When Campbell Soup announced it would divest its fresh foods division in 2018, it quickly piqued the attention of a food executive who was more than familiar with one of its key brands.
Jeff Dunn was CEO of Bolthouse Farms for five years before its private equity owner sold the maker of fresh carrots and refrigerated juices in 2012 for $1.55 billion to Campbell Soup. Dunn continued to run Campbell Soup's fresh unit, which grew to include hummus, dips and tortilla maker Garden Fresh Gourmet. He left in 2016 to join Butterfly Equity, a private equity firm specializing in the food sector.
"It was probably just the wrong marriage. It just wasn't a natural fit. There was no synergy with the core Campbell's (shelf-stable) business and it was an outlier."
CEO, Bolthouse Farms
Campbell Soup quickly saw the pitfalls of a brand dependent on fresh produce and tied to the unpredictability of Mother Nature. Bolthouse went from posting $100 million in annual revenue in 2012, the year it was acquired, to losing money five years later under Campbell Soup. The fresh food brand was weighed down by issues such as weather challenges affecting its carrot operations and a voluntary recall because of spoilage.
"It was probably just the wrong marriage. It just wasn't a natural fit," Dunn told Food Dive. "There was no synergy with the core Campbell's (shelf-stable) business and it was an outlier."
Campbell Soup struggled with Bolthouse. Dunn said Campbell Soup moved too slowly in its decision making with Bolthouse, and in trying to minimize risk, ended up stifling innovation at the fresh-focused brand. This kind of criticism is common for large companies that have purchased smaller ones.
"I don’t think they were innovative enough, and the nature of these businesses is you have to constantly innovate. And that wasn’t necessarily their core competence," he said. "We were able to buy it at a pretty effective price and get in there and kind of remediate some of the challenges associated with the wrong strategy."
All in the family
Butterfly Equity, where Dunn was an operating partner, won an auction to buy the 105-year old business back for $510 million earlier this year.
Six months before the deal even closed, Dunn, who was reinstalled as CEO, and his team started working on developing new products to get to market to showcase in time for retailers to consider when they decide what to carry in 2020. He hired his former head of marketing and his ex-chief of R&D, along with nearly 70 other people who had once worked at Bolthouse and were intimately familiar with the fresh business.
"We say that decision making in fresh has a shelf [life], and it's not very long. The whole secret here is fast decision making and people getting at the point of attack, making those decisions quicker than Campbell's," Dunn said. "We're in an incredible space and we're repositioning the business around this plant-based movement, which, to me, is kind of a no-brainer."
Bolthouse announced last month it would launch 25 new products that will be ready for sale next spring, both brand-new items and line extensions of existing offerings. Bolthouse is targeting the U.S. keto diet craze with ready-to-drink protein beverages featuring one gram of sugar and 3 grams of net carbohydrates, and functional shots with ingredients to help immunity, digestion, energy, wellness and metabolism.
The brand is also aiming to innovate carrots in the same way manufacturers have brought new life to cauliflower. Bolthouse is working on rice, fettuccine and waffle-cut fries made from the root vegetable.
While there is growing competition in the fresh food space, Bolthouse "has the scale to compete with anybody," Dunn said. This is due in large part to the company's decision to oversee the development of new products using new and existing technologies, including CRISPR. The company then grows, processes and packages the food that gets sent to stores.
Adding on to Bolthouse
Bolthouse also is moving into the CBD space with two ready-to-drink beverage lines that contain the ingredient — a low sugar and low calorie functional beverage, and a coffee option. These could launch in California next year, where Bolthouse has a plant, if the state passes legislation allowing for retail sales of CBD products.
Although CBD is relatively new to the food and beverage space, it is expanding fast. The consumer CBD market is estimated to grow to $2.1 billion by 2020 from $202 million in 2015, according to a recent report in the Hemp Business Journal cited by Forbes.
Dunn said the company plans to roll out the CBD drinks under a new brand name rather than the Bolthouse banner that will help to better define the product, part of a broader "house of brands strategy" for the company. As the company grows and expands into new areas, different brand names will be used to highlight particular traits, rather than everything being lumped under the Bolthouse umbrella.
Consumers "want each brand to have its own authentic story," he said. "It's hard for a single brand to carry all the spaces we're talking about."
To grow Bolthouse as a company, Dunn also plans to employ M&A to purchase existing brands.
"We have a big platform that you could plug into smaller more entrepreneurial brands into, so we’ll be more open to innovation that way. ... " he said. "I think we can be a net acquirer of brands over time because we got the platform for small brands, from the manufacturing, distribution standpoint that are refrigerated. We can be very synergistic."