As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Tucker, CEO of Ellenos.
A food industry veteran, John joined Ellenos Real Greek Yogurt as CEO in July of 2018. Ellenos in a leader in traditional, handcrafted Greek yogurt. As a longstanding leader in the natural foods industry, John believes clean, simple foods are essential to health and well-being. John is excited to be building the Ellenos brand through thought leadership and the delivery of a premium yogurt that is redefining the yogurt experience in North America.
John is the former CEO of bread baking pioneer, Dave’s Killer Bread. Under his leadership, the company quickly moved to address its untapped growth potential and expanded distribution. Today, the Pacific Northwest favorite is the №1-selling organic bread in the U.S. reaching full national distribution in May of 2015.
John began his career in quality assurance, quickly evolving into research and development and product innovation with such notable companies as Kraft, Weight Watchers and Heinz. His vast experience includes working in various parts of the U.S. and overseas. Eventually he moved into marketing and business development with SO Delicious Dairy Free, where he ultimately became President. His leadership was marked by successful efforts to improve the company’s innovation, re-craft their marketing and build a strong leadership team — evolving the company from soy food to a market-leading dairy-free brand.
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 have been in the food industry my entire career as a result of my earning a degree in Food Science. I earned a degree in Food Science from Purdue University because my career counselor informed me that a degree in Food Science could lead me in a host of directions from Quality assurance, to Operations, to Research and Development, to sales and/or marketing and a host of leadership roles.
I would certainly have to agree. Over the years I have held roles at various levels in an organization in almost everyone one of those disciplines. I have worked in both large corporate environments and in family owned or privately held smaller businesses both here in the United States and overseas.
I have been blessed working alongside a number of talented, caring and passionate people and as a result of been involved with a number of successful businesses and some fun product innovations. For the past 10 years or so I have been involved in leading various businesses; most notably SO Delicious Dairy Free, Dave’s Killer Bread and now Ellenos.
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?
I remember once as R&D Manager for Tip Top Ice Cream in New Zealand our Team was really struggling to nail down the mint profile for an indulgent product line we were contemplating. Every time we held a sensory session with the Executive Team, we kept hearing the same thing over and over, the product tasted like toothpaste. I let my frustration get the best of me and so the next session I had a sample flavored with toothpaste. Much to my horror it was chosen as the preferred sample. I had to explain my little prank to the Managing Director and the rest of the Team. It was rather awkward and embarrassing and put me in the doghouse for a while. This proved to be a valuable lesson in turn as I asked myself, “What exactly was I seeking to achieve?” Ultimately, you need to take a step back during any process like so and assess what all the possible outcomes are along with the ripple effect of that decision.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. This book plays on the idea that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. As a leader, I have always believed that you needed something for a team or an organization to believe in to rally around. Sinek’s book helped me to completely understand why this is so important.
Ellenos provides a great example of this in action. Articulating our “why” provided a more meaningful reason for being and is the connective tissue between our Values, Mission, Vision and ourselves as individual members of the Ellenos Family. Our brand was founded by Greek values, instilling the importance of food and community. We live by the simple belief that, “When food is made with care and love, it can inspire an emotional connection with the community it nourishes. And frankly just tastes better. This simple idea is what drew us all to this company. This idea is what compelled our founders to start the business, to travel to the ends of the earth, and to every day go the extra mile to put the care into the product.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I didn’t start this company but am constantly inspired by the passion our founders bring to the table. I think to best answer your question, is through our WOW statement, which most companies would define as their mission statement. Our WOW statement is “We are obsessed with sharing the experience of WOW! By doing things the right way we inspire an emotional connection with our hand-crafted food and the community it nourishes.”
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Very simple — “People First” on a personal and business level. If you surround yourself with really good people, you will get through the highs and the lows. It will bring a greater balance to everyday.
On a personal level, people really matter to me. They are my personal why. There is something really special of being able to teach, coach, and mentor the Ellenos team. The Ellenos founders give me a sense of purpose and direction. I love seeing people grow and prosper as individuals and professionals.
From a purely business point of view, I will say it again and again and again. Business is about people. I honestly cannot think about anything we deal with that doesn’t ultimately get solved and/or optimized without the participation and input of people.
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?
I am absolutely a people person — my wife and I enjoy a social setting as it brings a sense of balance to our lives. Our anxiety escalated rather heavily when the pandemic hit. We were concerned what it meant for us, our community, and more. Admittedly, when we realized we were going into lockdown, we were concerned we were going to get on each other’s nerves. We found ways to connect with family and friends through virtual vehicles and it has helped but, it is mixed. Seeing and talking to friends on a screen is a far cry from a big hug and gathering face to face over a meal so we have had very selective get togethers with a family member or with a friend or two. We have also taken lots of walks together and worked on various house projects which have kept our minds active and reduced the sense of isolation. And surprise surprise, we have found ourselves getting closer… and not getting on each other’s nerves as we both feared might happen. As challenging as it has been, we believe we are stronger for it.
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?
First, I should note, that because we were in Seattle where the first known case of Covid-19 happened in the country, we acted very quickly and decisively. Our number one concern was protecting our Team and ensuring we did not disrupt our business as a result of Team members becoming infected.
As a company we had developed a crisis management plan a year prior and so we had the framework for rapidly deploying a plan. At the core of this was minimizing any potential infection coming into our manufacturing which we see as our lifeline. Within a matter of days, we implemented a comprehensive program which included:
- Work from home program for all non-manufacturing personnel.
- Implementation of a series of preventive measures within the manufacturing facility which included: employee screening, social distancing policies and practices, employee training. We also incorporated sanitizing stations at every key employee doorway and/or passageway and implemented daily communications regarding new insights about the Covid-19 pandemic which remain in effect to this day.
- Within a few weeks as we learned more, we added a mask mandate
The second major challenge was keeping our teams connected and engaged. We included a weekly Thursday Morning Virtual Coffee Break which I host every week as well as a weekly Wins of the Week email, I send to all employees every Saturday summarizing our progress as a team. Each departmental leader also implemented a series of virtual meetings and programs to further keep the lines of communication open. We kept a huge emphasis on consistent communication throughout the process and continue to do so as things begin to level down. We wanted to ensure that while we were keeping our employees safe, we were also keeping them engaged as the isolation side-effects kicked into motion. We are delighted that through these measures our team has still maintained a steady beat.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus 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?
It’s all about connectivity, it’s such a huge part of this. We are creatures of habit, both good and bad. I have certainly encouraged our team to be thoughtful of those habits that are good and those habits that may be detrimental. Staying connected with family, friends and co-workers is huge. There are many ways to achieve connectivity with today’s technology. Along with staying connected, finding physical vehicles to reduce your emotional anxiety is vital at this time. We encouraged our team to participate in online yoga classes or an exercise to their liking to promote brain activity and stress-reduction.
I also encourage people to avoid excessive watching of the news. There is enough evidence that points to media as a major contributor to elevated anxiety. Staying informed is important but obsessing over the news is counterproductive. A balanced work life is important and having me time is vital to one’s well-being.
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?
As a business involved in consumer-packaged goods and specifically food we believe demand will remain strong, we are fortunate to be in a place that that puts us on very solid ground. People continue to eat, and we certainly provide an outstanding offering to them in that respect. Understanding the channels from which that demand will come is a key focus for us. The role and impact on traditional brick and mortar and e-commerce continues to evolve and I firmly believe will be forever changed. To what degree will not be fully understood until the pandemic is behind us. We will get there. The when remains uncertain but we will ultimately reach a place where Covid-19 is in our past, only then will we truly understand how consumer behavior has been affected for the long run. At Ellenos we believe our ability to adapt will be integral to our success and as such, I am very excited about our future.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
People now have a greater appreciation and heighten awareness of what social interaction presents. People will seek to have a greater sense of security in social environments, ultimately, people wanting more space. These habits will naturally evolve and I suspect we will continue to be more sanitary and health-conscious. I do not believe brick and mortar will go away as e-commerce soars in this environment but it will and must evolve to accommodate the heightened awareness of hygiene in social settings. We are social creatures by nature, so I do expect many of the social activities that have been placed on hold to come back as strong as ever.
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? Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We see food as a tremendous connector and a vehicle for bringing communities together. This is in our DNA and certainly consistent in our values as an organization. We’ll be looking towards how we can bring that personal engagement back and how we can connect with the consumer using the wisdom we’ve learned throughout this crisis. We’ll apply it in an appropriate way in the sense of security people are looking for.
Ultimately, understand your “why” — live by it, instill it in your organization and bring it to life in all that you do. Learn from the lessons that you’ve been taught in this pandemic. We had to make a huge pivot in terms of how we meet consumers and we’ll make another shift once things open up. It would be foolish not to judiciously apply what we learned in the COVID era.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a bit of a quote-aholic — you can learn so much from them. I always encourage my son to read quotes, and challenge him to reflect on them and ask what can you learn from them?
Stephen Covey, author of the “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” taught me my favorite quote of all time “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”
As a leader, communication is perhaps one of your most important tools/skills. Communication is as much about the art of listening as it is the art of articulating your thoughts. I aspire to be an effective servant leader and to do so demands that I always seek first to understand.
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