Healthy rewards: How Neil Grimmer brought innovation to children’s food with Plum Organics

Business became more personal for Neil Grimmer when his first daughter was born. After seven years working as a design leader at IDEO and coming up with health and wellness innovations for food products, he saw a need to take the same approach to make better baby food.

“I starting taking that innovation methodology and coming up with concoctions in our own kitchen,” says Grimmer, president, co-founder and “chief daddy-O” at Plum Organics. “That was really the impetus for starting the company.”

The company’s early days consisted of a small group of parents who wanted what they couldn’t find — healthy and convenient food choices for their children.

“We started out doing a line of healthy lunchbox snacks, and very quickly moved into the baby food space with the spouted pouch,” Grimmer says.

Here’s how Grimmer capitalized on his personal experiences as a parent to drive Plum Organics to see significant growth year after year.

Designing an identity

Once Grimmer launched the flexible spouted pouch with its large cap, it helped Plum Organics stand out in the grocery aisles with packaging that was different, eco-friendly, portable and convenient.

Inside the packaging, parents discovered an eclectic mix of ingredients that were relatively new to the baby food marketplace.

“We brought culinary-inspired recipes that weren’t commonly found in baby food — putting things together like raspberry, spinach and Greek yogurt, using ingredients like purple carrots, quinoa and amaranth,” Grimmer says. “We took the superfoods that are out there and brought them into the baby food category.”

One final element that set the stage for success was the mindset the company’s founders brought to the brand as young parents themselves.

“It’s by parents, for parents,” Grimmer says. “It had a sense of humor, but we also took the job of feeding our little ones the very best food very seriously. So it was a very approachable brand which deeply connected with parents around the country.”

Whether they had children or not, company leaders developed a personal connection with parents through a shared focus to bring better food to kids.

“That was one thing that really drove us through some of those tough early years to success in our later years. We catalyzed a movement. The idea of making it a mission to get better food to children took it outside the core objective of running a business and gave us a higher order of purpose and passion,” Grimmer says.

Finding a purpose

At the heart of the company’s mission was a belief that you should “walk in the shoes of those you serve.”

“That’s at the heart of our innovation process,” Grimmer says. “In the early days, we were all young parents. Living through those moments from zero to 1, from 1 to 3, you understand those phases deeply. As your little one grows through all of these different stages, their needs, wants and desires change pretty dramatically.”

The business was organized around the unique needs and requirements of each age phase, addressing solutions to help parents by understanding their concerns and needs. Grimmer says adopting a similar philosophical approach would serve companies well, no matter the industry.

“Give purpose and passion to the work that can deeply connect with you,” he says. “People who work for companies are hungry for that sense of purpose and passion. For companies, and CEOs specifically, to focus on that makes a lot of sense.”

Plum Organics has expanded that sense of purpose to help needy families with the creation of a program called Full Effect.

“Now that we’ve reached a certain scale and have a good, solid foundation, we’re able to expand the work we do beyond just getting better food to kids in their homes to starting to address the nutritional needs of little ones around the country who go hungry,” Grimmer says. “We had the privilege of working with the filmmakers who released ‘A Place at the Table,’ which really articulated the issue of hunger in America.”

About 16 million children in the United States go hungry every day and chronically miss meals.

“As a company that’s in the business of bringing better food to kids, we felt we had to play a role in helping ease that pain,” Grimmer says.

With Full Effect, Plum Organics worked with nonprofit partners Conscious Alliance, Convoy of Hope, Homeless Prenatal Program and Baby Buggy to supply families with 500,000 Super Smoothies in 2013. The goal for 2014 is to up the donation to 1 million.

“Our employees are really excited about being engaged in the program,” Grimmer says. “It’s a way we can start to help really expand the impact we have in the world.”

The past year saw another significant development for Plum Organics in a June 2013 partnership with Campbell’s, which will allow the company to continue to operate as a standalone entity.

Setting the table for growth

With its acquisition by Campbell’s, the company heads toward a new phase with a powerful food industry player able to support its growth.

“But we are continuing to run the company around the values and beliefs that we created in the early days,” Grimmer says. “They are quite frankly one of the few partners we’ve found that would give us that kind of operating freedom.”

Keeping up with product demand has been a problem from the beginning. In 2013, the company grew more than 50 percent. Plum Organics had a four-year compound annual growth rate of 99 percent.

“That kind of year-over-year growth is difficult for any business to keep up with,” Grimmer says. “That is one of our key challenges, like it is for any business going through scale and growth.”

Three growth levers have led the way, the first one being the consumers served by Plum Organics. By segmenting products into three different portfolios, the company centered offerings on the needs of babies, toddlers and children. Moms can find healthy foods that grow with their families as children progress from birth all the way to age 10.

“We wanted to be a solution for her and her family,” Grimmer says.

A second growth lever was derived within each of those three consumer segments by looking at the various eating occasions in which the availability of healthier options would make parents’ lives easier.

The final area of growth was geographical — expanding into Canada, opening a business in the United Kingdom and creating a distributor-based business in Asia.

“We realized that this idea of healthy food for little ones isn’t an exclusive concept to the United States,” Grimmer says. “Parents around the world are time starved, but want the best for their babies and kids.”

Keeping up with demand has meant entering into partnerships with manufacturers and bringing in Italian machinery to increase production capacity.

“The machinery would sputter and hiccup, but we became very experienced in how to modify and tune those machines to be very reliable workhorses,” Grimmer says. “We’ve also put a lot of focus on securing an organic supply of our fruits and vegetables, which obviously fluctuates with the seasons.”

Growth has not only created challenges from a production standpoint, but from a staffing perspective as well. Plum Organics expects to add about 20 more employees to reach a total of 90.

Despite the pressure to add personnel quickly, Plum Organics is cautious about ensuring new hires are a good fit.

“One of the pitfalls that any fast-growing company runs into is wanting to fill the seats that are available and fill roles as quickly as they can,” Grimmer says. “If you become impatient with your hiring process, you can end up filling a role with someone who fits the box on talent, but not on culture.

“What we’ve found is that spending the time to hire the right people, giving time to do the process effectively, has allowed us to find people who not only fit the technical requirements but also added to the culture.”

Part of that culture means being willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

“That’s one of our core truths. As CEO of the company, if I need to wash windows or take out the trash I’ll do it at a moment’s notice if that’s what it takes to move the needle on our business. We require everyone at all levels to have that same attitude,” Grimmer says.

A winning culture has been a critical part of the Plum Organics success story, according to Grimmer, and one that has set the business apart from its competition.

“What made us different as a brand was that first we made it personal, the idea that it is a brand and company by parents, for parents,” he says. “It’s a fun, stylish brand that also brought health to the home. It’s not just about making healthier products that are ho-hum. It’s about bringing those two things together — engagement and health.”

Takeaways:

  • Walk in the shoes of those you serve.
  • Find your purpose and passion.
  • Hire for culture as well as talent.

The Grimmer File:

Name: Neil Grimmer
Title: President, co-founder and “chief daddy-O”
Company: Plum Organics

Born: Ipswich, Mass.

Education: He received a master’s of fine arts in product design from Stanford University, and a bachelor’s of fine arts in conceptual art/sculpture from the California College of the Arts.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant for a summer. I became a vegetarian by the end of the summer.

Who is someone you admire in business? Jed Smith, the founder of Drugstore.com and executive director of Catamount Ventures. He funded my company based on our mission to bring better food to kids from the very first bite. I admire his vision to see the possibilities of a business at its earliest stage and his entrepreneurial spirit to weather the storms of a startup.

Do you have a favorite Plum product? What products do your children enjoy? I personally love our organic baby food pouches, which are purees of superfoods like organic fruits and veggies mixed together with ingredients like ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, Greek yogurt, beans, and herbs and spices. My favorite variety is our Raspberry, Spinach & Greek Yogurt.  

My girls love our Mashups organic squeezable purees for kids, as well as the organic Fruit & Veggie Shredz.

If you weren’t president of Plum Organics, what would you like to be doing instead? There is nothing I’d rather be doing. If I weren’t president of Plum, I’d be trying to get a shot at running Plum Organics.

Learn more about Plum Organics at:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/PlumOrganics
Twitter: @plumorganics

How to reach: Plum Organics, (877) 914-7586 or www.plumorganics.com

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