Takeaways For Success: Walter Robb’s Naturally Chicago Keynote
Naturally Chicago’s first big event — the May 23 Quarterly Keynote featuring industry legend Walter Robb — was the sold-out smash detailed below. To learn more about Naturally Chicago, and to become a member or sponsor, visit NaturallyChicago.org.
Naturally Chicago is a bold initiative to galvanize the city’s already-rising Good Food and natural products sector. So Naturally Chicago’s co-founders approached their first big event with the “make no small plans” philosophy of famed city planner Daniel Burnham, and recruited longtime Whole Foods Market Co-CEO Walter Robb to give the first Quarterly Keynote address on May 23.
Robb delivered a sold-out house; cogent remarks on the important role Naturally Chicago will play in the city’s economic and social landscape; and a thoughtful, lesson-filled discourse on his philosophy for success — based on 40 years of experience as a natural foods pioneer — that boils down to two words: People first.
“People first, people in relationships first,” Robb said. “As an entrepreneur, if you don’t get that right, there’s no system, no technology, no scale that will fix that.”
Robb, who now heads the Stonewall Robb venture capital firm that invests in Good Food companies, worked in executive capacities for Whole Foods Market from 1991 — when his Northern California grocery store became the 12th outlet in the chain — to 2017. He oversaw the exponential growth that would make Whole Foods the dominant retailer in the natural products sector and help ignite a Good Food movement, spending the last seven of those years as co-CEO with company founder John Mackey.
He has long business relationships with all of the Naturally Chicago co-founders. Before Tony Olson became CEO of SPINS, the leading provider of retail consumer data and insights, he worked for Odwalla, a pioneering Good Food juice company. He related how he first met Robb when he showed up at a Whole Foods Market with a 72-inch open-air Odwalla cooler, and Robb asked what the hell he was doing.
But Olson said Robb let the cooler come in, and “sales went from six hundred dollars a week to six thousand a week at that one store.” (Naturally Chicago is a program of FamilyFarmed that is co-founded by KeHE, SPINS and Presence Marketing and affiliated with the Naturally Network in Boulder, Colorado.)
Brandon Barnholt, CEO of KeHE Distributors and a Naturally Chicago co-founder, then introduced Robb and said, “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there wouldn’t be a Good Food industry if it wasn’t for Whole Foods, and there wouldn’t be a Whole Foods as we know it today if it wasn’t for Walter.”
On the stage of the BMO Harris Bank Auditorium in Chicago’s Loop, Robb noted that food is in Chicago’s “DNA,” citing the railroads, the stockyards of the past, and the big food companies headquartered here up through the present. “You guys got this, you know how to do food. You’re just doing new food,” Robb said.
He urged the audience to “celebrate this moment as being a moment of creating community and the start of something on the next level, bringing this group together to really create an ecosystem.” And Robb — the force behind Whole Foods’ development of a store that opened in 2016 in the struggling South Side community of Englewood — added, “And this opportunity for you to build a regional ecosystem here, a strong one, a vibrant one, is not just a contributor into the success of these fine entrepreneurs, but it’s going to build community and it’s going to build economic strength. It’s going to build jobs.”
Robb cautioned that there is much work left to be done, amplifying a point made by three entrepreneurs who participated in a panel that preceded his speech: Jordan Buckner of TeaSquares, Megan Klein of Field + Farmer and Alison Velazquez of Skinny Souping, who were interviewed by Ryan Pintado-Vertner of the Smoketown consulting firm.
All of the panelists are graduates of FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator, an intensive entrepreneur development program, and all praised the lessons and mentorship that have helped their start-up food businesses grow. But each brought attention to the need for a stronger community infrastructure to help them blossom further.
Velazquez said small companies do not have the necessary leverage to negotiate better prices for goods and services they need, and called for “a way to facilitate banding a bunch of us together to help bring down our costs.” Klein said more guidance is needed on how to succeed in the increasingly important e-commerce sales channel. Buckner said businesses could accelerate faster if there was a central source for information about who to contact for specific business advice.
Following the panel discussion, Jim Slama — founder/CEO of FamilyFarmed and Naturally Chicago co-founder — declared that addressing the needs of early-stage businesses is a core mission. “This is what Naturally Chicago is all about, supporting emerging entrepreneurs like that to be a success,” Slama said.
Reflecting on these comments during his speech, Robb said, “I think your ecosystem is still forming,” and that Naturally Chicago “becomes the start of the community of support and filling in those gaps.”
Robb then pivoted to a master class on relationship-based success, aimed at the entrepreneurs in attendance but also applicable to the more experienced professionals. He related three anecdotes from his early days in the food business, all summed up with the life lesson he took away from the experience.
The customer service skills of a hardware store owner in his old hometown prompted the quotes cited above about putting people first. He told a story about how he gained business street cred by fulfilling an obligation to a produce seller who gambled on giving Robb six months credit, which generated the lesson that “my business success depended not just on myself, my own abilities, but all the other stakeholders that were involved in my company.”
The dignity of work was driven home when he gave a job to the husband, recently laid off, of one of his employees, and he commended employee empowerment to other business owners: “When you build a company, give them something meaningful to do, not stuff that doesn’t mean anything. Give them some responsibility. Let them make decisions. Give them a chance to participate and contribute, and your company will grow and thrive.”
Robb wrapped up his speech with seven tips for entrepreneurs (followed by a panel discussion with FamilyFarmed’s Jim Slama and Field + Farmer’s Megan Klein):
● Find your passion: “You’re only going to find your deepest fulfillment when you’re on your path of purpose, and until you do that, you’re going to come up short.”
● Work hard: “Halfway in gets you halfway in. That doesn’t work, today’s marketplace is moving so quickly. You’ve got to get all in.”
● Build a positive workplace culture: “My job was to create an environment where people can thrive. You learn that you should hire people better than yourself and not be threatened by that and you should be asking yourself every day, ‘What is it I need to do to move the company forward?’”
● Solve problems: “You can pretty much expect someone to throw something at you and you’ve got to figure it out. So what you do is relish that challenge of figuring it out, because you know it’s coming.”
● Learn your numbers: “A lot of business people are great on the mission, but they don’t really get the P & L [profit and loss] on the balance sheet. They don’t understand the numbers. They can’t answer the basic questions about their gross margin, or the cost of inventory. You’ve got to learn the business.”
● Brand is everything: “If you don’t you don’t create some separation in the marketplace from others, it just becomes a race to the bottom.”
● Believe in the impossible: “What I find is that most people limit themselves, right? They have a line in the sand where they will not cross. I cannot do that, that will not happen. I’m willing to do this, but I’m not willing to do that… My life experience told me exactly the opposite. If you can imagine it, you can do it.”
Early in his presentation, Robb described the Quarterly Keynote as a night to remember. “This is the night it started, this is the night that we’ll look back… these things you heard and the declarations that were made that it’s time now to put this thing wholly together and go.” Surely those in the audience also will remember Robb’s words of wisdom, and put them to use.
Naturally Chicago provides an unprecedented and unifying platform to facilitate interaction, networking and collaboration in Chicago’s Good Food and natural products sector. Our next big event is the first in the Naturally Chicago Insights series — featuring Michelle Lorge, vice president for marketing at Simple Mills, discussing digital marketing — on Wednesday, June 6, 8:30 a.m., at SPINS, 222 W. Hubbard St. (register here). Memberships are just $65 for a year. Sponsors get special benefits. Join us!