The cheese crackers and Diet Coke were a giveaway.
Scott Owen was a natural products newbie.
Owen, who is leaving his EVP role leading Informa Markets’ New Hope Network and SupplySide businesses at the end of the month, remembers an afternoon in his second week at New Hope when his neophyte status was explained to him by Susan Haeger, who was overseeing global strategy for the company. “She came into my office and threw my crackers and Coke in the trash can. She said, ‘You're not gonna die on my watch,’” Owen recalls, laughing about the encounter 20 years later.
It was an early step in a journey that made Owen a pivotal behind-the-scenes player in the growth of not only the New Hope Network but the natural products industry the company serves. The crackers and Coke were quickly replaced with healthier options, in the office and at home. “Sooner rather than later, my pantry was full of it, my refrigerator was full of it,” he says
Haeger describes the encounter as a moment when she “lovingly challenged his obliviousness.”
Owen recalls it as the day when he “became a consumer, as opposed to trying to become an expert.”
That decision to not out-expert the experts, he says, was an important one. Owen brought with him two decades of experience in B2B publishing, but he also brought a commitment to helping people he knew understood a lot more than he did about natural products to better understand the business side of publishing and trade shows.
And to understand their capacity to be leaders in that business.
The cheese crackers hit the trash can 20 years ago, but the two-way-street exchange of experience and expertise never stopped, coworkers and collaborators say. Talk to anybody who worked with Owen or interacted with him from outside New Hope and you’ll hear about a leader who listened, a collaborator who focused as much on developing his team as whole and happy people as he did on developing the company into an ever-expanding enterprise.
Fred Linder, who recently left his role leading Informa Markets’ Health and Nutrition group, says that he would not have felt as comfortable leaving the New Hope or SupplySide teams to a new generation of leaders amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic if Owen hadn’t so persistently been building “bench strength” for the company. “If there’s anything that’s in Scott’s wheelhouse, it’s training people, not just how to be managers, but training people on how to be leaders.”
Carlotta Mast, now in her first months at the helm of New Hope, echoes Linder’s faith in Owen’s leading-the-leaders gift. She says she wouldn’t have felt ready without it and recalls a day when he explained to her that she had a “technicolor vision” of what the company could do to build opportunities for the CPG brands that in turn build the industry. “I had never really considered myself a leader or being able to have any kind of business vision,” Mast says, “but the way he described it was so exciting to me and empowered me to look around our business and start thinking, ‘how could we do things differently?’”
Much of New Hope’s focus on serving brands came from that encounter and all the ones that followed it, Mast explains. “To have a manager or person who is in your day-to-day work life create that kind of space for you is just the most unbelievable gift.”
Danica Cullins, who has taken over leadership of the SupplySide business uses the same language when she describes Owen. “It was a gift when Scott landed in my office back in 2017,” says Cullins, describing what could have been a difficult transition when parent company Informa wove New Hope and Virgo/Supply Side into one organizational chart. “He made it about us, and I don’t mean our brands, but our people.”
“He has a way of providing guidance that isn’t just something you follow,” Cullins explains. “He provides guidance in a way that you learn actually how to guide yourself.”
A commitment to connection fueled Owen's success
Owen may have spent much of his career behind the scenes in a company that staged very public events, but the connection Owen built with his staff was visible well beyond the office walls.
John Grubb, who built a relationship with New Hope in his role at the Sterling Rice Group and maintains that connection in his new role at Summit Venture Management, says anyone who deals with Scott Owen should come away impressed with a set of soft skills that are uncommon in upper management at most companies. “Scott is somebody of great character and integrity, and I'm just so thrilled that I can put that and ‘businessman’ in the same sentence, because great character and integrity don’t always go together with business,” Grubb says, pointing to Owen’s part in founding The Pearl Group, an organization that helps single parents gain transportation, housing and economic stability.
Grubb says he witnessed firsthand Owen’s role in building the character and culture of his people while participating in meetings with the New Hope team. “He always found a way to check in with everybody around the table. He was very deliberate about making sure that the meeting didn’t break up too suddenly or unceremoniously for fear that somebody might not be heard,” Grubb says. “If somebody was particularly quiet during a meeting, Scott would always circle back to them.”
The effect was profound, Grubb explains. “Many self-absorbed leaders can take up all the oxygen in a room and stifle open discussion. In my experience, Scott has the inverse impact. He puts oxygen back in.”
Adam Andersen was in countless such meetings and notes the same skill and care. Andersen, who ran the Natural Products Expos for New Hope before moving to the Netherlands to work in Informa’s Pharma group, says he saw Owen put to work the same style of connection when he invited outside groups to New Hope’s Boulder office. When customers came to Boulder, “they would feel and really understand what New Hope was and who we were, and ultimately out of that would come some really good partnerships and deals,” Andersen says.
Andersen isn’t sure those partnerships and deals would have happened without Owen’s commitment to connection. “When you were talking to him, he was 100% focused on you. He was incredibly present in every part of his life, wherever he was. He was not the guy in the meeting looking at his phone.”
'Owen-isms' will live on
People who worked closely with Owen will talk about “Scott Owen-isms,” describing pieces of wisdom delivered with a friendly wit. Andersen remembers “your repetition will give you a reputation.” For Cullins, it was Owen’s admonition that nobody should be left to be “the goalie for the archery team.” Mast says she will never forget that “if someone can’t buy it, they won’t be able to sell it.”
With his retirement approaching, Owen has been thinking about what he’s shared not so much as Owen-isms, but more as what he wants to pass on.
“Leadership means leaders don’t think about themselves; they focus on their people,” is one.
“Culture must be bottom-up driven and top-down supported,” is another.
But everything, he says, comes down to values. “Your values are the cornerstones of your decisions and your actions,” he says.
New Hope founder Doug Greene says that Owen’s ability to frame values not as corporate statements but as shared feelings became a base ingredient in the secret sauce that cooked up New Hope company culture. “On a day to day basis, there was no one more important than Scott in building the New Hope culture and that really helped to build the industry’s culture,” Greene says. “His good character is like ballast inside a ship to keep the ship steady.”
Owen was not afraid to rock the boat, at least in the musical sense, Greene notes. Owen has a keen interest in music, particularly the blues, and made sure that live music became a consistent piece of the Natural Products Expo experience, something that built community one note at a time. “If you're out there on a dance floor, sweating next to someone and jumping up and down and having a good time, the next day when you meet in the booth to talk about business, you've already got this cultural bond,” Greene says. “I think Scott really understood that and really carried on that tradition and expanded that tradition at Expo.”
For Fred Linder, Owen’s steady character and community-centric approach helped build not only the corporate culture but also the bond that allowed the two men to face big decisions from the same page and perspective. They were, he says, “understudies” to each other, and Linder notes that he repeatedly talked Owen out of retiring. “I look at as sort of two DNA strands, and you'd kind of click together on a regular interval to make the whole thing work,” Linder says.
New leaders for a new era
Linder says the way Owen matched up in a similar manner to the people he guided through the ranks and into leadership positions was never more important than in the months leading up to Owen’s retirement. “They are having to take over under very difficult circumstances, but they're capable and ready. And I think a lot of that has to do, quite frankly, with Scott,” Linder says.
Owen is also confident that the team he leaves behind is up to the tasks that await. Even during the pandemic, with the live events that are New Hope’s and SupplySide’s highest-profile properties canceled, Owen believes the times when he got out of the way to let them lead will serve them and the company well as he steps away entirely. “They’ve got the understanding; they’ve got the smarts; they’ve got the heart,” he says, adding that the pandemic makes them more ready than they might have been before it crashed over the Informa Markets business model.
“It is a natural turning point,” Owen says. “Before that it would have probably felt unnatural and they might have felt unprepared.”
His departure now, he says, feels “good and faithful.” He walks away with a sense of fulfillment, that what he learned from his team was maybe as important as what he taught them, even what he learned, he says, on an afternoon more than 20 years ago when Susan Haeger came into his office and threw his lunch in the trash.