Why John Roulac feeds America’s appetite for change to sow organic growth at Nutiva

To call John Roulac a rebel would be an understatement.

The passionate, strong-willed founder and CEO of Nutiva could have followed the rising tide of consumer interest in health foods and nutrition. Instead, he became a leader of the movement by identifying a host of new superfoods and launching a campaign to sway minds and pallets across America.

“Wherever there’s danger, there’s opportunity,” Roulac says. “So I picked foods that were either forgotten or maligned by political or economic forces. The idea of challenging long-held beliefs instead of the competition has served us well.”

Rather than peddling recognized health foods like blueberries and almonds, Nutiva has carved out a niche as a renegade innovator. The firm develops and markets products derived from taboo sources like hemp seed, which is classified as a drug by the Food and Drug Administration, and coconut oil, which was once denounced as an evil saturated fat by U.S. medical experts.

“We encountered resistance from the federal government right out of the gate,” Roulac says. “If you really believe in your mission, and you’re willing to endure a little pain, then you can probably overcome any challenge.”

Purveying products made from chia, red palm and goji berries has propelled Nutiva from a floundering startup to a bona fide player in the organic and natural foods industry with 115 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenues. It’s also cemented Roulac’s reputation as a brazen entrepreneur who isn’t afraid to pick a fight with the establishment.

Tapping into new products and changing customer mindsets can create vibrant, long-term growth and market share. Unfortunately, those lofty goals are often difficult to achieve.

Here’s a look at Roulac’s battle-tested strategies.

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Promoting foods that have gotten short shrift has helped Nutiva develop a loyal following and stay one step ahead of the competition. After all, who doesn’t like to root for the underdog? Publicly challenging the bureaucratic elite also makes great fodder for a marketing campaign. So how does Roulac manage to pick winners?

“Most CEOs base their product decisions strictly on data, and that’s a mistake,” Roulac says.

“Naturally, I monitor the news and we validate trends by surveying consumers, but it takes intuition to anticipate what people will want to eat a few years before they do.”

Roulac initially looks for natural foods that have gotten a bad rap from the FDA or the medical community. Then, he searches for data and anecdotal evidence that refutes the experts’ conclusions.

Roulac began honing his research skills and intuition at an early age. He became a fan of natural foods at the age of 11 and started reading The Wall Street Journal at 14.
When he spots the right combination of factors, he seizes the opportunity.

For instance, data showed that coconut oil had been an integral part of the diet in Sri Lanka and many other tropical cultures for years. Curiously, people in those regions had lower rates of heart disease than people in the U.S., who followed the typical American diet.

So Roulac developed a line of products made from coconut oil and waged a public information war against the experts from Harvard, Yale and the American Medical Association. It makes you wonder how a fighter like Roulac picks his battles.

“Really, it comes down to wisdom,” Roulac says. “In this case, it was either fight the government and win or go to jail or go bankrupt, so I put everything I had into it.
“Naturally, once you get older and become more successful you tend to be more conservative. But, you should never lose your edge or give up what made your company great. Certainly you want to be reflective as you contemplate new products, but sometimes business leaders just need to double down.”

Predicting adoption rates and cash flow can be tricky for companies that stake their hopes on cutting-edge products and major policy changes. In those situations, intuition and a gut feel can play an indispensable role.

For instance, Roulac uses data and intuition to predict unfavorable swings in economic and social conditions that may stymie sales or slow the acceptance of a new product.

He’s also learned to hedge his bet by creating a flexible business plan. For example, he’ll proactively pull back on marketing and promotional expenses if he senses an impending economic slide. For the record, he believes the next recession will occur in 2016 or in 2017.

“We almost went bankrupt a hundred times in the early days,” he says. “I’ve learned to anticipate a shift in the wind and redefine our business strategy. Computers lack intuition. You need to be an intuitive decision-maker to develop impeccable timing.”