Neil Grimmer | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Neil Grimmer

Background:  

Neil Grimmer co-founded the baby food company Plum Organics with the goal of introducing kids to healthy eating through tasty pureed fruits, veggies, grains and other nutritious ingredients. Besides baby food, Plum Organics also sells healthy snacks for toddlers and children, and recently introduced a line of organic infant formula. When the company was purchased by Campbell Soup Co. three years ago, Grimmer stayed on as CEO for two and a half years before stepping down to become chairman of the board this January. He has two daughters.

The Mistake: 

My mistake was believing that there was a CEO playbook, or some sort of model that I had to follow, a set of guiding principles that I needed to know to be a great CEO.  

In high school, I was this punk rock kid with half my head shaved. I was really into music and art, and I was in a very high-achieving school. When we all decided what we were going to do as our next step, people were going to Yale, Stanford, Harvard — and I was going to art school. It was seen by many of my peers as one of the biggest mistakes you could make. For me, I focused on following my passion and committed to the idea of creative expression. That's what I loved to do. 

As the years rolled on, I had a band that played out in Berkeley, and we opened for Green Day a bunch of times, and we went on national tours. My parents would hear stories about these kids from Yale and Harvard going into investment banking and all of these celebrated professions, and here I am touring around the country getting more tattoos on my body. 

When I actually started running a company, I have to admit I had some insecurities around that idea. I felt like a wolf in sheep's clothing. For someone who was actually bucking convention for the majority of his life, it's funny to think that was the moment where I said, "Oh my gosh, there must be something I need to learn or adjust to or become to be a great CEO." 

I had investors that would tell me things like, "You've got to toughen up." I'm a big-hearted guy — tons of empathy, care deeply about people I work with and the world around me — and I'd have people say, "Toughen up, buttercup. This is business, it's not personal."  

Early on, we wanted everyone to have an equity stake in the business, and some of our investors said, "Eh, that's not a good idea." That was the first moment where I thought, "That doesn't make sense." We elected not to do that and we elected to give everyone an equity stake in the company.  

The wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve approach ... is actually a unique business characteristic.

The Lesson: 

In the early days, I think I tried on a lot of these things for size and I learned really quickly that those things you may learn even in an MBA program are the things that have led us to where we are today with business, where by and large corporations are mistrusted. What I've learned is that the wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve approach I take to life is actually a unique business characteristic that I believe is sorely missing.  

When you take an approach like, "It's not personal, it's business," by the very nature of that statement you take humanity out of the decision-making process. You take the ethics and morality that we associate with being a good neighbor and a good citizen out of the decision-making process, and those are things that we need now more than ever with good corporate stewardship.  

On our wall [at Plum Organics], one of the three mantras we have is "Lead with heart," which means everything we do comes from a place of love and care for the people we serve. At the end of the day, we're a baby food company. We're in service to young parents raising their little ones, and it's one of the most important times in people's lives. We've got to show up not only as great business people, but also as parents that have kids of our own and use those values to drive every decision we make. Ultimately, that has been a core part of the secret of success.  

Follow Neil Grimmer on Twitter at @NeilGrimmerCEO.

Pictured: Neil Grimmer. | Photo by Andrew Weeks Photography courtesy of Plum Organics.

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