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Tony Bedard of Frontier Coop: “Make your own luck”

I’m very proud of the impact our co-op has on our world and all the lives we touch. We have a longstanding sustainable sourcing program called Well Earth, through which we are able to develop and foster long term relationships with our sourcing partners, investing in their businesses and communities around the world. Sourcing the […]

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I’m very proud of the impact our co-op has on our world and all the lives we touch. We have a longstanding sustainable sourcing program called Well Earth, through which we are able to develop and foster long term relationships with our sourcing partners, investing in their businesses and communities around the world. Sourcing the quality of product that we require is more than a needle in a haystack, and our long-term success is dependent on the long-term success of our sourcing partners. It’s in everyone’s best interests that we help ensure they have the resources, experience, and skills they need in order to be successful both from a business perspective, but also from a community perspective. Over the years we have contributed millions of dollars to projects that help build both businesses and communities, from helping to purchase equipment and succession planning to setting up dental clinics and supporting education in these communities. This reciprocal relationship with our partners has really come to define who we are as a co-op.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Bedard.

Tony Bedard leads Frontier Co-op’s mission to nourish people and planet with a passion for doing good that is rooted in operational excellence and service work. Tony joined Frontier Co-op as a Plant Manager in 1991, was promoted to Vice President of Operations, then served as interim CEO in 1999 and 2000 before being officially named CEO in 2002.

Tony is a strong advocate of corporate social responsibility. He has travels throughout the world to visit small-scale organic growers in conjunction with Frontier Co-op’s Well Earth program and supports dozens of community and business building projects in grower communities.

Outside of work, Tony has led more than 25 delegations to El Salvador and Haiti to support a number of projects providing education, water, medical services and business support to people and organizations in need of assistance.

Tony has been an active member of the Organic Trade Association and served on the Board of Directors from 2008–2017. He has a Bachelor of Technology from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters from Kettering University


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s really this idea that doing good in the world actually works for a company — long before we had that purpose statement hammered out. When I came to Frontier Co-op, I was looking for a company that was growing, but didn’t experience the ups and downs that I had experienced in my first job out of college. Along with this sense of stability, I was looking for a place that allowed me the freedom and autonomy to do what I thought would be best for the company. The more I looked, the more I found that what really drew me to the natural foods industry was also rooted in the concept of corporate social responsibility. I have always believed that business, more than anything else, can be a powerful force for change. Fortunately for me, Frontier Co-op uses that power to do some really remarkable, powerful things.

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

I started at Frontier Co-op in 1991, when it was still very small. What attracted me most to the company, and what makes me love the company to this day, is the way we do business — guided by our values statement that “In all that we do, at all times, and with all people, we will conduct our affairs and the affairs of the company with unwavering integrity.” Unsurprisingly to most, the founder of the co-op left suddenly in 1999 and I took over as interim CEO at a fairly young age. I was honestly more than content running our Operations at the time, so I quickly took myself out of the running for the CEO job., Ten months later the co-op hired a new CEO, who was here less than two years, and who almost bankrupted the company. I left the business for about four months during that time and ultimately returned as CEO. That tumultuous period of time was very hard on our co-op, but the lesson I learned was incredibly valuable, and still key to how we run the company today. If you, for even a moment, lose sight of who you really are as a company, the fundamental values that have guided you, and the things that have made you successful, that loss of identity can ruin a company quickly and from the inside out.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first big management job early in my career was in a motorhome assembly plant where I ran a major production line. I was just starting the job, and was working on the line as was part of my regular routine. One day, I walked by a long-time employee named Virgil. I remember asking Virgil how things were going and he answered something to the effect of, “Same as every day”. About an hour later, I came back by and found Virgil using a sledgehammer to bend the frame of a brand-new motorhome. When I asked Virgil what he was doing, and why he didn’t say something earlier, Virgil responded by saying that he did, “I have been hitting the back of these motorhomes for years. If I don’t, the backcap never fits”. So, to Virgil this inefficiency issue was just like any other day. I use this story often as a reminder that it is all about perspective.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I’m very proud of the impact our co-op has on our world and all the lives we touch. We have a longstanding sustainable sourcing program called Well Earth, through which we are able to develop and foster long term relationships with our sourcing partners, investing in their businesses and communities around the world. Sourcing the quality of product that we require is more than a needle in a haystack, and our long-term success is dependent on the long-term success of our sourcing partners. It’s in everyone’s best interests that we help ensure they have the resources, experience, and skills they need in order to be successful both from a business perspective, but also from a community perspective. Over the years we have contributed millions of dollars to projects that help build both businesses and communities, from helping to purchase equipment and succession planning to setting up dental clinics and supporting education in these communities. This reciprocal relationship with our partners has really come to define who we are as a co-op.

In addition to our sourcing partnerships around the world, we dedicate funding each year to supporting important work being done both here in Iowa and across the country. Our Simply Organic Giving Fund is dedicated to helping address systemic food insecurity across the US — an issue that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Aura Cacia Positive Change Project provides funding to non-profits across the country helping women and girls of courage and determination to make positive, transformational changes in their lives. Locally, our funds are dedicated to helping break down barriers to employment faced my many in our community, from childcare to transportation to apprenticeship to second-chance hiring practices. We also dedicate money each year to supporting research, helping quantify and better understand the impact that conventional farming practices and GMOs, and conversely organic, regenerative agricultural practices have on the farmers who work the land, on the air, soil, and water health, and the impact those practices have longer term on the consumers who bring these products into their homes to feed their families.

Our approach to this work is really framed up by our purpose statement, that ‘Doing Good, Works’. This work all together comes out to about 1 million dollars of investment each year. But I want to make clear: it’s not charity. We believe fundamentally that ‘doing good’ by our employees, our sourcing partners, our communities, and our planet, ultimately helps ensure the long-term success of our co-op. I can’t stress enough to business leaders that this work really does come back to us. Whether it’s through dedicated employees who are committed to helping push our co-op forward through growth and innovation, loyal consumers who continue to purchase our products because they want to support the mission-driven work we do, or even cost savings as often is the case with our environmental stewardship work, doing good really does work.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

As part of our work locally breaking down barriers to employment, a few years ago we partnered with a local judicial district to identify potential positions within our company for inmates who were preparing to reenter society. Through this partnership, we were able to hire our employee Michael Willoughby.

Originally, Mike was hired to start in production on the floor. It was obvious right away that he was bright and motivated so we offered him the job, and I can honestly say we’re better for it. Within just a couple months he had proven himself and was promoted to an operator position. Today, Michael is a vital team member and plays a key role in our company’s IT network team. He learns quickly, communicates and interacts well with everyone across the organization. He’s an exemplary employee who cares about our co-op and the good we do in the world, and we’re lucky to have him.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to take a close look at our criminal justice system, and not lock people up for minor or non-violent crimes, especially drugs. People deserve a second chance, and we as a society need to recognize that there are many criminal-justice-involved people who are willing and able, and just need an opportunity to prove themselves and get back on their feet.

As a country we also need to focus on small farmers. There is a lot of talk about helping rural America, where our co-op is based, and here, Big Ag is king. Today, the cards are stacked to help large scale consolidation of rural farms. We need to refocus our efforts on providing the support small farmers need to be successful.

Politicians and business leaders need to play a larger role investing in the developing world, with less of a focus on military spend, and more on supporting sustainable economic development.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe leadership starts with the example you set. While this may sound a little cliché, I wouldn’t ask anyone to do a job I wasn’t willing to do myself. I try to regularly set aside some time to work on our production floor and in our distribution warehouses. It helps make sure I stay connected to the staff, I learn a lot, and it sends the positive message that every job in our company is equally important.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The best ideas come from the people who are actually doing the work day to day; if you want to be a good leader, be a good listener. Don’t prescribe solutions without asking the people who are doing the work.

Having a title doesn’t make you smart. It didn’t take me long to realize that the people who were my ‘superiors’ weren’t any smarter or more capable than me.

Just because something is true, doesn’t mean you should say it. I am overly transparent and often times blunt in my communications. While this sometimes works to my benefit today when it comes to employees trusting what I say, early in my career it was more of a problem as I stepped on the toes of people that were more senior than me.

Everything in moderation. Whether it is in your work life, or your personal life, everything in moderation. Too often in my career I have gotten out of balance when the challenges of work took over my life.

Work can be fun, if you make it that way. I realized that it was okay to have fun at work and that it is possible to be friends with your colleagues and your employees. Early in my career I was told by a manager that it wasn’t good that I was so close to my staff, despite the fact that we were hands down the highest performing manufacturing line in the company. I made it very clear to my boss that when it came time to make a hard decision, which it ultimately did, my friendships wouldn’t get in the way, and they didn’t.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

I always tell anyone who is willing to listen that every business should subscribe to the idea that doing good, works. Regardless of what type of company you are or what industry you’re in, you are in a unique position to do some good in the world. Challenge yourself to consider how you can use your business as a source for good in the world. If you’re a bank, consider microloans to small businesses, or entrepreneurs in developing countries around the world. Any company with employees can adopt second-chance hiring practices, giving individuals who have or are involved in the criminal justice system an opportunity to get back on their feet, and better their lives for themselves and their families.

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

Make your own luck. My father died when I was young, leaving my mother with 6 kids. In order to make a good life for us she married again — to a widower who had 9 kids. Along the way I gained another little brother to make it an even 16 kids. I had a good childhood, but I learned early on that if you wanted something you had to work for it. Set out each and every day to make something happen for yourself. You have to be prepared for the next opportunity that comes your way, even if you don’t know when or what it will be.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love the opportunity to meet the Pope. Growing up in a big Catholic family, of course the Papacy has always been a source of influence in my life, but specifically Pope Francis’s focus on helping the poor in developing countries really resonates with me. Over the past couple decades, I’ve led more than 25 humanitarian missions to El Salvador and Haiti to support projects in the areas of education, clean water, and healthcare. I’d relish the opportunity to meet a world leader who is so dedicated to the advocacy and support of communities in these developing countries.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m not too active on social media but you can follow the work done by Frontier Co-op both here and around the world on our LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook pages.

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/company/frontier-coop/

Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/frontiercoop/

Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/frontiercoop

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