As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Collin Tuthill.
Collin Tuthill is the President of Royal Food Import Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Yaya’s Kitchen. He has held this position for more than two decades and has carefully crafted the brand’s successful introduction into the United States. Now available nationwide, the brand continues to grow the freezer aisle by bringing a true, premium line of frozen options to families and adventurous eaters. Tuthill values foods made with real, trustworthy ingredients and continues to strive to bring authentic cuisine to families, especially foods and meals that are backed by authentic stories.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
The primary reason we began our journey with Yaya’s Garden was because we saw a real need to offer a product that was easy to prepare at home, fresh, wholesome and good for you … everything that’s not junk food. The frozen section is unique because you don’t need to add preservatives to keep frozen food fresh. In the freezer aisle, the cold air holds the integrity, vitamins and nutrients of the food better than other categories. In our opinion, frozen is the best way to preserve something.
With that in mind, I’ve always looked at the set and wondered, “why do we have to eat a bunch of cheese, added sugars, fats and preservatives?” Most products look good, but don’t taste good — and I’ve always thought that families deserve a whole lot better, and that was the catalyst for coming up with this product line. Once we went down that path, we realized it very difficult on a large scale to gain access to locally grown produce. When you don’t have locally grown, you lose the original flavor profile. It’s why farmers markets have become so popular — everything locally grown and fresh just taste better. And meeting this need is what has set us apart from the competition. We procure it from Greek gardens, manufacture it, freeze it and serve it up to families.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most telling and surprising element of this journey has been the consumer feedback we’ve received from the beginning. Generally, in the food business, unless there’s a problem with the product, you never hear from your consumers directly. But almost instantly, we found ourselves bombarded with the positive consumer love mail and feedback. We get so much direct feedback telling us how much people love our product. Even today, people continue to take notice and appreciate how delicious the YaYa’s product is.
We’ve also found that price isn’t as much of a driver in this category as we originally thought. Consumers are willing to pay a reasonable price for a superior product. And even though there’s quite a bit of food insecurity in the U.S., quality food has never been priced so low. I think even we were surprised about how quickly consumers lined up to support a brand that focuses on food quality first.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started, we had all these import files. The system went back 20 years, and we had to set up a way for all of our import files to be organized. I literally went to Staples and bought all these shelves to organize the files to grab and go. But as we grew, the files grew and grew.
In this system, our import manager had to get up and down all day long. She never complained. One day, someone placed a storage box on one of her shelves, and all of the sudden we heard this massive crash. The entire shelving system came totally crashing down. I remember us picking up all these papers, and it took us 5–6 hours to put everything back. I said to her, “I guess it’s time to call an IT person.” Her response was, “Absolutely. And can we do it quickly?”
It was time to transition and grow. The reason I remember this is because even though you think you have a good plan, good people will follow you. And sometimes, your plan isn’t the best. Leaders need to look around at the next problem to solve before everything falls off the wall.
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 about that?
When I first started in the business, I had the good fortune of learning from a special person, a holocaust survivor named David from Eastern Europe. He helped set up the Port of Haifa in Israel and he taught be to never give up and to keep pushing forward. Not to get excited, emotional or pushy necessarily, but keep pushing forward. Coming from someone like him, it was pretty clear that he learned it and lived by it every day. He was instrumental in setting up the state of Israel and he always maintained optimism in the trade. He maintains that you don’t abuse and damage the relationships you have, in business and personally.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s important because no one — not one group nor one single individual knows everything. It’s impossible. It’s important to be inclusive to everyone because they bring a unique experience and way of viewing the world. The answer is never black or white or up or down, and even when I think I know the answer I hear a new perspective from another person and change my mind.
Our team is diverse because we work with people all around the world… Different races, religions, genders, sexual orientation. As an international business, you’ll never grow if you aren’t inclusive. And that’s important because it takes all of us to make it work. The food industry in general is a very open and nurturing place for diversity — it’s one of the things that I really love about food.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I would say that to seek to understand rather than to be understood is a good example to lead by. Let your team say what they want to say and ask what they want to ask. I will give everyone in the team meeting the mic, so to say. I will call our team by name to get their feedback. It facilitates an environment for the team to feel included in the process. They aren’t observers, they are a part of it all. My job as a business owner is to make sure that every single one of my people has every single thing that they need to do their job. I always attempt to sit back, let people be heard, ask for inclusion of thought, and then make decisions. This way of doing things makes people feel included and feel of service. We are a service-based business, and as a result, we need everyone to serve the customer — and each other. I serve my team, and they serve the customer.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I had a team member who felt like she was struggling a bit in her role. She didn’t understand how she added value to the team. It’s important to know/feel this from your team. She sent me an article about our industry, and I asked her to share it to the entire team and she then saw an outpouring of gratitude for the share. It’s important to me that people then engage and feel the impact that they have on the team, because they do.
At the end of the day, the role of a CEO is to ensure that the team is engaged, enjoying their positions, and enjoying coming to work every day — not that they feel compelled or forced to work. Why does it have to be like that? Why can’t it be fun, play and rewarding? Often, leaders think they lead and others should follow, but that’s actually an inverted model. My job is to make the job interesting, fulfilling and happy.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
My job isn’t to lay down instructions and tell people what to do. My job is to learn, be curious and solve problems for my team. Don’t be a jerk and a know-it-all. Being a CEO has nothing to do with knowing everything. They are not connected at all.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I spend a lot more time asking others to solve the problems than I do coming up with the right answers myself. Their answers are so much better than the answers I would come up with on my own.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are so many different types of business and so many different types of businesses… There’s a place for everyone. Is everyone equipped to be an executive? I don’t know. Maybe not. But not everyone wants to be an executive. I think everyone wants to be heard and take ownership of their projects. If you’re an executive of your own work, you can find that satisfaction.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I would say listen and react quickly in a positive way. If there is something wrong, look first at the system. Most people are reasonable and want to perform well and want to enjoy their jobs. It’s important to ensure that they have the right tools to do what they want to do and that they’re heard. Even if I’m in a crummy mood or hear bad news, it’s better to take a walk or take a beat and jump in after. My job is to be the Yoda to all my Luke Skywalkers.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Just giving people a better food option. People deserve better and we should give them better and educate them. Better doesn’t mean cheaper. It means better for them and better for their quality of life. I want to provide those options for people. I don’t believe that quality food is a commodity. My job is to de-commodify food for people who need it.
Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Pay more attention in HR class. It’s so incredibly important.
- Make sure that there’s a need for what it is that you’re selling. Even the best idea will fail if the perceived value is non-existent — and then execute.
- Never spend too much time focusing on your competitors. Never compete on price.
- Don’t commoditize your product and never waver on quality. Your customers will notice.
- Consumers are smart. People are not easily manipulated like you might think. I believe in the smart consumer.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Eat healthy. Live better. Move your body. Don’t run because you want to get more years out of your life, run because you want to get more life out of your years. You only get one body, so take care of it and put good things into it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Seek to understand rather than to be understood. Don’t go into a conversation with the notion of knowing the answer. Another life lesson I love is, “I never learned anything while I was talking”. It’s so important to slow down to learn and take the time to grow.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Warren Buffett. He’s the oracle of a successful businessperson who transcends time and space. He understands the fundamentals of business, what is critical for success and the importance of playing the long game to help as many people as possible.