MOVE FORWARD is a series outlining the approaches of successful leaders to taking a business strategy on paper and making it a commercial reality. You’ll find links to more articles at the foot of the post.
John Foss grew up in a farming family near Bruce Rock in Western Australia. It’s so small that when he started school there were just eight kids and two of them were his brothers.
His family has been farming in the wheat belt for 100 years so it wasn’t a surprise when he went into the business himself.
But he was increasingly frustrated with the disconnection between the farm and the consumer.
“As a farmer you’re an active participation in the food industry growing fabulous grains but they are ending up in breakfast cereals or products which are highly unhealthy,” he says.
Foss was awarded a Nuffield Australia Farming Scholarship in 2001 and he travelled the world asking questions of the food industry.
“I came back from that very clear that health and wellness was beginning to be a mega-trend,” Foss says.
“People were going to take interest in what was in their food, where it was grown, how it was grown and what impact it was going to have on their health.”
He heard about a research study of Mexicans living near the US border where there are very high rates of obesity, diabetes and cholesterol.
And there was a small group in the population not suffering. The only thing these people were doing differently was taking Chia seeds with lemon juice in the morning.
“I viewed it with a healthy level of cynicism,” he says. “That sounds too good to be true. But even if it’s half as true this is going to be valuable seed or grain.”
He went to Mexico, got some samples, had them analysed and found a rich plant form of Omega 3 fatty acids, fibre and protein combined.
But the big issue was supply. A few health food stores had it, mostly no-one had heard of it and no-one grew it in any quantity.
The best location to cultivate the seed was at 15 degrees latitude from the equator. Foss checked the map and found the line running through the Ord Valley in the north of Western Australia.
“Before we even talked to the market we made sure we could grow the yields, we had the quality and we could do it year after year,” Foss says.
The history of the health food market is long on stories of new grains or foods being introduced followed by a spike in demand and then a crash because that demand could not be met.
It wasn’t until 2005-6 that Foss’s Chia Company was exporting it and only in 2010 has it been appearing in Australia’s mainstream food market.
Chia Pods, seed mixed with coconut milk and fruit, are now in Woolworths Australia-wide.
The Chia Company has the largest food crop by area in the Ord Valley, 14,000 hectares, and about to double that in stage two of the Ord.
“We own the seed from the farm through to the consumer, we have full management of the supply chain,” Foss says.
“We can trace seed back to an individual field on a farm and we have full knowledge about what’s happening on that field. It gives us so much confidence from a quality management perspective.”
The Chia Company is still private and it doesn’t disclose profit numbers but last year it delivered 63 million serves of Chia.
It’s selling in 36 countries with half of the business in Chia Co products and half through other food companies’ products.
Foss now lives in New York.
“What we’ve seen there (US) is scale,” he says. “Wholefood Markets, our biggest market in the US, do about $10 billion in revenue through just 300 stores. Now we’re seeing it spanning the more mainstream retailers in the US.”
Foss says he wants to make a positive contribution to consumers globally.
“If we can get people eating chia every day that is a positive contribution,” he says.
Here’s how Foss runs the company:
Detailed in thought and detailed in discussion and with a long time horizon in five year chunks. Continually reviewed and updated. But certainly not a big thick document. The time spend writing those is not a good use of time. We have plenty of slides and power points and we discuss them in detail but we don’t then put a huge amount of words around it. I don’t believe business plans should be a big heavy document. They’re not read and they’re often out of date by the time they are completed.
That’s been one of our competitive advantages in that we’ve been able to identify the trends. We have a team in London, New York and Melbourne and the offices have a lot of people out travelling every day. Seventy per cent of the team are multi-lingual. We spend a lot of time in the market talking to consumers doing in store demonstrations and tasting and really understanding what consumers are wanting and needing in their lifestyle. And that’s what’s driving our product development pipeline. The biggest effort in Chia has been as a first mover, educating the marketing about what it is and how they can consume it.
We’ve had some key people with us all along. The chief marketing officer joined us from a multinational, food and packaging. It’s a new space, exciting and challenging. We need people who are up for that. It’s a dynamic environment and things change quickly. There’s a lot of a travel, typically at the back of the plane. Everyone in the company is very clear on our vision and our goal and what we’re working to achieve. Everyone has equity in the company through options. We’re committed to saving money as well as growing fast. We do have regular meetings, as cross functional and cross geographical as possible. We try to use technology to be as face to face as possible. We get the management team together each year in one location. We’ve learnt to use time zones as an advantage instead of a disadvantage. When one office closes another is opening. The same job can be passed on and continue to be worked one.
We’re all cloud based, so we don’t have a server. Customer service is through salesforce.com. Anyone, anywhere at any time can log on and get access. We have full transparency, access to information the rest of the team is working on.
Foss says: “Bruce Rock is about as far away as you can get in both population and geographic perspectives.”
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