As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in the Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Sellew, founder and CEO of Little Leaf Farms.
Paul Sellew has founded, managed and grown successful companies in the food & agriculture, lawn & garden, renewable energy and organics recycling industries. Currently, he is the founder and CEO of Little Leaf Farms, a state-of-the-art greenhouse producer of baby greens that are grown and packaged at its Devens, MA location and sold into over 1,000 grocery stores and fine dining establishments throughout the Northeast. Before this, he founded and was CEO of Harvest Power. Paul also founded and was CEO of Backyard Farms, a year-round greenhouse producer of tomatoes on the east coast and oversaw the development of its 42-acre tomato greenhouse. Paul has also been an executive with Synagro, Inc. and was the founder and CEO of Earthgro, Inc., a large-scale producer of compost-based lawn and garden products prior to selling to the Scotts Company. Paul is a graduate of Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). Paul has served on Cornell’s University Council, CALS Dean’s Advisory Council, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Board of the US Composting Council.
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 am truly a New England farm boy at heart. My family owns a large ornamental nursery/greenhouse operation in Connecticut, and my first job on my family’s farm paved the way for my career. While working on the farm, I was inspired by the abundance of organic waste from nearby farms and how these materials could be used for growing plants — inspiring the creation of Earthgro, Inc., which turned into one of the largest producers of compost-based lawn and garden products in the country.
After commercial composting, I went back to my agricultural roots and started Backyard Farms and became New England’s largest producer of greenhouse tomatoes. From growing ornamentals to greenhouse tomatoes, I gained the experience to try lettuce and started Little Leaf Farms In 2015.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
My first business was a driveway repair business, which I started in high school and ran for several summers to help pay for my college education. My partner in that business is still my best friend and a partner in the business I run today. We exclusively focused on stone and gravel. I did the deliveries, and my partner did the work on the job site. One customer asked us if we did driveway sealant on pavement, which we had no experience in. We took the job and way over applied the sealant, which resulted in the customer not being able to use their driveway for about a week as we were waiting for the sealant to dry, which it eventually did. On top of having to completely refund an upset customer, the big lesson is to define what your business is, and do not stray from this.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I follow a business thinker named Patrick Lencioni, and a great book he wrote is called The Advantage, which articulates a lot of my beliefs in how a business should be run. The book discusses how organizational health can be a key strategic advantage in succeeding and, most importantly, how to create a high performing culture around this idea. When I started in my career, it was more about me and not the team. Then, I realized it had to be about the team and not just about me to be successful. Great teams build companies and attracting and retaining great people is the first step in the process.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I completely agree. My team answered the question of “Why do we exist?” and our answer was to “transform the way food is grown.” This has provided our organization with a sense of purpose to help transform our far-flung food industry to local production to serve a local market. Prior to forming Little Leaf Farms, the New England market was served primarily by west coast producers that transported the leafy greens across the country, which takes multiple days and results in a not very fresh product. In contrast, what we harvest today will be in the store tomorrow. We have succeeded by delivering a better quality product.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Resiliency. This has never been more important than in the age of COVID-19. You have to be in it for the long haul and willing to weather the bumps and the ups and downs that all businesses go through.
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 have done to address those challenges?
The first thing we did was to set up my older mother and mother-in-law so that they were in a place where they were protected and could safely live. Food producers are considered essential businesses, so we have maintained operations throughout the pandemic, and I have maintained a normal work schedule. This means I needed to take the steps to make sure my workplace is safe, so we all do not bring the virus back to our families. This precipitated significant changes in my workplace to incorporate all the recommendations from our health officials.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you have done to address those challenges?
With more people eating at home and locally grown food a vital part of the nation’s critical infrastructure during the pandemic, we have been working with local grocery stores to meet demand and ensure that the East Coast has a resilient and robust sustainable local food supply during the pandemic. To ensure our continued operations, we have taken unprecedented measures to enhance worker health and safety, including social distancing on the job and during breaks, which is in addition to our already comprehensive food safety system.
We are also in the process of constructing a 250,000 square foot greenhouse to expand from five to 10 acres and double our capacity to produce more than two million boxes of fresh baby greens a month. While the expansion has experienced some delays because of travel restrictions and building experts not being able to come from other parts of the world, we have found ways to adapt and progress the project under these new circumstances in order to meet the growing need for our local produce.
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?
One of the things that has not been talked about much is how important it is to maintain your health so that your body can fight off not only COVID-19 but also other infectious diseases. Clearly, this virus has particularly ravaged health compromised individuals, which highlights the importance of maintaining a healthy diet, fitness and lifestyle. I have tried to emphasize this point to people close to me, as people do have the ability to take more control over this issue.
Obviously, we cannot 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?
I am a believer that whatever trends existed in the pre-COVID economy are going to be accelerated in the post-COVID world. Little Leaf Farms is fortunate to be a food producer and an essential business, so we have fully maintained operations through the pandemic. We primarily sell to grocery stores, and our sales surged as everyone was eating at home. We are in the beginning of building out a locally grown food economy where consumers want greater knowledge about where and how the food they eat was raised and grown, and this trend is only going to advance.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
A greater sense of connectivity to my fellow man and a responsibility that we all have to each other. There will be a resurgence around eating at home and a greater emphasis on the home, which I think is here to stay.
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 taking all of the good lessons from the pandemic around personal hygiene and health along with a responsibility to your co-workers and building on this. These practices are good to keep regardless of what type of world we live in.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to learn from this experience. The goal is not to return to pre-COVID normalcy. Rather, we should all aim to grow and improve and make the ‘new normal’ a more sustainable, efficient and effective system for everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena.” This quote captures the essence of what being an entrepreneur is all about, especially around courage and tenacity.
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