As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing August (Augie) DeLuca, the CEO of Healthy Pet, who is focused on leading the team in growing the company’s consumer brands including ökocat litter and carefresh and CritterCare small animal bedding. With a long history in consumer products, he has focused the organization on leveraging consumer insights to uncover expansion opportunities. While new to the pet industry, Augie and his family are no strangers to pets. They are the proud pet parents of Mia Belle and Bo Duke, rescue Cane Corsos, and Sparks the cat, who literally crawled into the family home one winter day.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in the Midwest and went to three different high schools. As a competitive athlete, I put it all out there and saw how I stacked up against the competition. I love that about sports and subsequently developed a competitive bent about business and other aspects of life. Ask my wife about racing when we take our twin kids home in separate cars.
While earning my undergraduate degree at The University of Michigan, I found an interesting summer job as a door-to-door salesman selling educational books. This experience especially taught me how to prioritize and helped shape who I am as a leader today. I went back and got my MBA, convinced that I was going to be a consultant or an investment banker because those people made all the money in the mid 90’s. When I got there, I fell in love with brand management and product marketing. The notion that early on in your career you could be running a fairly sizable business drew me in, and the idea that you could help shape everything about a product — what it looks like, how people are made aware of it, what it’s called and what it tastes like — was very attractive. To go back to my competitive nature, your ability to do that well versus the competition determines whether or not you are winning or losing in the marketplace, which I love. I then spent ten years growing brands for large companies including Kraft Foods, Rubbermaid and Clorox before moving to smaller companies in the private equity space.
Admittedly, I am new to the pet industry, but pets have been part of my family for many years and I have a deep understanding of pet parents’ passion. Healthy Pet sits at the crossroads of two very strong trends, the humanization of pets and environmental sustainability, which is a perfect fit. My rescued Cane Corso, Bo Duke, brings even more joy to the workday, joining me at our Ferndale, Wash. offices most days.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In business school, I interned at Oscar Mayer. At the end of the summer, I was set to deliver a presentation for executives including the President. My goal was to impress them and secure a full-time offer. Five minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start, I was waiting in a conference room when my boss arrived and informed me that I was in the wrong conference room. This taught me to make sure to get the critical details right, but also that how you react when you make a mistake is even more critical. I’ve learned to let it slide off you, learn from the mistake, and move on to the next opportunity.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors throughout my career, many of whom continue to provide advice and counsel to this day. My first real boss helped me realize that business could be viewed as a competitive sport. Growing up as an athlete, I knew the value of hard work, setting goals, self-assessment, picking yourself up after a bad race etc., and she helped me see how those values applied to door-to-door sales. With her help and guidance, I became a leading salesperson and later a sales manager for the company.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
People naturally look to leaders in challenging times. As such, I need stay calm, think rationally and move forward in a calm and measured way that is married to vision for the business. Communication is key with a real focus on listening at all levels. A former colleague dubbed my style as “relaxed intensity.” The first step is to recognize that these are uncertain times and move forward with confidence and empathy.
For us, people are our number one asset and their personal safety and health always come first. In fact, my most important job is to ensure that they go home safely at the end of the day. During the pandemic, we quickly moved to working remotely, increasing social distancing in our facilities, adding incremental cleanings and requiring the use of PPE. Throughout the challenge we have been in constant communication with employees, imploring them to do their part to keep each other safe.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The short answer is no. In the face of the pandemic, I have never considered giving up for a couple reasons.
First and foremost is our Healthy Pet team. We are 140 strong with families and friends to support. These folks look to me and my team to chart a course that keeps them safe and allows them to continue working hard to provide for their families.
Second is our consumers. As I mentioned, our products bring joy to pet parents by enhancing their relationship with their pet and in today’s world there are limited places to experience joy and happiness.
Finally, I draw from my previous experience during tough times. I worked on Brita water filtration when bottled water became a fierce competitor. The business was really struggling, and I knew we needed to pivot and move in a different direction. I noticed that bottled water, the same category that was kicking our butt, was beginning to get negative press regarding all the plastic bottles in landfills. I knew I didn’t have all the answers, but I walked around and received great input from colleagues. We essentially created a vision for the ‘Filter for Good’ program to reduce bottled water waste attaching a stigma to single use water bottles and the negative environmental impact. It worked and sales increased by 20% each year. The vision was inspiring and attracted talent and resources to the cause. To help us promote the reduction of single use water bottles, we secured amazing partnerships with the Sundance Film Festival, Dave Matthews Band and Lady A, as well as a media integration with the Biggest Loser and Walmart to further enhance product exposure. We were able to successfully achieve what I call ‘never evers,’ because we had multiple contributors with diversity of thought, and I empowered the team to be creative. This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t ask for help. This experience gives me confidence in my ability to successfully navigate challenging times.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Go above and beyond to show your colleagues that you value their contributions. I’ve been known to sweep the warehouse, handwrite cards for exceptional performance and deliver ice cream at 5am. My style is servant leadership where I envision the org chart flipped upside down with the executive leadership at the bottom.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Make it personal and celebrate the little victories. We performed well as a team and had a very strong 2020. We were clear on the company’s production and growth priorities and ensured that our employees could see how what they do is linked to the overall business results. For example, we had a critical component go down on the manufacturing side. Our maintenance staff worked 21 hours straight to get it fixed and had it back up and running as quickly as possible. Their efforts equated to several extra truckloads of product being produced and delivered on time. I was proud to be a part of this moment.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times?
- Be accessible and stay in the trenches. Surprise colleagues by joining them across shifts periodically while not compromising safety. Engage and you will receive great insight and feedback on how to shape the future of your business and brands.
- Put people first and get comfortable letting them know the value they provide on a regular basis. Every week I send out a couple hand-written notes to employees who go above and beyond, thanking them for their dedication and linking their efforts to our goals and objectives. Not all of these are business-related. We had an employee volunteer at his local polling site during this election cycle, and I wanted him to know I appreciated his commitment.
- Stay consistent with messaging and behavior — demonstrate a model to follow and hold everyone accountable starting with yourself. We all need to play by the same rules.
- Empower through ownership — give employees the freedom they need to get there, providing the guidance and comfort they need to feel supported. Our head of Human Resources approached me with proposed changes to our employee benefits package. I challenged a few of her assumptions and in the end her passion and rationale carried the day, and we moved forward with her recommended plan.
- Stay humble — this includes taking ownership for your mistakes and only asking employees to complete tasks you would be willing to do yourself. My kids do a great job of keeping me humble, I’m the butt of most jokes in our household.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Theodore Roosevelt said it well in his Man in the Arena passage from the 35-page Citizenship in a Republic speech he delivered in Paris, France in 1910:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
Keep in touch on our social channels and through our website, healthy-pet.com