You Can Stay Nice

By Jeffrey Klineman

Just before we sent this issue to press, I had the chance to speak with the owners of three brands that were on the ropes, financially: Adina’s Norm Snyder, New Leaf’s Eric Skae, and RelaxZen’s Brent Sonnek-Schmelz.

It was interesting to me how humble the CEOs of these companies were, how willing they were to stay friendly and conversational even in the midst of turmoil. Sometimes the nicest folks are the ones who run into trouble. All three are hard working and intense, but they have never been anything but kind when it comes to taking questions, no matter how tough times got. All three also spent much of the last year having to try to raise money instead of being able to focus on execution: it’s got to be a hard situation, knowing you’ve spent your time trying so hard to get the branding right but then turning your focus entirely away from what’s in the bottle because you have to worry about what’s in the bank account.

Such a tough year might turn folks brittle and angry, but instead they stayed gracious. The cynic in me was forced to wonder – in this business, is it possible to remain nice and still be successful.

While watching those businesses struggle, however, I also had a chance to speak with two food and beverage executives who had made it through various versions of the “valley of despair” and out to the other side, Mike Repole and Gary Hirshberg. Repole was one of the co-founders of Vitaminwater, and Hirshberg was the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the organic dairy company.

Repole – who is coming back into the beverage business with an investment in Lance Collins’ Body Armor brand – told me that one of the things that drives him is that he hates to lose, and that if he does lose, he’ll run that loss over and over inhis head until he figures out why he lost so that he can’t get beaten that way again.

But that competitive streak doesn’t necessarily make him a bad guy – in fact, when discussing the outrageous success that Vitaminwater eventually realized, he spent much of his time praising the Vitaminwater team, talking about how glad hewas to able to share the experience and the good fortune resulting from the brand’s $4-billion-plus windfall with them. The fact that 40 or so employees moved to work with him at new venture Pirate Brands indicates the loyalty he’s managed to engender and the careers he’s helped to launch.

Hirshberg, meanwhile, managed to spend a decade at Grupo Danone, the company that acquired Stonyfield, while turning himself through investment and leadership advice into something of a godfather for promising organic brands,including Honest Tea and Peak Organic beer. The key reason he left the CEO job at Stonyfield was that he’d finally found a new cause, getting genetically modified crops out of the food supply.  It takes a lot of drive to turn a struggling organic farm into one of the largest yogurt and dairy businesses in the country, but Hirshberg, through his community and environmental involvement, as well as his interest in fostering success for others, is proof that you can be generous and driven at the same time.

So there are two incredibly successful entrepreneurs who have been able to remain friendly and giving in the midst of heavy capitalism. Does it get rough at times? Certainly – and no one would accuse any of the CEO’s I’m talking about here, from Snyder, Skae and Sonnek-Schmelz, all of whom have called to yell at me at some point or another, to Hirshberg and Repole themselves – of being shrinking violets. All of them are intense, dogmatic, driven. You have to be. Hirshberg and Repole both faced hard questions when building their businesses, many of them on par with what Snyder, Skae and Sonnek-Schmelz are now facing. Hirshberg came close to bankruptcy. The point is that the pressures of business can turn anyone mean, whether or not they’re a success. But they don’t have to: you can be a nice guy and still be successful – and if you are, a lot more people will not only be happy for you when you’re winning, they might want to help you out when you aren’t. It’s a competitive business, this beverage world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be cutthroat.