Return Engagement: Bolthouse Farms CEO Is Reinventing the Company

Jeff Dunn ran the processor before and under Campbell Soup, but his best gig yet is running it after Campbell.

Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse Farms

Jeff Dunn has come full circle as CEO of Bolthouse Farms, running it before and running it after a seven-year period of ownership by Campbell Soup. Dunn is happy to be back, and the company’s recent performance reflects the strategy of someone who knows Bolthouse well rather than the approach taken by a sort of corporate-carpetbagger squad that ended up running the Bakersfield, California-based outfit for the consumer-packaged-goods giant.

Camden, New Jersey-based Campbell acquired Bolthouse, known as a huge carrot processor and bottler of premium fresh juices and salad dressings, in 2012 for $1.55 billion, when Dunn was CEO the first time. Campbell dumped Bolthouse in 2019 for a mere $510 million, and Dunn appeared on the scene again as an operating partner of Butterfly Equity, which bought Bolthouse from Campbell. Now he’s CEO again.

What happened in between those events, Dunn told Chief Executive, unfortunately was a classic example of a giant company trying to impose its culture on a small fry it nominally had acquired expressly because of its small-company approach. “When companies buy someone that doesn’t look like them, and try to make them the same, the marriage doesn’t work,” he said.

Right now, Dunn is focusing on a continued revitalization of Bolthouse Farms. In the space of little more than a year, he has reversed a two-year period in which operating losses totaled $100 million, ushering in a new phase in which sales have returned to high-single-digit-percentage growth. Dunn has helped the company take advantage of market-share opportunities presented by COVID, has brought back dozens of people to Bolthouse Farms who had left under Campbell, and has triggered an acceleration of the company’s digital transformation across its operations.

“Our re-engineering mode after I returned to the company flowed right into our resilience strategy,” Dunn said. “We had two main objectives: ensuring the health and safety of our employees so that we could operate, and maintaining essential business continuity with our customers. In the early phases of COVID, that meant reducing SKUs and bootstrapping our supply chain.” A variety of measures helped Bolthouse handle a 25-percent surge in demand for carrots in the first six weeks of the pandemic.

Fortunately, before the virus hit, Dunn spent much of the first several months of his second turn with Bolthouse recruiting back key people who’d left the company over the several years of Campbell ownership, including a direct-sales team. “Most of them had been gone for two or three years,” he said, “but many of them were kind of hanging around working for other produce-related companies” in California. “Many had worked for Bolthouse Farms for a long time and were very loyal. When we put the call out, we were incredibly gratified by the response”: About 130 people rejoined Bolthouse in the first three months of Dunn’s new tenure.

Fresh from expertise he developed at Butterfly, a VC fund that specializes in agricultural plays, Dunn also was eager to intensify digital approaches across Bolthouse Farms. “We weren’t doing enough especially in areas of data and machine learning around agronomics and agricultural information,” he said. Also, he launched efforts “to use vision and camera systems to get new information.”

For example, Bolthouse has begun using about 400 cameras, Bluetooth connectors in each employee’s ID badge, and machine-learning algorithms to make processing more efficient through optimizing the movement of employees and the functioning of equipment. This gets down to which bins collect different-sized pieces of carrots when they’re cut into pieces, and how those containers move within the plant.

“If we can start to understand the manual parts of the process that aren’t machine-driven, we can automate them,” Dunn said. “We can see where humans are interfacing and start to build machine solutions to that.”

Dunn originally joined Bolthouse Farms about a year before the Campbell deal when the private-equity firm that had bought 80 percent of the business from the founding family brought him in to improve the company’s CPG business. Campbell, then run by Denise Morrison, wanted to benefit from Bolthouse’s foothold in non-processed parts of the food business, and Dunn signed a two-year management contract to help them with the transition.

“When I stayed, we ran Bolthouse as a wholly owned subsidiary but didn’t integrate it,” Dunn said. “We were in very different businesses, and that worked extremely well. But after I left in 2016, Campbell made the decision to integrate and functionalize the business, and over a quick period, for them, they basically installed their own playbook.” One reason Morrison did so, Dunn said, was to help Bolthouse deal with a big product recall.

But once Campbell brought Bolthouse into the fold more fully, direction from New Jersey began to hurt Bolthouse’s business, in Dunn’s view. By the time new CEO Mark Clouse took over from Morrison at Campbell, in January, 2019, he had decided to reverse her strategy that focused on acquiring fresh-foods properties, because outfits including Bolthouse were contributing hundreds of millions of dollars of operating losses to Campbell.

Campbell has rallied amid the pandemic as many American consumers have returned to its familiar CPG brands. But Dunn is happy to be reinventing Bolthouse without supervision from the other side of the country.