'We had received big offers from big companies, but giving the company to the employees was the right thing to do.'
As a young man, I always dreamed of owning a business — one that actually made the world a little bit better. I never dreamed that at age 90 I’d still be working at a company I love dearly, Bob’s Red Mill, surrounded by more than 600 employees who now own the company and are helping to take it to a place I never thought possible.
It wasn’t a particularly easy or traditional journey to success, but I wouldn’t change a thing along the way. I chalk it up to living and learning from every experience and doing what you’re passionate about.
From the very start of our marriage, Charlee and I discussed and contemplated a business of some sort that we could share together. Working and planning life’s goals together became a regular part of our end-of-day activities. The longer we lived as husband and wife, the better and more detailed our talks and plans became — as well as the number of children (three) we were blessed with.
We worked through a series of small businesses — two gas stations and a couple of tire shops. We worked together on customer contacts and follow-up, and in general found that we simply enjoyed each other’s presence as we planned and built our customer base and business.
Along the way, Charlee discovered a love and interest in better eating and a promise of better health through whole-grain foods. This became a major topic of conversation between us and our boys.
As comfortable and profitable entrepreneurs already, a change of business direction seemed like an ideal fit when a historic old stone-grinding grain mill presented itself to us. We jumped in where no one else seemed to see any entrepreneurial opportunity. We decided to give it a try — and it worked. The business quickly became the poster child for healthy, desirable foods of the Pacific Northwest.
How delightful it all was — success, challenge, acceptance and pleasing prosperity. As I look back on this time, it is easy to tell that Charlee and I were very happy with this phase of our marriage and life by the smiles and the many lovely backgrounds where our pictures were taken. Our success afforded us travel to wonderful and far-off places around our world. Happy, prosperous times.
But then a senseless and unnecessary fire was started in our old wooden mill building by an arsonist. It was nothing we had a thing to do with or could have ever imagined. We were both in our 60s — what a devastating thing to happen at a time in life when most people look forward to retirement.
In the days following the fire, one of the many things that went through my mind was whether I should retire. Of course that was a possibility. I would be able to collect social security in a couple of years, and we had fire insurance. It would surely pay off well, and we had a nice nest egg of savings.
But there was another element: the people who had helped make the company a success. A number of our precious employees got news of the fire and gathered together in the night, watching the mill burn. I overheard a conversation between Charlee and the wife of one of our employees. She mentioned to Charlee that they had just signed the papers on their new home that very morning, and now her husband didn’t have a job.
Well, I could fix that by staying in business. I was overwhelmed by the response I was receiving. Our employees, our suppliers and customers — large grocery chains and small health food stores — all encouraged us to keep supplying the Pacific Northwest. Even my largest customer at the time, Fred Meyer, asked me to continue and agreed to “keep the door open” for up to three months while I rebuilt or relocated.
If there was anything Charlee and I believed in, it was a conviction that what we had been doing for the past 10 years with slow stone grinding of whole grains was a profound food need, and we should be the ones to lead in supplying them to the world.
When Charlee agreed to come out of retirement and help me reestablish our business, I felt an almost divine calling to start over. And that’s just what we did.
It wasn’t the last time we had an opportunity to support our valued employees, either.
On my 81st birthday, I made one of the best decisions in my life: to give ownership of Bob’s Red Mill to the amazing employees who make it what it is, by creating an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and making everyone an employee-owner. We had received big offers from big companies, but giving the company to the employees was the right thing to do — there are people who have worked at the company from the beginning, and they deserve to share in the success.
Now 31 years after that devastating fire, Bob’s Red Mill is a world supplier of whole-grain foods through grocery and health-food markets around the world. And every Bob’s Red Mill employee is committed to sourcing, milling, testing, packaging, labeling and selling the finest product available, because it’s their business too. And I still go to work every day because I love it. It just doesn’t get better than that.
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