Life Lessons from John Foraker, Annie’s CEO

1008_best-small-annies-foraker_416x416 CEO John Foraker | Photo credit: Forbes.com

Seniors at Haas always joke that they’re jaded from the disheartening job hunt that often involves compromising one (or more) of three things: a job that pays them well, a position that they’re good at, or work that will get them excited to go to the office each morning. Yet speaking with John Foraker, Haas MBA ‘94, or probably better known as Annie’s current CEO, made me realize that you actually don’t have to compromise anything. He’s been at Annie’s for over 15 years and he spoke about it as though he was still in the honeymoon phase.

Today, I want to share with you how Haas has helped prepare him to lead this organic food company that is expected to reach $1 billion in organic and natural sales by fiscal 2019. More importantly, I want you to pay careful attention to the little life lessons he sprinkled throughout his chat with me.

Foraker pursued his MBA at Haas because of its specialized curriculum on guiding early stage companies and entrepreneurship. Foraker credits Professor Bank’s Organizational Behavior MBA course as “one of the best classes” he took. “One of the biggest success factors in your career and leadership is dependent on your ability to use Human Resource knowledge to manage an organization and work with the people,” he says. People make all the difference in the organization and Foraker is very careful in only selecting individuals that embody the mission of the company and continue its organic growth. Likewise, Professor Engel’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship MBA course inspired Foraker and some friends to form Napa Valley Kitchen, which later became an integral part of Homegrown Natural Food. With experiences from class and the two food businesses up his sleeve, Foraker was perfectly positioned to invest in Annie’s in 1998.

When Foraker first joined Annie’s, it had only six or seven employees. Annie’s at that time had already integrated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) into its business model but faced difficulty in establishing a clear mission statement for the company. “The first year was a scrappy entrepreneurial environment in transition to a more professional company that had a culture and value that has carried over the past 20 years,” he says. The booming business that Annie’s enjoys today was not some big overnight success; the company almost went bankrupt several times and were “at risk of selling themselves to a big company”, he describes. But never did they once compromise their vision to provide organic products to customers and stay engaged with the community. This defining vision has clearly paid off; even though General Mills now own Annie’s, Foraker has been able to deliver his promise to loyal followers that nothing would change besides gaining extra resources and product lines. Consumers continue to love Annie’s and still wholeheartedly trust the ingredients in the box because of its pure expression of their culture and values towards organic food that taste delicious.

As an entrepreneur, you have to face some risks to gain bigger successes. There may be times where you also have to Question the Status Quo, and Foraker definitely had that moment when he decided to launch a Crackers line, more specifically, the Cheddar Bunnies. Private equity investors uniformly thought it was an unnecessary expansion because the Mac & Cheese line was bringing in profits with huge opportunities to dominate that segment. Yet Foraker believed that the brand stood for more than Mac & Cheese; it symbolized a parent’s love for their children to eat healthy. His strong belief gave him to courage to launch Cheddar Bunnies cracker and soon enough, it reaped in $500K of profit for the company alone. “It was the biggest home run ever”, he recalls fondly. “You have to go with your instincts and follow your consumer. We listened and knew they were interested in a cracker with clean ingredients,” he says. But not every launch has a success story he gently reminds. “You just have to accept fail fast and move on”.

homepage_slider_mobile2A brand that caters to the kid inside all of us | Photo credit: Annies.com

Looking into the future, Foraker believes that the purpose-driven business will be the successful ones. Those are the businesses that don’t focus just on their bottom line, but really believe in building the world around them for a better place that allows them to also connect with consumers. “Those are more meaningful anyways”, he says.

So as you apply for your next job, don’t just think of those big Fortune 500 that will give you the biggest paycheck, but the ones that have the biggest heart for the greater good of society. As the Haas pillar states, Go Beyond Yourself.

 

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