Since 2011, Robert Craven has been the man behind the curtain at FoodState, the company that makes and markets the fast-growing whole food supplement brand MegaFood in the natural channel and the Innate Response brand in the practitioner channel. Yet, unlike some nutrition industry CEOs, Craven has never stayed behind the curtain, let alone a closed window-office door. Rather, heâs made it his mission to get out amongst his employees, his customers, his suppliers, and even his competitorsâall in an effort to create and disperse a strong company culture that values authenticity, passion, quality, productivity and improving peopleâs lives.
The end results speak for themselves. Since Craven took the reins at Derry, New Hampshire-based FoodState, the company has more than doubled its sales and number of employees and built a new manufacturing facility and moved into new, more spacious office digs. Backed by private equity investors 2X Partners and Riverside Investments, Craven and his team helped FoodState attract numerous new potential owners before finally being purchased by Pharmavite, a subsidiary of Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., in December 2014.
These accomplishments alone make Craven worthy of winning NBJâs 2014 annual Management Achievement Award. And yet, these successes belie the real impact this CEO has had on his company and the broader nutrition industry, as we learned through discussions with FoodState employees, customers and investors. These conversations illuminated important lessons on what it means to be a conscious leader, on how to take care of your customers and your people while doubling your companyâs size, and on how to keep the folks backing you happyâall things we believe are ingredients for truly exceptional management achievement.
Culture, then brand
When Craven joined FoodState in 2011, his immediate priorities were internal. He brought in talent he knew would be needed to take the company to the next level, but he also focused on getting to know the people who had been with the companyâall in an attempt to ensure he had the âright people in the right seats on the bus,â says Stacey Gillespie, director of product marketing and a 12-year FoodState employee.
âHe was committed to talking to everyone, from all the manufacturing employees to the exec team, to make sure they were in their right spot, doing work they enjoyed and functioning at their highest level,â Gillespie says. âWhen you love what you do, you work better.â
Craven supported this effort by arming employees with new technology such as iPhones to enable more efficient communication and by creating a weekly management training program called âFlight Schoolâ geared toward strengthening and developing the companyâs leadership.
Gillespie says the most impactful thing the new CEO did, however, was to institute FoodStateâs core values. But rather than create the core values on his own or with a small group, Craven engaged the entire organization in the processâand this, Gillespie says, âaccelerated the companyâs growth by strengthening its culture.â
âYou hear employees at all levels talk about and contemplate our core values as they do their jobs and make decisions,â Gillespie adds. âOne of our core values is to âdo it right,â and we all take that very seriously.â
The way Craven announced PharmaviteâsÂ purchase of FoodState at the end of 2014 is a prime example of how this CEO tries to operate by the companyâs core values.
Craven and others in the industry view the acquisition as a win-win for both companies for many reasons. The two supplement makers are well aligned in their mission of improving lives, and Pharmavite, which makes the longstanding Nature Made supplement brand, is a leader in the mass market channel and is said to have no intentions of moving MegaFood out of the natural channel. As a wholly owned subsidiary of Pharmavite, FoodState will be able to operate as usual under Cravenâs continued leadership.
Still, for all of these positives, Craven knew many people, particularly some employees and retail customers, would have questions and concerns about the new ownershipâand so, in a move that was pure Robert Craven, he worked double-time to open up lines of communication upon announcing the new ownership.
âPeople have a right to ask questions about what this acquisition might mean for a brand they love,â Craven told newhope360 on the day the acquisition was announced. âIâm ready to answer any question anybody may have about our new ownership.â Craven backed up this statement by holding a company town hall for employees, hosting a live video chat during which he addressed any and all questions, and personally calling and reaching out on social media to many of FoodStateâs customers.
âRobert seized the moment and made sure we all knew that he and MegaFood are there for us and wonât abandon us,â says Cambridge Naturals Co-Owner Michael Kanter, who was one of those retailers Craven reached out to about the acquisition news. âThis was refreshing because there have been other times when companies have sold and the CEOs and other executives were either indifferent or even almost hostile to communicate with the retailers who had supported them over the years. Robert took the opposite approach.â
Building strong brands
Along with fortifying FoodState internally, Craven has been focused on strengthening the companyâs brands over the last four yearsâand this has had a significant impact on the business, says Andrew Whitman, managing partner of 2X Consumer Products Growth Partners, who is an investor in FoodState and close advisor to Craven.
âFive years ago, the company had a great set of products, but it wasnât telling their story,â Whitman says. âRobert and Jean [Lizotte, FoodState vice president of brand] spent a lot of time evolving how the brands stories are told.â From these efforts came MegaFoodâs Road Less Traveled advertising campaign, which features real employees and retail customers, as well as the Seasonal Therapeutics line and education initiative that was created for Innate Response in partnership with Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, MD.
FoodState catapulted its brand storytelling to the next level in 2014 with the launch of the Transparency Project. Created to give customers and consumers a better understanding of how FoodStateâs products are made and what goes into them, the Transparency Project included a six-week live web series that gave viewers an unscripted view into the companyâs offices and manufacturing and production facilities and even into the fields where FoodState sources its organic ingredients.
Craven reinforces all of these initiatives with his own active social media activity, which rivals that of any nutrition industry exec. âHe is a modern day marketing CEO and the companyâs biggest brand advocate,â says Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s and a member of the NBJ editorial advisory board. âCompanies where the CEO plays that role are some of the best-performing companies out there.âÂ
Finding ways to support and create new opportunities for the broader supplement industry is another priority for Craven and one that demonstrates how his efforts are benefitting more than just FoodState.
In 2013, Craven helped found the Non-GMO Working Group, which brought together supplement manufacturers to work together with the Non-GMO Project to get more supplement products verified as non-GMO. âThe Non-GMO Project has rigorous, high standards for obtaining their seal and much the supplement ingredient supply chain is not ready to support the cause,â Craven says. âMy hope is that by creating the Non-GMO Working Group we can create a more phased approach that allows our ingredient suppliers to catch up with the movement.â
The Combat Mass Slippage campaign is another Craven-led effort aimed at providing education and other support to natural channel supplement retailers, which Craven argues are essential to the health of the entire industry because of the front line of education they provide consumers on supplements, nutrition and wellness.
âRobert is all about helping the retailers,â Whitman says. âThis is a genuine priority for him. He has proactive dialogues with not just his biggest customers but with tons of independents. It is a way for him to keep his ear to the ground but also a way to help his retailers help their consumers.â
For Kanter, Cravenâs mission of helping natural retailers remain competitive in a rapidly changing retail environment is the âreal dealâ and one that makes him particularly worthy of NBJâs management achievement award. âRobert sees us all as partners in this work to improve peopleâs lives,â Kanter says. âThat makes a difference for his business and for ours.â
The Value of Values
Talk to anyone who works closely for or with FoodState and at some point the companyâs core values will come up. The ideas expressed in these core values are certainly simple, but put into action, as they have been under Robert Cravenâs leadership, they become powerful human motivators that benefit not only the bottom line, but also an organizationâs employees, customers, vendors, investors and all stakeholders, as FoodState has learned.
As defined by all of its employees, FoodStateâs core values are: Be real, do it right, share the love, pursue your passion, think like an owner, enjoy the journey, value health and wellness.
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