When big companies buy small brands 3/14/2016 - by Monica Watrous

Annie's organic products - cereal, yogurt, soup - General Mills
In the first year together, General Mills helped Annie’s launch into organic soups, organic yogurts and organic cereals.

Steve Young, a vice-president at General Mills, said his company’s goal with Annie’s, Epic and the other natural and organic brands in its portfolio, including Larabar, Food Should Taste Good and Cascadian Farms, is to “marry that spirit of the small with the power of the big.”

Steve Young, General Mills
Steve Young, a vice-president at General Mills

“We are very committed to (the idea that) Annie’s is going to retain the right to do what it wants to do with Annie’s, and Epic is going to retain the right to do what it wants to do with Epic,” Mr. Young said during the presentation. “I would love to get to a point where consumers and the industry are less worried about that because they trust big companies are going to do the right thing. And I believe we can.”

In an interview with Food Business News during Expo West, Mr. Young and Mr. Foraker shed more light on the keys to successfully growing a natural and organic business like Annie’s within a portfolio as prolific as General Mills’. By 2019, General Mills expects to reach $1 billion in net sales from natural and organic products, and to support that goal the company recently announced plans to more than double the organic acreage from which it sources ingredients.

“To me, that was one of the biggest impact opportunities that (General) Mills could help us bring,” Mr. Foraker said. “What matters to us as much as having a successful business is driving big impact, and one of the biggest ways to drive impact is to convert more land to organic and sustainable ways of farming. To me, that’s the mainstreaming of natural and organic and why big companies are so important to the mix because small companies are not going to be able to expand the supply chain in the way necessary to make organic be a mainstream, affordable option for the masses, and that’s our goal.”

For General Mills, the partnership with Annie’s has inspired a more entrepreneurial approach to product development, Mr. Young said.

“What we’ve really learned is the speed-to-market; when you are truly mission- and purpose-driven, it gives you a lens for every decision you make, and you can make them fast when that’s the case,” he said. “We move faster. In the past, we may have said, ‘Well, we’d better research this; we’d better test this.’ What we’re doing now is saying, ‘We know this is right. We’re going to go.’”

Critical to fostering growth in a brand like Annie’s or Epic is allowing its leaders to retain autonomy in decision-making, Mr. Young said.

“We don’t want to buy these businesses and kiss the old team that was running it goodbye,” Mr. Young said. “That’s not how we operate anymore. We want to grow with these people, so part of what we look for is a talented team, who are mission-driven and purpose-led in what they do, good business people, good partners.”

Epic provisions meat snacks, General Mills
Epic is operated under the Annie’s division at General Mills.

Epic is operated under the Annie’s division at General Mills, with Mr. Foraker helping to guide and grow the business.

“What are we doing with Epic?” Mr. Foraker said. “Katie and Taylor are running it. We’re leaving it in Austin... We’re solving the problems they have, like helping them improve quality, and getting behind the mission.  

“We’re just giving them what they need and getting out of the way.”