Real Leaders

The Freedom of Choice

Former vegan punk rock kid. Band member. Previous animal rights activist. Artist. Baby food company CEO. Viewed through a wide lens, one of these things is not like the other. But zoom in and you’ll find they are all driven to impact the world in a positive way – through values, creativity and choice. “What is in my DNA that is consistent with the root of Plum Organics?” says Neil Grimmer, CEO of Plum Organics (pictured above). “When I was 20, I wanted to channel my creativity to inspire people to look differently at the world. It was music and animal rights then, but it was also the notion of living your own life. The idea that you can choose what you eat, what you are, how you live, what you wear. These are usually prescribed, but there is something meaningful to picking your path and living authentically. That is at the heart of it.”

Using creativity as his foundation, Neil got his “first official job” at IDEO, an international design firm. At that time, as an endurance athlete, he was exploring his relationship with food and using his body to experiment the fueling of it. “As the resident food guy, I worked with food companies in the midst of considering health and wellness for the first time. After six years, I realized, healthy food should come from a healthy company. That was meaningful to me personally, but I also saw the green shoots of that opinion emerging in other companies like Patagonia and Clif Bar.” Neil left IDEO to join Clif Bar in strategy and innovation, where he saw the practical aspects of codifying mission and vision, and of making transparent decisions.

And in 2007, with creativity, values and an idea driven by the birth of his first daughter, Neil co-founded Plum Organics, an organic baby food and toddler snack brand built on the core values of “healthy eating for life”. “When I was vegan, I was unhealthy and didn’t know what I was doing,” Neil said. “Being healthy can be complicated. But it doesn’t have to be. We want to make it simple for parents to feed their kids and live their values without compromise.” This led to successful and innovative products, as well as a strong culture that is interwoven in the daily life of the office. “We put our people first. We make every decision based on parents and their young children. In that process, we create a healthy business.

We hire people that are deeply passionate, talented, and personally connected to the work we do. They bring that mindset to the work and it creates a standard for excellence that comes from the heart.” In 2013, Plum Organics was acquired by The Campbell Soup Company. The acquisition provided Plum with structural support, the ability to grow and the ability to influence the larger corporation. “We knew the values of Plum would remain strong after the acquisition because behind every corporate deal, there are people. In our case, Denise Morrison, CEO of The Campbell Soup Company, was primarily the one behind the deal. When I met her, the first thing she said was ‘My grandchildren are Plum babies.

I understand what you do and why, because it is impacting my family in a positive way.’ For me, that personal commitment and sheer enthusiasm reassured me in the partnership.” Both inside Plum and Campbell, and outside to other businesses, Neil believes in sharing what Plum has done as an example of a fundamental refocus on how business should be done. “Pioneers before us showed us a path – that by doing good, you can create a great business.

Now consumers are backing companies that align with their values. Investors and corporations know this is the new economy, not just a marketing slogan. There is even more infrastructure and an acceleration of learning, measurement and guideposts from thought leaders. But we have to have courage and faith in the notion that you can lead a business with heart. We have to reinforce the message that you can have a personal and emotionally relevant vision for creating social good that is good for the business, too. We are demonstrating that through the Plum story.”

Neil will be speaking at the Conscious Capitalism 2015 annual conference, which will be held in Chicago April 7-9.

“There is radical values alignment between Plum and Conscious Capitalism. The credo and framework that built Conscious Capitalism as an organization and community are deeply embedded in our organization.” His practicum, Staying True to Your Mission in Times of Change, will provide valuable guidance on how to lead a mission-driven company through an acquisition, while reassuring stakeholders and protecting the company’s mission and purpose.

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