned out his future: He would marry his high school sweetheart, Janet Oppliger, and join the Army. "I was going to be a general," he says. He and Jan were married July 20, 1957, and "three days later, I was jumping out of airplanes," Fleming says. "We spent our honeymoon at Fort Benning" Army base in Georgia.

But things didn't go as Fleming had so painstakingly planned. Two years after he enlisted, he suffered a serious foot injury as a member of the Army's Special Forces unit, popularly known as the Green Berets. Fleming won't talk about how the injury occurred, but it was devastating enough to end his military career. He received a medical discharge in 1960 and spent the next couple years learning to walk again. To this day, he still walks with a limp.

"The doctors told me I wouldn't be able to do industrial work or lift heavy things," Fleming says. But he decided to defy his doctors. "I knew if I had a desk job, I'd never get up and walk again." So he took an order-fulfillment job at Landstrom Co. distributors in San Francisco primarily because it entailed walking around the warehouse all day.

"It was all I could do to walk," Fleming recalls. "I'd spend eight to nine hours a day on my feet and then crawl home. But I was determined I would force myself to do what I was told I couldn't do."

Fleming wasn't particularly attracted to the natural foods business and admits his warehouse walking could have been in any industry. His friends and family agree that his interests are so diverse and his intellect so adaptable that he could have worked in a variety of fields. "I think Jerry's the type of person that anything he would decide to do careerwise he would be a success at," says his son Robert, who worked with his father for nearly 20 years and now is a purchasing supervisor for a large chain of hospitals in Arizona.

One of the keys to Fleming's success is his desire to learn. He realized that to understand complex concepts like private labels, pricing and new-product development, it was necessary to first know even the simplest aspects of how a distribution business operates. He would clock out after his shift at Landstrom and hang around to watch the truck drivers work, just to learn how to load shipments. Eventually, he says, "I got the reputation of being a go-to guy, a problem solver." After four years on the job, he'd moved up to sales rep, and he learned that side of the business so well he developed one of the first order books in the distribution industry. "There were no real computer lists or even alphabetical lists of product categories. Everything was done in longhand. There was no way to remember what was in a store, so sales reps would have to walk through the store, and it might take four hours a store," Fleming says. So he compiled a list of the 2,300 items Landstrom stocked, alphabetically and by category. "Jan typed them all up on an Army field typewriter," Fleming recalls. Together they bound the pages, complete with a chartreuse cover emblazoned with "Landstrom" lettering written in Jerry's own hand—penmanship so precise it looks as if it were typeset.

Several years later, after only three weeks of training with IBM, Fleming wrote the system design, programs and applications for Landstrom's new computer system. "It was just logic and common sense," he says. "That's all computers are anyway.

"I was always looking for a better way to do something—easier, more thorough, more exact," he adds. "I would watch every step people took and I would figure out how to automate it."

While Fleming learned the distribution business by day, at night he was studying forensic criminology at City College of San Francisco. He wanted to be a policeman, but he wasn't tall enough to meet the height requirements. So he entertained himself by taking various Bay Area police department entrance tests. "I would pass most of them; I finished No. 2 on the list for the San Francisco police department," he says.

At age 27, after two years at City College, Fleming took a test with the Bar Association of San Francisco and scored well, given his fairly limited formal education. Encouraged by a local judge, he began studying law at nearby Lincoln University. But he found himself working nine hours a day at Landstrom, then studying four to five hours a night. "I didn't see my kids," he says. After two years, he'd had enough. "I realized I wanted to be a judge, but I didn't want to be a lawyer," he says with a laugh.

Fleming devoted himself instead to Landstrom, becoming general manager and a consultant to one of its suppliers, Mrs. Denson's Cookie Co. "I ran their bakery for a year while I was working for Landstrom and did a financial turnaround for the company," he says.

In the meantime, Landstrom expanded, buying up distribution companies across the country. Impressed with Fleming's work at Mrs. Denson's, Landstrom's owners sent Fleming to Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1976 to run Collegedale Distributors, a financially troubled company Landstrom had recently purchased.

As president of Collegedale, Fleming installed electronic ordering devices and, along with Jan, whom he hired as the company's customer service manager, built up the business and relationships with suppliers.

"I always approached every business I had as if it were my own," he says. "I was very fortunate that my bosses pretty well let me make all the decisions." Fleming had opportunities to start his own business, and briefly had a consulting operation, but in the end, what fascinated him was not being the boss but making whatever company he worked for successful. "I don't get emotionally involved with a business," he says. "It didn't matter to me if I was stocking tires or vitamin C—it was the business of the business I was interested in. I was a tactician, a problem solver. My job was to go in and excise the problem, and that's what I did with precision."

Fleming was able to recognize that, particularly in the natural foods industry, passion and personal philosophy were the overriding impetus for many businesspeople, and although those weren't his chief motivations, he was able to appreciate them in others. "To a large extent, the retail side of the industry does things emotionally," Fleming says, recounting how his friend Dale Bennett decided to add a bakery to his Chamberlin's store. "Dale told me: ?I can't find any good baked products for my store, so I want to start my own bakery.' I said, ?Dale, what about your business plan?' And he said, ?I don't know. All I know is that my customers want it and I want it.' I said, ?OK, so you're going to put a bakery in just because it's the right thing to do?'

"Well, it turned out to be spectacularly popular, but to this day I don't think Dale could sit down and say if he made or lost money on the bakery." So what would Fleming do in the same situation? "I would put in the bakery, but I'd find a way for it to make money," he says with a laugh.

Fleming's daughter, Kathie Smith, says she still uses the principles she learned from working as a sales rep at her dad's companies. Nicknamed Moonbeam by her father for her hippie sensibilities, Smith is able to combine her dad's business approach with her altruistic leanings in her current job as grocery manager at Just Food Co-op in Northfield, Minn., helping ensure that the store not only survives, but thrives. "I saw that people in the retail stores had a great deal of respect for him because the advice and programs he presented would work," she says. "He had the ability to make stores see beyond being a health food store and realize that they were a business, too."

Retailing 101
"Basically, Jerry realized if the stores were successful, then he was successful," says Hume of Nutraceutical.

Fleming practiced that principle throughout his career, but it came to fruition at Food for Health, the Arizona-based distributor he joined in 1993 after a four-year stint at Tree of Life as division president and vice president of the natural foods group. "When I came to Food for Health, they were sending [retail] customers away, saying they were too small," Fleming says. "I said, ?You have to stock what customers need,' " no matter what their size. "My feeling is it's always been our job as distributors to supply all customers—we're there because of them, not the other way around."

"He always taught my sisters and I that you listen to what people are telling you—what do people want and what do they need?" says Robert Fleming. "We use that philosophy in our everyday life, and it's made us better people."

As president of Food for Health, "Jerry was very concerned for retailers who didn't understand what was going on at that time—the [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act] and the birth of the mega natural foods store. He'd offer them services to help them," says Dave Olender, who worked for Fleming at Food for Health and is now vice president of strategic alliances and supplier development for Nashville, Tenn.-based Gaylord Entertainment. Fleming also tried to help retailers through his work on the then-NNFA board, from 1982-90. "He was very sensitive to the needs of retailers who at that time were very paranoid about the supply side. He was honest and direct with them, and helped keep balance between retailers and suppliers," says Scott Bass, NPA's legal counsel.

Fleming implemented a variety of retailer-friendly programs at Food for Health. He'd let small retailers buy a case of frozen food but only take delivery gradually, while Food for Health stored the rest of the case. He offered daily organic produce deliveries before many other distributors did. He'd run comparison invoices with other distributors and tell retailers where they could save money. And he developed a cheat sheet still in demand today that educated retailers on exactly how manufacturers' discounts affect profit margins.

"He loved teaching people—telling them that this is what it really means to you dollar-wise—15 percent of cost and 15 percent of retail are different numbers, dollar-wise," Robert Fleming says. "I can't tell you how many people would ask for a copy of his little discount sheet."

But Fleming's most far-reaching retail success at Food for Health was NutriValue, a collective buying and education program he implemented in 1995 for more than 600 independent retailers. "We'd buy products by the truckload and distribute them to members, and we'd ask for free cases from manufacturers so the stores could try them," he says.

?It is what it is'
Ask a Jerry's Kid what Fleming means to him or her, and the responses include words like "no-nonsense," "focused," "perfectionist," "thorough," "disciplined" and "excellence." In private moments, a few swear words are undoubtedly thrown in as well. Ask Fleming his response to all this, and chances are you'll hear one of his favorite phrases: "It is what it is."

"He had very high standards, and people who performed up to his standards did well in his organization," says Wilson of Sprouts Market. "I had heard he didn't suffer fools lightly, but that he also had a good eye for talent. I figured out a lot of things by watching him interact with other people. A lot of people think you should treat everybody the same, but I learned from Jerry that with some people all you have to do is drop a hint, and with some people you have to drop a hammer. He would lose his temper with some people, and that would motivate them, and with some people he would never raise his voice but still make his point."

Fleming admits he has a volatile temper, but it's not always uncontrolled. "We were having a meeting with some gentlemen from an herb company, and he said, ?Listen, these guys have their own agenda. Be careful of that, and don't fall into that trap,' " Robert Fleming recounts. "So sure enough, the guys started talking about their agenda. Jerry had this notebook in his hand and he slammed it down on the desk and said, ?This is my meeting, so we talk about what I want to talk about or you need to leave.' You could hear a pin drop. But he got what he wanted. I think those guys were still talking about that meeting years later."

Jan Fleming says her husband's management style is no-nonsense. "He was a tough guy. He CEO'd very strictly. He didn't put up with any foolishness in the office—no politics, no discrimination, no gossip. He knew that was how the company was going to survive—he'd tell people, ?You're here to work and make money.'"

That management style served him well during a brief stint as president of Murdock HealthCare, parent company of Springville, Utah-based supplements manufacturer Nature's Way. Fleming was hired to help Nature's Way get on its financial feet. "If you look at the history of Nature's Way, there's no record of me, but I ran the company for a year" in the early 1990s, Fleming says. Adds Crawford of New Hope: "Jerry may be the single reason why Nature's Way is around, because he did the things that didn't always feel good."

Those things included layoffs and other cost-cutting measures. "They weren't decisions I made lightly—I agonized—but they were studied," Fleming says. "Layoffs aren't something you relish doing, but it's what you do. Like the doctor that has to amputate your leg—he doesn't want to do it, but he has to, so he'll do the best damn job of amputating your leg that he can. You can't do it tenderly, you can't do it gently, but you can do it efficiently and cleanly.

"I saw myself as a business doctor whose job was to make a house call and get the patient well. I wasn't a turnaround artist—they're just there to take money. I spent 50 percent of my time teaching staff" how to run a more effective business.

Many believe Fleming could afford to be a hard-edged boss because his wife worked at his side. Together they formed a good-cop, bad-cop duo. "I think a lot of his success came as a team with Jan. It was virtually impossible to outdo Jerry and Jan together," says Tree of Life's Thorne. "She'd say stuff to customers like, ?Oh, Jerry would never let me do that,' and she'd have them eating out of the palm of her hand. I used to tell Jerry the only reason we kept him in the [Tree] organization was because I loved his wife."

Kidding aside, Thorne believes that as a manager, "Jerry squeezed the best out of people. He required a lot, but he always managed to get the best out of people."

That was the case for Olender of Gaylord Entertainment. "During the 10 to 11 years I was with him, I felt like I went to the Jerry Fleming distribution school of management," he says.

"Jerry always looked for excellence. He thought you didn't do anything unless you did an excellent job. He always said, ?No shortcuts; get the details, get the facts.' He was extremely thorough. He said if you're going to use creativity in your business, you have to be disciplined in the back end. The discipline behind the curtain is what gives you the basis to be creative."

"He wasn't one of those types of guys that stayed within the box," says Tom Bournes, a sales rep at Collegedale who now holds the same title at Nutraceutical. "There was an opening for a [Collegedale] sales rep in the Florida territory and Jerry decided we should interview the guy on the golf course. He wanted to see how he handled himself—how he handled bad shots, stuff like that. It was a very effective technique because you can't dwell on negative things on the golf course and still play well. It tells you a lot about someone's personality."

Olender says Fleming was so committed to "really understanding in deep detail who your customers and suppliers are, and what the competition would or would not do," that he once spent six to eight weeks simply planning sales strategies. "We were in the conference room day after day, doing very intricate data on every retailer in the natural foods industry. Then we'd take the information on each retailer and develop very specific sales tactics, call schedules, delivery schedules."

Robert Fleming says he'd occasionally see his father awake in the middle of the night, pondering a problem at work. "He often told me, ?I never stop thinking about running the company better,' " Robert says. "Sometimes you'd see him just sitting in his office, looking like he's relaxing, and he would say, ?I could sit here and make one decision that will save the company a lot of money. I'm not paid to push papers. That's what I pay you to do.'"

But that didn't mean Fleming wouldn't accept input from his employees. "I'd tell people what I wanted to accomplish, how to go about it and why, and then I'd ask for their opinion and integrate it into the decision-making process," he says. "But once the decision was done and a plan was made, people had to stick by it. I'd tell people: ?If you don't like it, you tell me, but not the customer.' "

New Hope's Crawford, who worked for Fleming at Food for Health, says Fleming was careful not to pull rank during strategic planning sessions. "He'd say, ?When we're in this conference room, no one's wearing a title. You're free to discuss and disagree.' I've heard some people say they didn't think he listened to them, but I felt like I always had a chance to get my point into the discussion."

Retirement in the desert
Fleming stayed at Food for Health until 2002, when health problems forced him to retire. As a child he suffered from lung complications, and decades of smoking didn't help the condition. He's been on an oxygen machine full time for the last four years, and today has only 30 percent of his lung capacity left. But if you didn't see the oxygen tubes snaking out of his nose, you wouldn't know he's in poor health. His voice is vigorous, his mind sharp and his flippant sense of humor is still intact. He keeps abreast of industry doings from his suburban Phoenix home, and spends plenty of time with Jan, his children and grandchildren. He has opinions on the state of the natural foods business, but keeps them to himself. "I guess I'm just lazy enough to not waste a lot of time pontificating over something that will not change anything, except perhaps to convince some people that once considered me to be fairly intelligent that I'm really dumber than a box of rocks," he says.

If Fleming devotes time to pondering his legacy, he doesn't let on. Perhaps he believes that's also something best left to others, like Crawford, who says, "Jerry wasn't in this industry just to make money or make a career. He was always involved in supporting, in giving back to the industry."

Fleming simply says, "Jan and I were fortunate that it was an industry that allowed people like us, without education and a level of expertise, to shine."

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 36, 38, 42, 44-45

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

Subscribe and receive the latest updates on trends, data, events and more.
Join 57,000+ members of the natural products community.

You May Also Like