When Dawn Kelley and her husband purchased Barney Butter in 2010, it fused her love for health and food.
As president and CEO, Kelley leads the day-to-day business operations and has helped turn a small almond butter brand into the No. 3 national brand and fastest-growing business in the category, with well over $20 million in sales and shelf space in more than 12,000 stores nationwide.
Read on to discover what it’s like to work alongside your spouse in business; what makes the Barney Butter’s team culture unique; what’s ahead for the innovative brand; and more.
ForceBrands: Tell us a bit about Barney Butter’s journey and how you’ve helped grow the brand into one of the nation’s leading producers of almond butter.
Dawn Kelley: After graduating from the University of Kentucky, I went on to work in leadership roles within the technology and e-commerce industry holding executive positions at United Tote, Orbitz.com, and Careerbuilder.com, but I knew I needed to listen to my inner voice that was telling me to create something more beneficial for the world. At the time, my now husband, Steve Kelley, had just invested in Barney Butter when we were introduced through a mutual friend. When the opportunity presented itself — and with a touch of serendipity — we purchased the company in 2010 which finally allowed me to act on my passion for the symbiotic relationship between health and food.
I truly believe you are what you eat, and I’ve always wanted to improve and change the fact that nourishing, whole foods cost so much more than the processed junk food you see on shelves. I want to see a shift in accessibility and a positive change in the distribution system, which is something Barney Butter allows me to work toward every day.
At Barney Butter, I successfully lead the brand’s day-to-day business including sales, marketing, operations, and product development while using a three-bottom-line approach of people, profit and purpose to successfully craft harmonious short- and long-term strategies for the business. I am a big believer in leaving things better than you found them, so when I was given the chance to act on my dream of producing something positive for the world, I set out to take Barney Butter to new heights.
As CEO and president, I’ve been able to help turn a small almond butter brand into the No. 3 national brand and fastest-growing business in the category, with well over $20 million in sales and shelf space in more than 12,000 stores nationwide.
FB: It’s no secret that nut butter of any variety is a saturated category. What approach did you take with Barney Butter to make it stand out?
DK: As one of the few specialty nut butter brands devoted exclusively to almonds, I’ve helped evolve Barney Butter into a category leader through implementing our standard of only using the best grades of California almonds. Barney is also the only almond butter that uses blanched almonds, meaning we remove all of the almond skins. This is important for several reasons and makes us really stand out from the rest and have a broader appeal beyond traditional almond butter eaters. First and foremost, removing the skin improves the taste and texture of the almond butter. It makes for a super smooth (no grit) texture and allows the natural sweetness of the almond to come through because there are no bitter skins to cut that flavor. Phytic acid is also found in the skin of an almond and that is what is known to cause stomach pains and digestion difficulties. Phytic acid also blocks the body’s ability to absorb many of the wonderful nutrients and micronutrients found in almonds. Additionally, we’re a self-manufacturer (meaning we don’t use a third party co-packer) and all of our nut butters are guaranteed to be 100 percent peanut-free with no cross-contamination). Because of this, we have a loyal consumer who has been with us for a very long time. There are 11M households in the U.S. that are affected by a peanut allergy in some way, and providing those families and households an amazing peanut-free nut butter option is very important to us.
FB: Tell us what it’s like to work alongside your husband Steve who is both your business partner and life partner. How do you achieve work-life balance?
DK: We’ve been life and business partners for more than eight years, and how we manage that has definitely changed and evolved over time. It’s a subject I could probably write a book on at this point! Few couples get to really see all sides of their partner in the way we do and I’m thankful for that. It’s fun to actually see someone shine in the course of their workday versus hearing about it over dinner, etc. — it’s just one of the bonuses. Finding the sweet spots where we both thrive has helped us maintain our enthusiasm as well. We both have strong business backgrounds and Steve loves focusing on the manufacturing and operational side of the business, while I thrive on the brand, sales, and innovation end of the spectrum. It’s a great balance and we usually don’t step on each other’s toes. Together, we’ve celebrated being on the Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies list twice; became the third largest brand in the category and the fastest growing; and now we have our eyes on innovation and launching new products in the better-for-you, “free from,” clean protein, and snack spaces.
As far as balance goes, in the beginning we struggled with boundary issues, in terms of Barney Butter talk creeping in where it shouldn’t, and it was really a challenge to both get to a place where we could read the room and know the appropriate time to bring a business issue up during “off hours.” Fast forward to now and we’ve fortunately improved, so balance never feels like a struggle today.
That said, whether your married or not, being a business owner always presents general work-life balance challenges. For us, staying focused on wellness, taking care of ourselves and taking a day here and there after a big trade show or the end of a big project to celebrate has helped us stay super energized and engaged.
We’re still just as excited today, if not more, about this company than we were when we started out.
FB: At ForceBrands, we build the teams that build the brands. What makes working at Barney Butter unique? What would your team members say is one of the best ‘perks’ or cultural aspects that’s unique to the brand?
DK: We have very little turnover at our company and we take pride in the fact that most people have been with us for many years. The majority of our employees are in our Fresno, Calif., plant and every employee runs their business like they own it. Just the name Barney Butter makes people smile, and there are a lot of old friends, and longtime colleagues who make our product, and also make our brand the friendliest. We are approachable, easy to do business with, and also very professional, committed to quality, and focused on making the best almond butters and almond products on the market. We treat our employees as family and I truly believe that spills over into how we treat our consumers, retail customers, distribution partners, and stakeholders.
FB: If you could go back and build the team any differently, what would you change?
DK: One of my big learnings and something I would do differently, would be to develop a very seasoned board of advisors very early on. Having that collective experience, in a structured way, can really be a game changer and prevent stepping on some landmines along the way. In terms of staffing, I think that changes as you grow, but having too many “thinkers” vs. “doers” early on is just unnecessary. When you have a founder or leader of a brand that drives the voice/tone/personality of the brand, you need people to execute on that and get the work done, while not necessarily managing it. I believe in having a somewhat flat organization, without a lot of layers. I’ve found that having people “manage” vs. “do” just adds useless layers and bottlenecks if that level is added too soon in the lifecycle of the company.
FB: Regarding hiring, what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to build their own team to power their food brand?
DK: I would say to always hire someone who brings a skill set to the group that does not exist today so that they can elevate the team. I would also say to hire someone who is smarter than you in whatever subject matter they are being hired for. And finally, hire slow and fire fast (I still struggle with this one). You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and having the wrong person, the wrong skill set, or the wrong attitude on the team can really hold you back. Being an entrepreneur and business owner means you literally run your business like you own it, and looking for that same passion and quality in team members is just as important for momentum and accountability sake.
FB: What’s ahead for Barney Butter? Are there any fun new upcoming product innovations you could share?
DK: We just launched the first Powdered Almond Butter (in both unsweetened and chocolate) to the market, which we (and our consumers!) are super excited about. Our paleo-friendly certified unsweetened Powdered Almond Butter has 93 percent less fat and 75 percent fewer calories than traditional almond butter, making it only 45 calories per serving with 1g of fat and 6g of protein. Our chocolate Powdered Almond Butter, launched right after, which is also paleo-friendly certified. Next up we have the single-serve packets of both flavors of the Powdered Almond Butter which will launch in a few weeks. These will be great on-the-go, super clean, plant-based (almond) protein powder that you can take with you to add to your smoothie, yogurt, oats, mix-to-make almond butter, add to water for on-the-go almond milk, or even use in your coffee as a powdered coffee creamer.
Learn more about how Kelley energizes for the week ahead and how she likes to Start It Sunday.
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