Greg Steltenpohl, the innovative juice executive who twice brought progressive, environmentally and socially conscious brands to national prominence, was deep into a triumphant second act as a businessman — and force for good — when he passed away this week.
This came too soon for all of us, industry and media and friends, family, and associates alike.
Greg was a great person: an idealistic, humble, cool, caring, charismatic older brother to so many of the people he inspired. He was idolized as a pioneer not just because of what he created in Odwalla and Califia, but because he bore the scars that came with having been one of the first entrepreneurs through the door of the natural food business. With hip dignity, he wore both the triumphs and setbacks of a pioneer.
Greg never stopped evolving, or helping the people and institutions around him evolve. It’s remarkable to me that a guy whose entire life seemed to center around the intellectual liberalism of San Francisco and Northern California could all of a sudden pick up and relocate to flashy Los Angeles, immediately finding community and fellow travelers, identifying substance where others might find vapidity, then actively contributing to its cultural revival by linking the new Califia headquarters with the revival of the Downtown L.A. Arts District.
Greg was part of the ballyhooed group of businesspeople in the late 1980s and early 1990s who pioneered the idea that companies could do well by doing good. Greg, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Gary Hirshberg, Steve Demos, Emanuel Bronner: their enterprises helped create the legend of this heroic, misfit rebel, the ones who injected social values into the world of consumer commerce.
But I would posit that, among that group, Greg’s business career became legendary because he publicly wore the hard lessons as well as the easy ones. In the 1980s he had started Odwalla Juice, launching the fresh juice category in grocery and eventually taking the company public in 1993. In 1996, at the height of its sales, an E. Coli outbreak traced to Odwalla’s apple juice killed one consumer, sickened others, and the company, rescued from bankruptcy by private equity firms, was eventually sold by those investors to the Coca-Cola Company. As a company, Odwalla eventually pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges, and paid millions of dollars in civil cases — but Odwalla’s leadership also received praise for pulling its product quickly from shelves, offering to pay medical bills, and accepting responsibility for the outbreak before authorities officially blamed them.
The trip to Califia wasn’t a direct line from Odwalla. In fact, before that second company, Greg took his lumps with Adina for Life, a failed juice partnership that started as a socially conscious business, this time aimed at supporting fair-trade, organic, and natural ingredients indigenous to different countries and regions. Adina proved to be a case of too much too fast: with Greg and SoBe founder John Bello both on as executives and investors, it faltered under the weight of the personalities and stylistic differences involved. Nevertheless, late in the game Greg turned to high-end ready-to-drink canned coffees in an attempt to gain traction for the brand; as its juice drinks, under Bello, started to seem more and more like a blustery SoBe 2.0, the coffee drinks that Greg favored seemed to be a recommitment to the idea that the substance, and the mission, lay closer to the ground. He was burned by the experience for sure, but he later told me that the pivot to coffee was one of the keys to his vision for Califia.
After a couple of quiet years, in 2010, Greg started to develop a plan for a juice manufacturing business in partnership with Berne Evans, a Bakersfield, California citrus farmer. Early in the business Greg shifted the emphasis at Califia away from juices and towards another prominent Bakersfield crop, California almonds, and the decision to make almond milk caught the industry and the consumer at the right time. Even early on, you could tell that Greg was on to something, that Califia was going to make it, that this really was a second act.
But to really restart his career, Greg also had to overcome a major physical setback after receiving a liver transplant in the spring of 2012.
At coffee bars, almond milk offered a fast-growing alternative to dairy and soy milk, but rather than just offer the product as a coffee additive, he and his partners also started to sell high-quality coffee drinks of their own, made with Califia’s almond milk. The brand combined voluptuous carafe-style bottles of its unsweetened products, professional-quality almond milk “Barista Blends” for coffee fanatics — and great, innovative coffee products of its own that gave it legs in both the coffee and alt-dairy categories.
Greg had cut his own path as an environmental sciences major at Stanford, and he continued to keep environmental activism at the forefront of the work he did in beverage. After the Odwalla debacle, he blamed the private equity investors who had ultimately gotten control of the company after the contamination crisis for forcing the sale to Coke. But he went into the fundraising process for Califia clear-eyed, with a determination that the money was going to enable him to take Califia where he wanted it to go, rather than where his investors might have planned. He surrounded himself with great, cool, interesting, determined and diverse employees and friends. He raised immense amounts of capital, and after passing the CEO job to Dave Ritterbush, he seemed to be settling in as an innovation and mission guide for the company as a board member. When news got out in September that he was giving up the reins, I immediately worried for his health, but he assured me he was fine, the move was his plan, and we started discussing his grandson.
I have so many memories of Greg as a person, but will never have enough memories of time spent with him. We shared drinks and meals, shared laughs, shared a love of Bob Dylan and weird jazz. He showed my kids his house because it looked like Hogwarts. He loved his grandson — the last time we texted, he just kept sending me pictures.
When I first met him, Greg was giving a talk on the ways that companies could responsibly and transparently handle their responsibilities to the public, using the E.Coli outbreak as an example. He had been old friends with a cousin of mine from San Francisco whom I greatly admire, so we had people in common, and we spent a bunch of time talking. I felt like we shared a common, rebellious outlook that gave us a special bond — but I think most people who spoke with Greg felt a special bond with him. I think most people who looked for those bonds really did have them, because his star qualities combined with his innate generosity and sense of fun to make him magnetic. He always drew people — even if they wanted to make sure he wasn’t the actor Harry Dean Stanton.
I’ll admit, there were times I thought up panels and conference presentations for Greg just to make sure that I got to spend time with him, either on the phone or on the stage. He always took time to speak with entrepreneurs, with the media, and he taught everyone immense amounts about business, strategy, style. He made you feel smarter when you spoke with him, that you understood business, that you were cooler than you were. I took pride in our bond. We all did.
I would argue that the industry loved him, not because it loved what he stood for — an idea that goes back to Ben & Jerry’s, back to Just Desserts, back to Patagonia and to Stonyfield, that an outstanding experience could also be one that does good for the world — but because he’d survived the gut punches that inevitably come when you’re first to the fight. You’d look at Greg’s face, and you’d see wrinkles, and eyes that twinkled. It was the combination of the two that taught us so much.