Tim Heydon was getting his MBA at James Madison University when a local company by the name of Shenandoah Growers changed his life forever.
“The two gentlemen who founded the company started out growing some herbs in the field and low-tech greenhouses, delivering fresh herbs to Ukrop supermarkets in Richmond (Virginia). The company grew for a couple of years, but unfortunately one of the founders passed away. The remaining gentleman came to the small business development center at JMU looking for a student team to help him out.”
That’s where he ran into Heydon, who knew nothing about agriculture but was on the student team that happened to pick Shenandoah Growers. The connection was so strong Heydon eventually became an equity partner in the company and its CEO in March of 1998, a year after he graduated. At the time the fresh herbs company had about 15 employees and $1 million in sales. But over time, they took advantage of increasing market for healthy food, while innovating indoor farming and high-tech greenhouse techniques to grow the business.
Today, the company is the country’s largest producer of culinary herbs, boasting 80 percent market share, sending out to 23,000 stores and employing 1,500 employees nationwide. Heydon spoke with Chief Executive about the logistical challenges of the fresh herbs industry, staying on top of the industry’s fast-changing ways and more.
Below are excerpts from this conversation.
What are some of the big challenges that Shenandoah Growers faces on a day-to-day basis?
The biggest challenge is what drives the need for indoor production. Of course, the variability in weather and in field growing. Our products are sold primarily to retail supermarkets and so it’s an everyday item. It’s an on the shelf stocked every day, so when consumers go into a supermarket, they expect to see our products there. And so when you have field production, you have variability in weather, you have to shift around to various grow regions, various fields, and you add a lot of food miles and a lot of costs. So what we’ve really focused on is really converting that field grown product to indoor for a much more stable supply.
The transportation and logistics arm of the fresh food business, as you say, can be complicated. Talk to me about the indoor farming and high-tech greenhouses and how it can help solve potential problems?
Indoor farming solves a lot of problems inherent in the food system. Of course, one is that consistency around supply. Two is reducing food miles. We can grow food much closer proximity to the end user, which adds shelf life and provides the freshest product available. Three, it also adds an enormous amount of food security and food safety to the equation because you remove so many variables out of the process.
Our indoor system, we can scale it to the market and run an economically viable indoor room anywhere from 10,000 square feet up to 100,000 square feet and large. It’s very adaptable to fit whatever market we may be in. We have these indoor rooms in operation throughout the country and they’re various sizes based on market needs.
The healthy foods industry is changing rapidly and is such a growing segment. How do Shenandoah Growers stay on top of its trends?
I think probably what we’re most focused on and most proud of as a company is transforming the food system. If you look at the food system was built over the last 60, 70 years, it’s built on very cheap but unhealthy calories. Going forward as far as the consumer and the market demands healthy calories, those calories need to be affordable. By developing systems that are efficient and on parity with field grown or even be able to go to lower cost is critical. So we’re very tuned in to ensuring that we can grow at a cost parity to field or lower. So we’re not increasing the cost of product on the shelf, but rather being part of helping provide healthier food at an affordable price.
Trendiness of the healthy food industry aside, how do you market fresh herbs and make that exciting?
There’s clearly a trend for people being a much better informed on cooking and cooking healthy and eating healthy. Fresh herbs are an excellent way to healthfully flavor meals. So that’s been a big driver. You had a lot of the different food shows that you see on TV and magazine articles and so forth. Almost 90 percent of them will call for fresh herbs so that helps quite a bit. Then of course we work with our retail partners for marketing on the shelf and out to the consumer.
What’s also important to us is all of our products are certified organic. All of our production systems are based on USDA certified organic requirements. We have proprietary systems that enable us to grow organically a USDA certified organic product. That’s a key attribute to our products.
How would you say you’ve evolved as a CEO and as a leader?
I really believe in empowerment and challenging people to be the best, but giving them the resources and tools to develop and grow. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to truly be yourself. I think you have to be your most authentic self as a leader. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. So I pretty much wear my emotions on my sleeve and I think our people know that I’m emotionally invested in the company. I think that goes a long way to building a lasting culture driven organization. That’s probably the most important thing to me is to really have the culture drive the organization. I put a lot of effort into that.