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“Why you should listen.” With Charlie Katz & Amy McDonald

The single most important thing our business can do as we emerge from this is to really take the time to listen to consumer needs. I mean really listen. Get in touch with them directly and hear what they are saying, what they are doing, how they are feeling. And then adapt accordingly, with urgency. […]

The single most important thing our business can do as we emerge from this is to really take the time to listen to consumer needs. I mean really listen. Get in touch with them directly and hear what they are saying, what they are doing, how they are feeling. And then adapt accordingly, with urgency. Old ways won’t likely deliver results post-COVID. We have to open our eyes and ears to new ways of working, shopping, and living.


As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy McDonald.

Amy is the CEO and President of ALTWELL CBD brand. She has been in the Food and Beverage industry for 30+ years, working in the flavor, food ingredient and pharma sectors. Prior to this role she was President of a large independent flavor company, where she spent 13 years. She holds degrees in Microbiology and Chemistry as well and an executive MBA . Amy has been awarded Fortune’s Great Workplace for ALL Leadership Award, was named to Crain’s list of “Notable Women in Manufacturing. She has led organizations to top awards including Forbes Small Giants and, Fortune’s Great Places to Work.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Long story, but I am a scientist by education who, after a few years in the lab with microbes, fell in love with sales in the food and beverage space. I’ve had the pleasure of leading amazing organizations to growth while innovating products with the taste and experience consumers crave. I met the Pickett family while leading a family owned flavor company, and when they shared they were entering the CBD space and intended to create great tasting products consumers could trust, I knew I wanted to be involved.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Well, there are a lot to choose from because I make tons of mistakes everyday. One of the funniest one that comes to mind was a sales call I made with my boss early in my career. We landed the order, and I kept selling — almost to the point where I raised some questions in my customer’s mind. Jack, my boss, practically pulled me out of the room. Later he said, “Amy, once you get the order, it’s time to shut up, smile and leave…quickly.” I have never forgotten that sales is about listening more and talking less. In fact, most things are about listening more, aren’t they?

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

Wow, I love reading, so it’s tough to pick. As a leader one there is one that I have used with my teams in the last few years. It allows me to incorporate lessons from a competitive spirit and my love of sports, specifically NCAA basketball, too. It’s Jay Wright’s book “Attitude”. Jay is he coach of Villanova Men’s Basketball, he led teams that won 2 NCAA championships in 3 years. I love this book because it has great lessons about striving for excellence, honoring those that laid the path before you, teamwork, and importantly, how you can’t change the last play that didn’t work, but you sure can learn from it and change the next one. I think success is born from having a can-do attitude and a growth mindset. It’s about learning and working hard to get better each day. In the book, Jay talks about how he measures his team — it’s the little things that happen each second that create the win, not the flashy moves. It’s also about improving every single game. Business, especially a start-up like ALTWELL, is like that — are we better today than we were yesterday? If we can consistently answer this with “yes” then we are headed towards success.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?

The patriarch of our founding family, Greg Pickett, made sure I knew on day 1 of my job that “all great brands are created with great purpose” It’s something we live each day as a team. Our purpose is to help people live their best life naturally. If we can help to reduce dependencies on pharmaceuticals and synthetic pain reducers, we’d be thrilled. ALTWELL was created to be a CBD brand that consumers can trust. From ethical and meticulous sourcing, to great taste; to triple testing of all products, safe packaging, and overall transparency — this brand has been built by food and nutrition professionals and it’s not our first rodeo. Why is this important? Well, we firmly believe CBD is a much needed alternative for balance, relief, rest and nourishment. And if ALTWELL can help people to feel better, rest better and be healthier though great tasting natural products, well then, our purpose is served.

Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?

I grew up in science and then sales — and throughout my career my guiding principle has been that you have to truly believe in what you sell. Its all about being authentic. This principle helps you to make decisions along the way — both in good times and bad. If you believe in your product, and do the right thing for your customers and your brand, the answers always come easy. Your brand is an extension of your personal reputation and a reflection of your values — never forget that. Believe in what you sell and your purpose — the authenticity of your belief is transparent to all.

Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

We have all faced challenges, for sure. On the personal front, I had just returned to Chicago, where I live, when everything started shutting down. ALTWELL and my team, are based in Northern California, so my weekly commute went from halfway across the country, to another room in my house in an instant. As a new company and a new team, we had to adapt quickly, as everyone did, to Zoom calls and virtual meetings- all while balancing dogs, kids, homeschooling, etc. My 21 year old college student came home as her campus closed and I had the resist the urge to “parent” my young adult. Oh, and since my job is in California, did I mention that I had just put my home up for sale and was getting ready to move? Great timing for sure. So, lots of stress. What have I done to address it? Well, it starts with attitude and gratitude. Getting great sleep and adding in meditation after a long day also helps. My team and I have embraced video calls and are really getting some great work done. And being in the CBD business has certainly been a benefit during stressful times. Lots of product innovation is happening for ALTWELL at the moment, and, well, most days we “have to have” tastings — ahh the benefit of a little balance with the help of CBD.

Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I talked about the distance with my team already, but the same applies to customers and suppliers — and we have great ones on both fronts. Like most companies, we are very used to meeting our customers in person, especially as we are newly introducing the brand . Closures of our customers and dramatic changes in their decision making process has been our biggest challenge. We’ve taken this time, though, to get super focused and organized. We have invested in programs and marketing support that we believe will make our customers even more successful once reopened. We have also intensified our direct to consumer relationship, which has been a gift. This channel is growing in sales, but maybe even more importantly it is helping us to mold our new product development direction, resulting in several new accelerated launches. Had the pandemic not forced us to work differently in our sales channels, we might have missed some great consumer insight and expressed needs.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Yes, there is absolutely a ton of anxiety, and good reason for it — as our daily lives have changed dramatically. First, I’ve encouraged my family, friends and teammates to just breathe — acknowledge that it’s ok to be anxious — our brains are working hard to figure out what’s next, and it’s pretty unpredictable right now. We don’t have to have the answers, we just have to manage day by day. It’s okay to admit that we have bad days, and it’s important to talk about it. Sleep and exercise are also important in providing balance. Exploring alternative methods like mediation and CBD can also help to reduce the stress. I now take CBD twice a day, a tincture in the morning to help me focus and a softgel under my tongue at night to slow my mind down and help me rest well. For many sleep is tough not just in times like this but also in normal times. I’ve always believed that sleep solves a lot, so do what you can to get solid rest. Overall, I’d say the most important thing in this time is to simply give yourself a break. You don’t have to come out of this stay at home order “transformed”. Just get through it and take it a step at a time. Care for yourself and those around you and get good sleep.

Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?

Times of challenge always result in opportunity; I truly believe that. I’m a huge history buff and history over centuries shows that to be true. Post COVID I believe mental wellness will be a huge focus. Direct consumer relationship and education about wellness will be critical as consumers will continue to buy online, trying products recommended by friends and family. I also believe small, nimble companies will have an advantage going forward as they stay close to consumers and can act fast. Healthy living will continue to be something we all strive for and personalized nutrition will be a huge opportunity as well. I think a trend away from pharmaceuticals and towards natural alternatives is coming. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that life is precious, and we have to take care of ourselves and those we love. Mental wellness and stress management is absolutely a key foundation of a healthy lifestyle. I personally can’t wait to see the new industries and segments that will be born post-COVID.

How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?

Our shopping habits will certainly change, and I’m not sure they will ever go back to a pre-pandemic state. I also think consumers will focus more than ever on self-care, choosing products and brands that convey quality, purpose and trust. We will spend more money on caring for ourselves and our families and maybe we will even slow down a bit and resist the urge to “overbook” our lives and those of our children. I believe we will center activities around relationships, and will care more about getting outside and enjoying nature. In my neighborhood, it’s so nice to see families going on walks together and cheering neighbors on for special events. That is a welcome change. I really hope this new sense of community will remain intact long after a vaccine is available. As we “slow down” I also truly hope the trend towards self-care will increase our comfort in discussing mental wellness and in realizing that caring for our mental well-being is just as critical as our physical health. I truly believe mental management will be a lifestyle change going forward.

Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?

The single most important thing our business can do as we emerge from this is to really take the time to listen to consumer needs. I mean really listen. Get in touch with them directly and hear what they are saying, what they are doing, how they are feeling. And then adapt accordingly, with urgency. Old ways won’t likely deliver results post-COVID. We have to open our eyes and ears to new ways of working, shopping, and living. To grow ALTWELL we will need to innovate how we work, how we interact with consumers, how we launch new products. The channels we sell to will be refreshed post-COVID and am sure new ones will emerge.

Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?

Listen to the pulse of the new consumer and ask lots of questions. Don’t assume things will return to prior state, even after lots of time. Expect change. Our “new normal” will likely have emphasis on the “new” over normal.

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

This one is incredibly relevant today, I’m not sure of the author, but I believe this to my core “Old ways do not open new doors” This goes hand-in-hand with the saying that “success is never owned, it is rented, the rent is due every day!” I believe in hard work and iterative learning, so those sayings really have helped me to chart my path both at home as a single mom, and in my career.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow-me on LinkedIn and check out Altwell.com as well as our IG feed @altwellcbd. We have a great team at ALTWELL and you can count on us to make some noise as this industry evolves.

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