Dreamers Build Great Companies

Mel Coleman Jr. of Coleman Natural Meats, Fred Ruiz of Ruiz Foods and Gerald Shreiber of J&J Snack Foods all made their dreams into $500 million companies.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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"There are so many facets when you evolve from a conception to consumption business," says Coleman. "It's vertically integrated, with people involved with livestock raising and production, processing in the plant and marketing. It requires a variety of talents. If we make a mistake in any one of those areas, it affects us all.

"Leadership is vision. You delegate both responsibility and authority to those on the team," says Coleman about his management style. "Once you define where you are going, have a mission statement and goals and objectives in place, you hire people with the skills and experience to effectively do what the job entails. You then build a synergy that creates an atmosphere where people can have fun and also be creative."

Coleman looks at corporate responsibility as a combination of economic, environmental and social goals. "Our mission statement says, 'By understanding our customers, we will define and lead in the profitable marketing of superior quality certified natural and organic meats, raised and produced using ecologically focused principles.' The motto that has facilitated our internal growth is 'When the winds of change blow, build a windmill, not a shelter.' Over the past 25 years, we learned that any kind of growth brings change."

The best advice Coleman received from his dad was to always work toward passing on to the next generation an inheritance that's in better condition than when you received it. "As ranchers, the stewardship of natural resources, the care and welfare of animals and how we treat people and interact with our neighbors are key components of that philosophy.

"Once we got into the meat and poultry business, passing an inheritance to future generations took on a more global context, because we were working with over 900 family farms and ranches. Also, after interacting with consumers at retail, we saw a disconnect -- many consumers really don't know how and where their food is produced."

To help remedy the disconnect, to provide consumers with a vehicle to actively participate in conservation, and to support its founding principles, the company launched the Coleman Eco-Project 2015 in 2005. The Eco-Project is a decade-long conservation program designed to raise awareness about the link between conservation, healthy land, healthy food and healthy people, and to connect consumers with where and how their food is raised and produced. So far, the company has released a warmly received guide (the "Rocky Mountain Agricultural Landowners Guide to Conservation and Sustainability"), is hard at work on a consumer brochure and web site about the 2007 Farm Bill and has planted nearly half a million trees in eight states in the past two years.

Coleman's core consumers typically shop in natural and organic channels, as well as at mainstream retailers. They are highly educated, home owners, aged 25-54, and have children of all ages in their households. "We've noticed our consumers are starting to track younger and incomes are moving slightly lower, but they continue to be well-educated and home owners -- which reflects a broader acceptance and understanding of natural and organic products," says Coleman.

"Mainstream consumers might not be as familiar with the natural and organic categories but are being converted as they learn about it. We've also started to see an up-tick over the past few years in Asian and Hispanic consumers."

Coleman asks customers why they buy natural or organic. The top reason is the product is grown without pesticides and added hormones, followed closely by no antibiotics. The natural claim tracks very high, as do no artificial preservatives, made without genetically engineered ingredients and sustainably farmed.
"There's been a significant jump for our core consumers (tracked from 2002 to 2005) to no pesticides (+6 percent), no hormones (+6 percent), without GM ingredients (+7 percent), and organics (+9 percent)," says Coleman. Core consumers constitute about 70 percent of the market for natural and organic products and newcomers make up 30 percent -- which means they drive one-third of the market and are the reason natural and organic is growing by double digits.

Health and convenience reign

On the new product front, Coleman recently rolled out Coleman Natural Hampshire Pork. Hampshire is a heritage breed, known for its well-distributed internal marbling, unique flavor profile and consistent taste. Only 19 family farmers, who adhere to Coleman's standards for the natural category -- no antibiotics, added hormones, preservatives or artificial ingredients -- raise the animals in a low-stress environment. They are fed 100 percent vegetarian feed.

Other 2006 introductions include 100 percent beef hot dogs, frozen beefsteaks, pork chops and deli-meats. "And our all-natural deli meats contain no nitrates, nitrites, binders or fillers, and our bacon has no nitrites or nitrates and no trans fat," says Coleman.

Coleman's strategy for growth is to offer natural and organic products to a broader audience. "We have a strong retail base, but are reaching out to institutional and foodservice groups," he says. "We're breaking new ground in terms of the breadth of proteins we offer, the new product introductions, and the capabilities we have in the natural and organic sector are unmatched.

"Life events -- serious health issues and having a child -- drive awareness for products like ours," he says. "This year, we launch a new kids line including chicken patties, nuggets and tenders. Parents want to buy the best products possible for their kids.

"Chemicals made food production more efficient, and the driving factor to make it more efficient was that consumers were looking for cheap food. The whole concept of reducing the use of chemicals in agriculture and food production starts with producers who make that product available. But it also depends on consumers, who must vote at the cash register for natural/organic production models. If they don't, it won't work.

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