Russell Stokes looks forward to walking supermarket aisles with store managers or chatting with customers — even ones who may have grabbed a competitor's product off the shelf. Armed with gift cards he hands out to shoppers who speak with him, the 45-year-old executive admits his wife is "embarrassed to shop with me now because I can't help it."
But for Stokes, appointed Wednesday as the CEO of Kind North America, these seemingly casual conversations remain a valuable tool for a leader charged with positioning the company for future growth by moving it further beyond its snack bar roots, while simultaneously increasing its impact in the community and on the environment.
In an interview, Stokes said his goal is to "accelerate our progress" toward these purposes. "There is a lot of innovation that we can do within these guardrails to grow the business even further."
The ascension to the top post at Kind North America marks a swift climb for the former Whirlpool executive and Harvard Business School graduate. Stokes previously served as Kind's chief growth officer after joining the company in April from Mars, where he served a similar role at the maker of candy, gum and pet food.
Stokes' appointment comes amid an accelerated push by Kind during the past two years to move beyond its core bars to become a broader snacking company. Since the beginning of 2020, Kind, which prioritizes the use of plant-based, nutrient-dense ingredients in its foods, has expanded into refrigerated items, chocolate, energy bars, frozen food, cereal and snack mixes. Sales have risen to more than $1.5 billion annually.
The pandemic has provided a boost to companies that prioritize health and wellness, and Kind has been among the beneficiaries. Kind's sales in the categories it competes in are back above their pre-COVID-19 peaks and are growing double digits this year, according to the company. It also cites IRI data showing that it's taking market share in granola and bars, led in part by Kind Minis, one of its fastest-growing products.
With Kind only reaching about 20% of all U.S. households annually, there appears to be a long runway ahead for the nearly two-decade-old business.
"As we've seen business emerge from COVID, Kind is winning the market," Stokes added. "There is incredible demand out there for products that encourage people to eat better."
The strategy at Kind to evolve into a more diversified food company mirrors a similar one taking place at other food makers including Chobani and Hershey.
Chobani, which put itself on the map by making Greek yogurt a household name, has moved into other categories such as nondairy oat milk, peanut butter, dairy- and plant-based creamers, ready-to-drink coffee and plant-based probiotic drinks. Hershey has expanded beyond confections with the purchase of popcorn brand SkinnyPop, Pirate's Booty cheese puffs and protein bar maker One Brands.
Stokes said Kind has identified "a lot of other areas" ripe for disruption throughout the grocery store that it could eventually bring its brand to in the future. He declined to provide more details, but hinted that it may expand its presence in frozen and cereal.
For now, supply chain challenges across the U.S. and growth opportunities within the existing categories where Kind already has a presence have prompted the snack maker to hold off expanding to other aisles.
"We have so much opportunity ahead of us in the parts of the store that we currently play in that I really want to look our retail partners in the eye and deliver in those spaces and use what the Kind brand does so well, which is grow the whole category," Stokes said. Still, he added: "That won't be enough by itself. To fully live up to that promise, we have to look at building some new platforms for the business over time."
Stokes, who assumes the role immediately, reports to Juan Martin, Kind’s global president and CEO. He replaces Mike Barkley, who left the company earlier this year.
The expansion for Kind gained momentum after it was purchased by Mars nearly a year ago for an estimated price tag that valued it at more than $5 billion. Mars took a minority stake in Kind in 2017.
Kind has built its brand not only in its better-for-you product offerings but also through outreach efforts to the LGBTQ and other communities, supporting mental health and partnering with historically Black colleges. It also has made the environment a key platform through commitments like vowing to source its almonds from bee-friendly farms by 2025. Increasingly, consumers are basing their buying decisions on the product as well as what issues a company or brand stands for, and businesses like Kind have taken notice.
"Empowering people to eat better: That absolutely is still critical to everything that we do," Stokes said. "But for me, those other two pieces — community and planet — they have to be part of us living up to this purpose over time. It's the right thing to do, but it's also being really well received by consumers."