What is “impossible” but a state of mind?
Before sitting down to hear Jeff Dunn’s vision to help Bolthouse Farms lead us all into a flexitarian future in which produce reigns, I might have said it was impossible. But, as it turns out, impossible just means it hasn’t happened yet.
Like most visionaries, Jeff and Bolthouse each could have, at one time, been called the dark horse in their own races. Two unlikely trajectories, which began on separate courses and collided with a force, ricocheting throughout our industry.
Bolthouse Farms: A Renaissance
Running parallel with some of the truest-grit companies in our long-standing industry, Bolthouse was initially established in 1915 as a small Michigan carrot farm and remained family operated for several decades before changing hands.
“We were always an innovator, both on the carrot side and the beverage side. That’s one of the most important things we needed to reassert when we took over,” Jeff, Chief Executive Officer, recalls of the move to buy Bolthouse back from its former parent, Campbell’s—a company that was about as far from its family-farm beginnings as the food industry would allow.
As the ink on the contract dried, a renaissance began to ripple through Bolthouse’s culture. Time began to wind back to its agricultural roots, while those who had helped build a long history of fresh returned to the helm.
Impossible just means it hasn't happened yet...
“Part of this reassertion was bringing back our product and renewing our marketing teams. We’re really excited about the amount of people who returned and the innovation we brought almost immediately to market,” Jeff shares.
Again comes the word “impossible.” What many would have called impossible was instead a booming declaration heard throughout 2019’s PMA Fresh Summit—Bolthouse Farms, barely a financial quarter into its new governance, was launching a slew of new products.
The approach, Jeff says, is one adopted from technology teams and reshaped for fresh produce’s need for speed.
“Much like software companies, we are shaping our innovation strategy around the market and emerging needs. Then, based on what we learn, adjusting as needed to bring the next generation of reimagined products,” Jeff explains, telling me this is the answer to a problem he sees many large-scale food companies run into, produce and otherwise. “They try to ensure that a launch is perfect, pretty, and does everything. That takes too much time in an industry where we have no time. So, we set up a very fast innovation process that allows us to bring a new item to market, read the reception, adjust, and then bring something even better.”
The iPhone strategy has hit fresh produce—get the job done while perfection finds its way down the pipeline. Before my eyes, I see how this both fits and fights against our industry standards. We constantly preach against a level of perfection not found in Mother Nature, while still doing our damndest to get as close as possible. Jeff, bringing a 40,000-foot viewpoint, has no qualms about being fast first.
“My venture experience may not have informed me of the traditional strategy behind plant-based products, but it fueled our internal strategy to turn around innovation and see how quickly we can pivot to identify these trends, develop products, and get them to market,” Jeff explains. “Consumers are changing fast, and we need to be able to respond just as quickly.”
Jeff Dunn: A Tale of Two Origins
Jeff’s path to becoming CEO of Bolthouse Farms is as versatile as the products he now helps shape and sell.
“I can’t keep a job!” he jokes of the wide-ranging portfolio that has clearly enabled him and his team to take an entirely different approach to Bolthouse’s strategies—not just in the “launch first, perfect later” mindset, but seeking out and leaning into burgeoning technologies. He credits all this to the unlikely foundation his career was built on, one that is almost the exact opposite of Bolthouse’s.
“The first half of my career was at Coca-Cola, where I was able to build a strong brand, product, and global distribution background. What I learned there continues to serve me because the company really understands how to develop for, and service, the market. When I later moved into private equity, I was able to bring all of that experience,” Jeff recounts.
It was private equity that then taught him more about software and technological capabilities, followed by Jeff launching his own venture fund. This brought him into the food business and to his first encounter with Bolthouse, nearly a decade before he would help lead the company.
“Having first approached Bolthouse from the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and beverage sides, and now working with the agricultural side, has shaped how I run Bolthouse today. It is also a part of the overall decision to make a plant-based food system the focal point of the company’s overall mission going forward,” Jeff shares, bringing to the surface not only his adaptive nature, but also his endlessly curious mind, reading anything that might influence the market and sharpen his vision to anticipate what’s next.
“In the past several years, the center of the store has shrunk. Fresh has grown dramatically, and so has the quality and the variety of its products. Look at any grocery store’s produce section today—much of it is structured around convenience,” Jeff observes, before saying something I rarely hear in produce. “I’m pretty good at predicting trends 10 years out, and I promise you that, 10 years from now, we will have migrated to a much more plant-based food system.”
That vision, which began to take shape even before Jeff stepped into his current role, has now fully formed into Bolthouse’s new direction and guiding mission: Build a plant-based food system for the 21st century.
“The architects of these types of platforms can be the real drivers of that plant-based shift. They will be the winners. We bought Bolthouse back because we saw it as a company with the opportunity to become one of the leading platforms in this new space, and I deeply believe we will help change our food system moving forward,” Jeff says strongly.
Achieving the Trifecta
It’s impossible to know what the future holds...or is it? Bolthouse Farms all but tells our fortune with its promise to “create a plant-based food system for the 21st century.” As a writer, I can dive into this statement and swim all afternoon in the depth of meaning that it holds.
“We think that innovation, built on top of operational excellence, is really the thing that has historically differentiated Bolthouse and the early returns on this have been incredible. Now, we are teed up and driving toward what we feel is the future of not just produce, but food systems overall,” Jeff shares.
How do you reach more than just burgeoning shoppers and families? Established ones and those who have yet to build their own bank accounts? Bolthouse Farms has navigated multiple generations, as has Jeff’s first industry teacher Coca-Cola, bringing two schools of thought together to form a strategy built to withstand just about anything.
“One thing my first business chapter taught me is to look not only at changing consumer attitudes and behaviors, but what do 10 to 20-year-olds think, what do 20 to 30-year-olds think, and so-on. Then manage that analysis over time. As I started looking at that data over the last three or four years, both as an investor and as an operator, what became very clear to me is that there was a fundamental shift taking place,” Jeff breaks down.
That shift, which our industry has seen take shape in the popularity of fruits and vegetables as well as their cousins, plant-based meat substitutes, has inspired consumers to want to give plants more real estate on the plate. But, Jeff points out a key challenge: American consumers don’t like to give anything up.
“If we can still have a cheeseburger or a hot dog, and it tastes, smells, and is texturally like the original, but just so happens to be plant-based, then I strongly believe that most people will make that decision more and more as products improve over time. That leads us to a healthier planet, to healthier humans, and, ultimately, it serves everybody’s needs,” Jeff sums up what he believes is not only a no-lose bet, but a surefire direction in the food industry.
Looking at how quickly the sector has moved from a niche offering to a fast-food option, it’s hard not to believe. Especially because, Jeff points out, much of the science and technology is either almost or already where it needs to be to achieve this.
“The challenge at this point is cultural, and I think the key is in having a flexitarian view of the world,” he tells me. “It doesn’t have to be 100 percent plant-based to work. Veganism, for example, became exclusionary, and that’s a mistake. When we talk about plant-based, we don’t say exclusively plant-based. That’s the first thing. The second is that the knowledge of plants’ health benefits to humans is one of the places technology is really exploding. The whole secret is understanding not just how plants serve us but how to productize that in a way to get those benefits to people. How many current drugs and therapies can we replace with food?”
“The challenge at this point is cultural, and I think the key is in having a flexitarian view of the world.”
Jeff Dunn, Chief Executive Officer, Bolthouse Farms
The third component is comprised of climate change and sustainability, which Jeff says inevitably follow the first two.
“If you believe the first two points—that I can use technology to develop plant-based products that are healthy for me and taste great—the last piece is psychological: I feel better both from a health standpoint and from a planetary standpoint eating a plant-based diet,” Jeff observes. “If we’re going to deal with climate change, we’ve got to reduce meat consumption. The developing world is going to continue to want more meat, but we can slow the effects of that by giving them plant-based alternatives that people in the developed world can generally afford. As they make that transition, the planet will get healthier.”
If there is a final thought Jeff leaves me with, it is that Bolthouse doesn’t necessarily want to be the biggest food company out there when it can be the quickest to identify and capture the direction the food industry is headed. In fact, being in a constant state of transition is what Jeff credits with Bolthouse’s ability to withstand the unanticipated curves thrown at us by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, while being able to help hold other organizations up as well.
“If there was ever a black swan event, we’re living in it. This is going to change more than we can even imagine at this point. If there was ever a case for what we’re talking about in the necessity to move fast, this is it, because the companies that pivot quickly and continue on simply by shaping their strategy, their internal operations, and their culture will be the winners. If you’re up and still running, it’s not because you’re lucky. Even here in California, one of the more highly impacted states, we’ve still been able to stay up and running, and that’s because we moved quickly to put in place the appropriate actions. I think if you can’t do that as a company today, you’re not going to succeed long-term,” Jeff advises.
If the word “impossible” is simply a direction yet to be taken, or even discovered, then to say so is nothing more than a challenge to prove otherwise. And no one likes to challenge or be challenged more than the dark horses in a race. Luckily, I happen to know just the two.