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OEN Innovative Company Spotlight - Interview with Lisa Sedlar
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New Seasons Market
CEO, Lisa Sedlar

Q. Please describe your company. How long has your product/service/company been in the market?

A. Three families and 50 friends got together back in 1999 and decided to open a grocery store. Not just any grocery store, mind you, but one that carried everything from the essentials to the extraordinary. It had to be friendly, fun, neighborly and supportive of sustainable agriculture. So, on Leap Day, 2000, dreams and ideas gave way to our first store opening at Raleigh Hills.

Q. What problem does your company/product/service solve?

A. We serve as an outlet for local food producers to sell their products creating a sustainable food supply system for our local region. We take pride in supporting local farms, ranches and other small businesses through our Home Grown program, which provides products from these local businesses to its customers. We source as much local produce, meat and other products as possible in our stores, which help reduce the environmental impact the company has by bringing the freshest and highest quality food to the local community. In addition, we test products from local businesses on our shelves. This opportunity gives local business owners an opportunity to test their product, such as Ruby Jewel's Handmade Ice Cream Sandwiches, which was one of the early test products that we introduced.

Q. What about your company is interesting, unique or innovative?

A. We address the lack of service in grocery shopping and taking the "chore" out of it by being the friendliest store in town. We strive in building community in our local stores and making local connections. We have brought back the concept of the neighborhood grocery store by giving our customers the experience of having friendly staff and community connections, which helps create the environment.

We do this by nearly doubling the amount of staff to run our stores than an ordinary grocery store. Our operating philosophy is: "We don't have a lot of stupid rules". Our employees are empowered to take action. Whatever our customer needs our employees have the permission to help them out. If a customer needs someone to watch her dog while she shops, we watch the dog. If a customer needs help changing a flat tire, we will help with that.

When employees are hired they are given a "Get Out Of Jail Free Card". This card licenses our employees to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. It simply states, "This (card) authorizes the holder of this card to do whatever is necessary to make sure that our customer leaves our store convinced that he or she has had the best possible shopping experience. " The number one thing we look for when we hire employees is friendliness. If they are friendly then we can train them for the other responsibilities. We really don't interview candidates but instead we have a conversation with them. We learn their interests and passions and try to place them in positions that align with those interests.

Q. What has been the most important innovation your company or product has developed for the marketplace?

A. Our culture is the differentiator for New Seasons. We have a bubble up culture rather than a top down culture. We have developed a long term strategic plan that involved employees from every store and every department. Meat clerks, department managers, baggers, staff members, have provided input and feedback into the strategic plan. The strategic plan includes five key initiatives that has employee groups at each store is working on.

Each individual store "governs" itself in having its own green/environmental team, health council, and culture group, in order to do what's best for the store, employees and the local community that surrounds it. What is important is that the culture of our business is maintained and I meet regularly with the cultural group to discuss what could be better and how can we enhance having fun in the business.

Q. Where are you in the lifecycle of your business? What is next?

A. We are in the adolescence stage. The Company has been around now for about ten years. There's plenty of growth and opportunity on the horizon. In growing, we seek to capture the vision of its founders and not lose it through growth. We have a triple bottom line focus: Environmental, People and Profitability. This is very different from the old way of doing business where bottom line is the only focus. We believe by setting this example for other businesses, this will help create a new way of doing business where providing high customer service and having transparency with the employees as well as giving 10% of net profits back to the community as well as sharing profits with our employees through a 20% profit sharing plan . In the spirit of local governance, each store decides which charities to support focusing on education, the environment, and feeding the hungry. This triple bottom line focus will allow New Seasons to prosper like no other business can.

Q. What's next (adulthood)?

A. Basically a store in every neighborhood. We want to preserve and enhance the company from where it is now and into the future, which in turn will help local farms, ranchers, and artisan food craftsmen as well as the community and local economy. Growth will create challenges for us. We will need to maintain our culture of being the friendliness store in town, find the available real estate, keep up with our staff training and development, never lose the bootstrap mentality, and have an effective distribution network system.

A. Did you get outside funding for your business or did you bootstrap it? Describe the experience of growing your company whether via the fundraising path or the bootstrapping path, or both?

A. The Company started with a bootstrap mentality and we haven't deviated from that, which is why employees care where money is spent and they have a say in where it should be spent. We obviously couldn't grow to this size without getting additional outside funding, however, it was key to us to find the right business partners that would help us continue our success. A combination of bootstrapping and outside funding allowed us to realize the succession plan we had in place as well as help fund growth. Couldn't do it with just one or the other.

Q. Any advice for entrepreneurs?

A. Keep the bootstrap mentality, be humble, acknowledge making mistakes, be ready to kill something that doesn't work and be apologetic. Be vigilant and involved in every part of the business. Have strong marketing. Have clarity in vision and process. Have open communication with the employees, board and business partners. Example cited: I invited the board to our annual vendor dinner, which typically has 250 vendors attending, so that they can visit with who we do business with and see the impact we have with our local vendors.

Q. What are the challenges to realizing the next stage?

A. Real estate, finding locations for our stores where we have the most impact. Competition, such as Wal-Mart, disclosing they wish to open 17 smaller stores than their normal format. Keeping up training and development of staff in our philosophy and customer service approach. We must meet those goals. Distributor network. How we do business is extremely complicated, however, it is currently our best way to bring food the freshest and fastest way possible to our consumers. Current distribution centers used by conventional stores bring the food the cheapest way possible to its stores, but the worst quality food. I envision a distribution center that follows sustainable practices, whether someone independent runs it or New Seasons does.

Q. Are you involved with OEN? If so, what benefits have you received as a result of being a member?

A. Not currently, however, we are an active sponsor of the Food Innovation Center through its "Time to Market: A Showcase of Local Foods," where students enrolled in PCC's 13-week Getting Your Recipe to Market program learn from food industry professionals and experts how to rustle up foodstuff attention by starting a food cart, signing up for a farmers market booth, starting an underground supper club, as well as vying for retail shelf space. We serve as judge at the semiannual event and select two products at each show to be stocked on New Seasons shelves. There may be a great way for the Food Innovation Center to work with OEN in helping its students start up their business and how a business plan should work.

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