As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Blake Waltrip.
Blake Waltrip is the U.S. CEO of the a2 Milk Company, a dairy nutrition brand dedicated to providing milk from cows that naturally produce only the A2 protein so it is easier on digestion. He is based out of the company’s U.S. headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. Blake is a seasoned consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing and general management executive, having led teams at Nestle USA, Celestial Seasonings (Hain FoodsGroup), the Quinoa Corporation (Private Equity Backed), and was a Managing Partner in a consumer growth strategy consultancy Growth Ventures for over seven years.
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 graduated with a degree in Economics from UC San Diego and began my career in corporate finance and banking before receiving my MBA from the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. From there, I went on to pursue a career as a consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing and general management executive and worked at numerous established CPG organizations including Nestle USA for roughly ten years, Celestial Seasonings, Managing Partner of Growth Ventures (a growth strategy and marketing consultancy that worked with many major CPG companies in the US and Europe) and as CEO of Quinoa Corporation (a private equity backed ancient grain company) before I joined the a2 Milk team in 2016.
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?
When I was at Nestle and managing one of my first brands in the hot cocoa category, we intended to launch a premium brand in our category that was to be supported by an introductory advertising campaign. We developed a product that tested off the charts with consumers in terms of taste and overall proposition. We were pressured on margin contribution during those days in a significant way and worked with product development to drive margins. The product was a tremendous flop out the gates because we had changed the product profile so much that it was not the same product we had previously tested. Luckily, we were able to stop the advertising before too much expense and the biggest lesson learned was to always listen to your consumers and understand when you are falling short of your promise to them.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Currently, I’m reading the leadership book, Leaders, Myth and Reality by General Stanley McChrystal to gain some best practice leadership thinking in how to engage strong teams during this global crisis we are facing.
But, there are a range of books that I think have helped me in my career to strengthen both my strategic mindset, as well as my ability to work well with others. There is a book that was written in 2005 by a marketing strategist named Al Reis, Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends On It, which underscores the incredible importance of focusing on core products and avoiding the temptation to diversify into unrelated areas. In other words, don’t get distracted by the shiny ball, which is a core principle for how I approach business management.
More recently, I picked up Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead, which, combined with her other books, offers some provocative ways of looking at how to be a leader and the importance of vulnerability and willingness to lead in uncertain situations. Uncertainty and change are the hallmarks of growth stage business management and you can’t let the roller coaster get you down.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
As I mentioned before, always stay focused and balanced. Business is a constant state of flux. Whether it be your customers, consumers, competitors and/or manufacturers, there will always be another surprise to address. Look at them as opportunities and they will keep you in the right zone.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In my case, I happen to find myself moving from an empty nester household with just my partner and me to having both our young adult children back in the house for weeks turned to months. Obviously, our mental and physical health has been affected, so we are all doubling down on meditation and exercise to stay healthy. We’ve also gone back to the traditional family dinner and we have been having some great conversations sharing what each family member is learning about what is happening in the world that day as a way to make sense of it all. The unintended positive consequence of this tragedy is the opportunity for us to connect as a family of adults that respects and teaches each other. A heavy dose of humor never hurts.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We have been fortunate enough to see an increase in demand for our products during this time. But, with that, we must make sure that there is ample product available to meet consumers’ needs. So, we’ve been working closely and tirelessly with retailers and manufacturing partners to make sure we are producing enough products to meet this demand. With this said, we have come to realize that the economic impact of this pandemic will be long lasting and we will have to continually shift our strategy to offer our consumers what they need during these unique times.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I frequently remind my family and myself to take a step back and find the silver lining in this experience as this time together is very precious and we shouldn’t look past it in our rush to the next thing. I also realize that that feels privileged. Both as a company and in my personal life, we talk about what we can do to help others during this time. We were fortunate as a global company to access Personal Protective Equipment from another country that we could donate to hospitals and first respondents. As a family, we are continually looking to find ways that we can contribute both financially and with our emotional support to those that need it.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The Post-Covid economy will certainly be a trying time in the U.S. and around the globe. As a society, we are only beginning to feel the impact of high levels of unemployment. This presents a significant opportunity to re look at your strategy for going to market to ensure that you are offering the right value proposition to consumers who will be looking for value more than ever. As an insurgent brand, we will have to examine every aspect of our value chain and remain agile enough to adjust as new factors influence consumption. Ultimately, consumers want to purchase a brand they trust and one that stands for something. The a2 Milk company has, from its’ very beginning, been about making the lives of people better through the power of dairy nutrition and, most specifically, the A2 protein type.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I will certainly appreciate everything I have in my life more than ever. I will be more conscious of those that don’t have the opportunities that I have been given and actively put myself out there to help others both economically and with my personal support.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are committed as a team to re look at everything we do and be willing to take radically different approaches to seek the outcomes we desire. We have been a high growth company both in the U.S. and in our markets globally. We will continue to stay focused, invest in our brands, and bring consumers an innovative portfolio of products that fundamentally help them live better and healthier lives.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Be open to change, more than ever. Communicate your vision, make sure your teams buy in, and execute as flawlessly as possible. Remain agile stop what isn’t working and double down on what is.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
”It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through the lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.” David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech to the Graduating Seniors of Kenyon College in 2005.
I read this so many years ago and it hit me hard at the time, but is more prescient than ever today. More recently, with my daughter graduating in a pandemic over Zoom, we took the time to listen to it once again. To me, I think this quote means that I have a choice to show up in this world in a way that I want and in a way that creates better connection. I try to live this in my everyday life.
How can our readers further follow your work?