This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”
Kalona, Iowa, is one of the largest Mennonite and Amish communities west of the Mississippi. For years, the agrarian community farmed in a very traditional manner, akin to today’s organic practices. Yet, at least for dairy, those practices were not being recognized in the price they were able to command. The community wanted to get the value from having a more natural, organic product while still maintaining their agrarian lifestyle.
The community came together, contributed money and started Farmers Creamery. Bill Evans first got involved to help with the finances. Little did he know he was about to become an accidental entrepreneur. He created the Open Gates Group that consists of nine agriculture related businesses, including Kalona organics, makers of Kalona SuperNatural brand, that support Kalona and its way of life.
How did this all start?
Evans explained that the community didn’t want to abandon its farming roots.
“They just feel strongly about that from a family and a cultural standpoint. So, they came together, they contributed money, and we started with Farmers Creamery.”
“I got involved from a standpoint of putting together the finances but also started working on sales and marketing. I then established a company called Kalona Organics to do sales and marketing both for what was happening there at the creamery and other companies that would be small, emerging ag-based businesses. We built nine small companies all based around the ag business. They vary from processing organic dairy products to a trucking and logistics business.”
“I didn’t realize that I was entrepreneurial. My background is finance and accounting, and you assume that that’s the opposite,” he said with a slight chuckle.
“I didn’t realize that I’d be employing those entrepreneurial skills. I just kind of stepped into it one step at a time. My idea wasn’t to have nine companies. It just emerged and progressed that way.”
What’s your vision for the brand?
“We just purchased an iconic cheese factory that’s in our community. It was once one of the top tourist attractions in our county, and we’re redoing that and trying to start it up again.”
“We’re introducing some new products this year. We need to broaden out the Kalona SuperNatural brand. Currently, we’re strong in the greater Midwest, I’d say east of the Rocky Mountains, west of somewhere in Ohio area down to Georgia. In that area, we’re doing well in natural foods. Our items that have longer shelf life need to get better established across the United States, and we need to look at expanding beyond natural food stores.”
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?
“There’s a lot of obstacles; there’s regulatory, there’s manpower. One of the biggest obstacles is the whole distribution side of the business. We have a product that is short-dated, logistically you must get it there more frequently. Also, being a small player and being able to get a presence in big retailers like Whole Foods is very, very difficult. We need to do a better job of that.”
What would your current self tell your former self?
“Step out. Be a little bit more of a risk-taker. I think internally a finance and accounting guy is trained to look at worst-case scenarios and be prepared for it. I’d probably tell myself to just be who you are and be comfortable with that, and trust that your instincts are correct.”
What have you learned about connecting with and motivating people?
“Treat people right. That’s one of our main guiding principles, and it’s simple. But, if you’re doing it from your heart, really believe in it, it’s powerful.”
“People want to do things right. They want to have good relationships, they want to interact positively. We just need to get out of their way.”
What’s the best thing about entrepreneurship?
“Every day, I’m putting 100% in. Everything about who I am is engaged, I really enjoy that, because at the end of the day I know that I’m doing the very best that I can do.”
Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.
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