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“The Smartest Thing You Can Do Is Create A Company Culture Where People Work With You, Not For You”

An Interview With GrandyOats CEO Aaron Anker

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?

I always wanted to own my own business. From starting in my grandfather’s fish fry at age 8, to managing vegetarian restaurants in Aspen, Co., I always thought I would own my own restaurant. But after years in hospitality, I realized my love for food was matched by a love for adventure and travel. The wholesale side of business afforded me that freedom. First at a fresh juice company then to GrandyOats. In 2000 I joined Nat, my business partner, and it was a natural fit from the start. I loved working with stores, driving my VW bus from natural food Co-Ops to restaurants, colleges, and hotels around the country. They are my favorite people to work with – people that give good service and make their customers happy – and my job is to make theirs easier. I consider these customers partners and working with them is rewarding and a lot of fun. Since then, Nat and I have grown GrandyOats from just the two of us, to 32 employees in rural western Maine.

What is your definition of success?

Success is enjoying what you do for a living. I love my job and it affords me the freedom to travel, play with my kids, and do fun things with my wife and friends. At GrandyOats we have our company ethos, named Granola Wisdoms®. One of them states, “After you surf the web, surf the waves” promoting our dedication to a work / life balance. That balance, to me, is success.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Every year our entire company gathers for our annual Company Fun Day. Everyone partners up, gets canoes, and paddles down the Saco River, a gorgeous river that oxbows right behind our bakery. We all share GrandyOats snacks, craft beers from our favorite breweries, and squirt guns for a competitive edge. The best part is we all get to connect with co-workers we don’t get to know every day. Many of us travel on the sales and marketing team, while our production team is in Hiram, ME., making millions of pounds of granola each year. So, it’s great for all of us to be together, have fun, make jokes, and build friendships.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

Early on we realized that huge growth years didn’t mean we made more money. I recall one year in the beginning when we grew at 65%, but didn’t make much money. Nat and I both said – let’s slow down a bit and we intentionally grew at 5% (this was around the time we both had infants and were busy raising a family) and they were great profitable years for GrandyOats. Now, we try and grow around 15%-25% a year. It seems to be the sweet spot for our business, where we can cash flow the growth, hire more cool and smart people while still growing in sales and profit.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are a few big differences in the GrandyOats business model. It’s easy to list features like certified organic, no artificial ingredients, small batches, and the overall clean ingredients we use. But the harder one to explain is the place and the people who produce our delicious foods. Many don’t understand that the vast majority of products in a store, from a small health food store to a large grocery store are not made by the brands that are on the label. They are made by what are called “co-packers”. So many food brands are virtual companies that do a great job of marketing but do not make or pack their own products. At GrandyOats we make all our products ourselves in rural Maine. We restored a dairy barn many years ago and produced there for over 15 years. Two years ago, we revitalized an abandoned elementary school that was built in 1979 (the same year GrandyOats was founded). It is located along the Saco River, a gorgeous river that flows from the white mountains of New Hampshire to the Atlantic Ocean. Here we produce small batch products by hand. There are not many other organic food companies distributed around the country doing that.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Our line of grain-free granola, Coconola®, is being launched nationally right now. With its success we will be looking to expand the variety of flavors and the sizes we offer them in. We are always creating and coming up with innovative flavors, stay tuned as we have some awesome new flavors in the pipeline!

Is your company working to be more sustainable? If so, how?

After we bought the elementary school in 2015, we began looking at ways we would revitalize it sustainably. The first thing we looked at was updating heating and cooling systems (think big clunky radiator boxes in your school as a kid). And we looked at the large open ball fields that the students would have recess and baseball games on. That summer we installed 288 solar panels that now power everything on site. That means our ovens, packing machinery, heating, cooling, lights, computers, even our forklift is powered by energy we capture from the sun. In May of 2017, the EPA awarded GrandyOats the Environmental Merit Award for outstanding efforts in preserving New England’s environment, something I am very proud of as a Maine business owner and environmentalist.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

The smartest thing you can do is create a company culture where people work with you, not for you. Nat and I have always taken this approach. Beyond that, being compassionate and considerate when people need to take time off or have special circumstances, makes employees feel valued and understood. We offer health insurance, paid time off, matching IRA’s, and other benefits like that. A year ago we introduced a profit-sharing plan. It sets high goals that are achievable but might not always be reached. So far in four quarters we have been able to share profits two out of four times. These types of connections to the business are important for everyone. You want people to care about where they work and how they earn a living.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father, Michael Anker, was important in shaping my outlook on business. He was a dentist and always worked in partnerships. He loved what he did and loved to take care of his patients. He was trusted and worked hard. He also loved what owning his own practice allowed him to do; travel around the world, be a hobby photographer, and have a flexible schedule. Seeing that growing up, motivated me to own my own business, create good partnerships, and learn that money isn’t everything. He showed me you also need to enjoy yourself, family, and friends. At GrandyOats, we could have grown faster over the past 18 years, we could have taken on outside capital and grown to a much larger company, but Nat and I wanted to grow in a sustainable way that afforded us the time to enjoy life. We look at it as a jog, not a sprint.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think much of the reason I am a part of GrandyOats is to try and make the world a better place. I’ll start with the fact that GrandyOats only uses organic ingredients and that we promote our commitment to organic agriculture on a local, state, and national level. This means our farmers are using less pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that can run off into the rivers, lakes, and oceans in many parts of the country and the world. I also think on a more local level, we are the largest employer in Hiram, ME, employing 32 people and that has changed our small corner of the world. When I see bakers who started making granola at GrandyOats years ago, who are now managing the crew or helping purchase and develop recipes, that now own homes and raising families in our town, I get really excited. To me that is Goodness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?

1. That profitable growth does not mean you will see the profit for some time. Our 65% growth years put us in debt for a while but, as we slowed growth down and paid down the growth debt we became more profitable.

2. That we need to make money before we can give it away. In the earlier years of GrandyOats, we launched a line called Organic Trails (organic snacks and trail mixes). We committed to giving money to the American Hiking Society to keep our trails clean and safe. It was a great mission, but the product never took off and we could hardly donate a thing.

3. Only focus on the things you can control. Years ago, when another granola company came in to the market and grew so fast with a well-capitalized and smartly marketed product that wasn’t organic, I got really annoyed and tried to do whatever we could to keep up. I realized I could only run our business with the tools and capital we had. Realizing our success was at the pace we choose, and it was our path we needed to focus on.

4. Find your employees strengths, and put them in positions to show their best work and potential. And if something isn’t working, get ahead of it before it’s a problem. You can save yourself a lot of headache, money, and in the end it’s actually the kinder thing for the person, the business, teamwork, and for your own head space.

5. Spending money on smart marketing and sales is always a good call. As a self-funded company, it’s often hard to spend money on marketing and design. Every time we have done it in a smart way we realize how much we get back. The same goes for a good salesperson or sales partner. Of course, there are examples of some bad ideas and people that were not the best fit. However the good calls have by far outweighed the bad. And the bad calls always have some learning from them. You must spend money to make money of course, and you must be willing to try out ideas in order to learn.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Being a part of the organic food movement has inspired me greatly. I still thrive to explain to people how important organic agriculture is to our planet and its water. Many people look at organic foods as a cleaner thing for their body and I believe that is true. I understand the motivation to take care of you and your family by growing and buying organic foods. But I feel even more passionate about what is happening in the river deltas of the Mississippi and all over the world from the synthetic pesticides that are polluting our rivers, oceans, and lands. It’s more than food, it’s about the environment and healthy lives for all. I wish I could explain that in the 3 seconds people take to read our label and learn about our company.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have a very simple quote I use, “success is a problem I’d love to have”. What I mean by this is, we often worry about how we will handle something if thishappens or that happens with the business. Instead you often need to just go and make the success happen yourself, then if a problem arises, take the time to solve it smartly. Adjust, modify, and solve the challenge when it happens instead of getting caught up in the concerns of “what ifs”. That is the meaning of the quote for me.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.

I have been very fortunate to meet impressive people both well-known and some that are less known. I think the thing I love to do more than anything is to seek counsel from other business leaders. It’s my favorite thing about owning a business, especially in a small state like Maine, people are approachable. When having conversations with smart people that are changing the world, you can always learn something. There is someone I haven’t met and I would love to meet, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. I love his life and business philosophy and feel they’re very much in line with my own. 

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