Culture Factor 2.0

How Cultivating Entrepreneurial Spirit can be the Backbone of Company Culture for Employees and Supply Chain Partners

Episode Summary

Matt Wadiak is the founder and CEO of Cooks Venture. Prior to Cooks Venture, he founded and served as COO of Blue Apron. Matt developed and managed Blue Apron’s supply chain, led a team of over 5,000 manufacturing employees at six national centers, and built a network of over 250 farmers, ranchers, and agronomists. Matt’s goal is nothing short of building a food system for the future, changing industrial agriculture and creating a regenerative system to reverse climate change while providing consumers with food choices that are exceptional in quality and taste. He serves on the board of Goodwill International, one of the largest NGO's in the world, which works to educate and develop better employment around the country through a diversity of workforce development and social programs.

Episode Notes

http://www.companytribes.com

http://cooksventure.com

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1:
Welcome to The Culture Factor, where we talk to founders and influential leaders about company culture. We share stories from the C suite that help executives engage their business from the inside and create a map to transform their culture. Because the truth is, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Holly Shannon:
I want to thank our listeners for joining, The Culture Factor and ask that you subscribe, rate and consider leaving a review. We'd love to hear who you'd like to listen to next. And thank you to our sponsor Company Tribes, they have an app and a virtual experience to help keep your tribe together during difficult times like now and business as usual. How strong is your company culture? Reach out to paul@companytribes.com. Matt Wadiak is the founder and CEO of Cooks Venture. Prior to Cooks Venture, he founded and served as COO of Blue Apron, Matt, developed and managed Blue Apron supply chain. He led a team of over 5,000 manufacturing employees at six national centers and built a network of over 250 farmers, ranchers and agronomists. Matt's goal is nothing short of building a food system for the future. He's changing industrial agriculture and creating a regenerative system to reverse climate change. He serves on the board of Goodwill International, one of the largest NGOs in the world that works to educate and develop better employment around the country through a diversity of workforce development and social programs.

Holly Shannon:
And today Matt is at the forefront and on The Cultural Factor, I am Holly Shannon, your host and co-producer, and it is my pleasure to introduce Matt. Well, hello, welcome Matt Wadiak to The Culture Factor.

Matt Wadiak:
Thanks so much, Holly, for having me.

Holly Shannon:
I have a lot of questions for you, and I really want to focus on company culture, but I'm sure we'd probably be remiss in not at least acknowledging our present and current climate. So that may come up in this podcast. And I hope it does because it's ever present on everybody's mind, right? Where they get food.

Matt Wadiak:
It is really all encompassing and it's interesting that, I feel like we've had food system issues for a long time, but it's the forefront of everybody's minds. Now that we're hearing about how some of these organizations are run and the consolidation of organizations and how that affects their employees.

Holly Shannon:
Yeah, absolutely. So let's do this, let's start with a few basics and I'm sure we'll weave that into there. So when we've spoken before it's clear to me, you're very laser focused on your mission and it's a noble one at that. And can you share how you built your company around and what exactly is your mission?

Matt Wadiak:
Thank you. Absolutely. Our company is really based in the foundational principle that we are a group of chefs, farmers, and food professionals who couldn't find what we wanted in the food system. So we're building it ourselves from the ground up animal by animal, plant by plant and meal by meal. And really what the history of that is, I'm a chef, I'm a cook and have been cooking since the 1990s professionally, went on after a series of entrepreneurial endeavors, working in the restaurant industry and then starting my own company and founded Blue Apron, the meal kit company, and was there for six years as founder and chief operating officer. And one of the things that I learned through that experience, feeding millions and millions of people, is that the kind of food that we would be proud of cooking as chefs and as people at home, with our families and in our communities, the kind of ingredients that we would like to service to the public just aren't available in scale.

Matt Wadiak:
And when we are looking for better quality vegetables, better use of land where farmers who are growing those foods, better quality meats that are not grown in KFO concentrated feedlot operation environments, really the public through the traditional systems only has access to those kinds of foods. So the foundational principle behind Cooks Venture, my new company, is simply that we don't have what we feel like we need as consumers, as people who eat, as people who are building modern anthropology around the table. And it's our mission and our job to go out and create it. If it's not there, let's just create the kind of food that we would like to eat. Let's create an opportunity that's economically sustainable to participate in that system, from the consumer standpoint, from the processor standpoint, from the farmer and grower standpoint, and from use of land, building better quality soil over time.

Matt Wadiak:
And there's a few different components to that. There's obviously the social benefit to that, there's the food benefit to that, there's the animal welfare benefit to that. But in addition to all of those very important things that we're seeing are very fractured in our country, there is a carbon benefit to what we're doing in that agricultural use of land is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. We know that as a fact. And Bill McKibben, who is one of the leading authorities in climate science globally, he put out a statement some years back that said, if we can utilize all agricultural lands globally, to sequester 1% more carbon in soil through biological matter, then we can essentially stop and begin to reverse climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. And the way that we do that is through understanding the use of land in America. And of all of the crops that we produce as a nation, all of the fruits, nuts, vegetables, perennial crops, stone fruits, lettuces, things like that, that we produce only constitutes 3% of American ag.

Matt Wadiak:
The other 97% goes to arable lands for things like wheat, corn, soy, et cetera. The biggest crop that we grow as a country of those kinds of foods, in that 97% category that we use, is corn. And then the largest use of corn that we can change to build regenerative systems is for poultry in America. So we need to build poultry systems that can sequester carbon through rotating crops more efficiently and creating better feed for animals and getting off of just this mono cropping, dual cropping, corn and soy based system, and starting to build more environmental sustainability and regenerative agriculture into the equation, in conjunction with better welfare chicken. And through that mechanism, we can not only grow better quality food, create more economic opportunity for farmers and consumers, but we can also help to build better soil and create a better environment that actually is helping to reduce global warming and helping to create a paradigm for the future generations that is a scalable sustainable system.

Matt Wadiak:
And that's really important to us and really important to our mission and is our primary focus. Building these circular economies that can translate into other parts of the world be replicated in a way that we can really get behind and support.

Holly Shannon:
So you touch on a lot of different areas there, you have your hands in a lot of different parts of the economy. And so you have a huge supply chain that you're working with and you have partners across every aspect starting from seed to e-commerce. Do I have that correctly?

Matt Wadiak:
That's exactly right.

Holly Shannon:
So within that, how do you promote company culture? How do you develop that entrepreneurial spirit that you have? How do you share that across that whole chain? Because obviously there's a lot of people along that supply chain that have really struggled with the current model and feel almost downtrodden or pushed down and aren't really able to do what they love, like what you're doing. So how do you build that spirit up and how is that important to your company as well?

Matt Wadiak:
Yeah, that's a great question. Well, I'll start by saying, if you don't do that, if you aren't vertical within your businesses, there's always opportunity there. So for other folks out there who are trying to build a culture and be entrepreneurial, becoming a vertical company helps to sustain your mission and promote your mission. Because the more you do within a vertical supply chain, the more empowerment you can create to teams and the more people understand their clear objectives in what we're trying to accomplish as a group of individuals. In our case, we're trying to create regenerative agriculture, improve the quality of land, while also promoting animal welfare and better social systems. And it comes back to that very simple mission statement where group of farmers, cooks and food professionals who couldn't find what we wanted, so we're building it ourselves.

Matt Wadiak:
And through that idea, every single person who works on the farming side of the business, on the animal welfare side of the business, on the processing side of the business, understands and knows that we're trying to promote environmental systems that are better for people, that are better for American farmers, that are better for American workers. And when you're a part of that ideal, when you're a part of that system, and you can communicate that and see how somebody who's cooking at home or who's buying our chicken from a grocery store, gets the benefit of your hard work, then you feel empowered to continue that mission forward. When we know that the majority of farmers in America now make negative income, which is scary when we think about less than 1% of the population growing 99% of our food, that are making in some cases 50% of farmers, negative income, then if we can change that and build more food security for those folks who are feeding us, that's empowering to people.

Matt Wadiak:
And it's really our goal to make sure that whatever we do has that effect, which is empowering, that we're making the right decisions for the right reasons and going out. And even if people don't completely understand all of the work we do through supply chain, knowing that they're making a better choice and that makes people feel good about their work.

Holly Shannon:
So would you say that empowerment and entrepreneurship are the secret sauce to your company culture?

Matt Wadiak:
I think that's a big part of it. And through that, I think one of the most important things is that empowerment creates opportunity to be entrepreneurial. Whereas, if you're buying for example, commodity crops to go into a more conventional system, there's not a lot of wiggle room within those guardrails to be innovative. And innovation is a form of happiness, innovation creates that sense of why we wake up in the morning, what we're going to do today, what we're getting excited about as a team, what can we bring to the table to contribute to that overall ideal? And even though we're touching a lot of different things within our supply chain, our mission is fundamentally pretty simple, we're growing food for people and trying to do a better job of it across the board.

Holly Shannon:
Matt, if innovation is at the core of company culture then for you, can you share a story about an employee or a partner within your supply chain or maybe one of each?

Matt Wadiak:
Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I could maybe even double them up.

Holly Shannon:
That's okay. Go for it.

Matt Wadiak:
We have so many great stories of folks being innovative within our company. And I'd say foremost is our head geneticist, Richard Udale, who leads our breeding program and has been involved, when I acquired the company, we were already friends for about five years and he's really the founder, him along with my business partner, Blake Evans of the breed that we grow. And specifically what we do, which is really different than most companies, is every company in America buys their poultry breed from one of the two big companies out there, Cobb or Aviagen. Globally, they're dominant and it constitutes about 99% of American chicken. We're the only independent breeder operator of poultry in America. So we use only heritage line birds and through this very extensive 10 year process, we've selected these carriage chickens for flavor, for health, for livability, for outdoor access, for creating more biodiversity on land, through being able to digest more complex ingredients.

Matt Wadiak:
And Richard has taken these birds and run what we call feed trials in an operation where you feed birds different diets and you measure them for health and see how they can digest different kinds of grains. And in a traditional system, those would be based only in corn and soy and what we call high octane feed or multistage feed. Where the birds go on a pre-start or mix of one kind of corn and soy ration, a starter mix of another kind, a grower mix where the birds are growing out and then a finisher mix where the birds are getting large for harvest. And in our case, we just use one single stage feed that we can trial with things like red winter wheat that we can use as a cover crop, sorghum, sunflower, looping, lentils, a number of other different ingredients. And through that, Richard has been able to select these birds to have better digestive health.

Matt Wadiak:
And then if you have a bird that has better digestive health, which he's represented and demonstrated through this 10 year, really detailed process, we're able to then take that bird that we know can eat all of this diversity and partner with farmers and our feed mill. And say, okay, we have a bird now that can eat 23% sunflower, 13% sorghum, 20% red winter wheat and this incredibly diverse diet. And say, okay, instead of just growing corn and soy and degrading your land through this mono cropping, we can grow all this diversity of ingredients, so why don't you plant this year red winter wheat as a cover crop? Which we can then harvest keep the roots in the soil, build carbon, then we'll go into a sunflower, then we'll go into a loop and then we'll go into some other non GMO crops. And that empowers farmers to make more money because they're getting the benefit of these organic systems, non GMO crops, where they can make a sustainable living economically and it's also building their soil and improving their harvest and their yields over time.

Matt Wadiak:
So through that innovation that Richard has created with better poultry, we're able to also create innovation for farmers and create a use case where the farmer then has an outlet to sell to a mill that can mill our feed and then that mill can sell those more sustainable grains to us. So basically, we're creating through the simple mechanism of breeding better chickens, an opportunity for a huge supply chain coming before us. And then the opportunity after us, which will be future partnerships, is now we're taking a bird that has the ability to digest complex ingredients. And we can go down to South America, to Asia, to Africa, to nutrient poor countries, to developing countries from a caloric standpoint. And instead of having to import grains from different parts of the world, from Brazil, from deforested areas, from the US, from conventional crops. We can take local ingredients and their supply chain like yucca, cassava, quinoa, things like that and we can put those into animal feed and build local economies that are able to sustain and nourish people in those communities.

Matt Wadiak:
So the longterm outlook is we're hoping that these birds can solve more robust global problems associated with nutrition and create pockets of clerks stability within nations.

Holly Shannon:
Matt Wadiak in Cooks Venture is, it's really incredible, it's going to be world domination for you. Because you're really covering so many areas in terms of farmers and commerce and food inequities and climate. There's so many different things happening here. You have an opportunity actually, to take a bigger market share by doing this, which sounds like you should. 1% is not enough, especially if this is your goal, your end game. How has this buoy juror company culture within Cooks Venture, for example?

Matt Wadiak:
Well, I think before we had the opportunity to create some of these initiatives, it's a little more challenging operating against large players in the space. But putting this part of the mission, since we've acquired the company and done a lot of work on the regenerative program, has created a sense of purpose I think for our breeding team, for our genetics team, for our processing team. A lot of folks will go to work in a processing plant and it's real work, it's a tough job. And creating better incentives for those employees and better opportunities to grow vertically and training programs, is a really big part of what we do, but let's be honest, at the end of the day, people want to work for a reason and they want to work for a mission that's bigger than job opportunity.

Matt Wadiak:
And I think that when you have that sense of purpose and you're able to communicate that and how you're really helping people's lives and changing them in a positive way, it gives you a real reason to get through days where you might, when you're waking up super early in the morning, you might not want to go in. It gives you that little extra oomph to do things that you might not want to do otherwise. For me sometimes if I have to get up at four o'clock in the morning and go in and do something with the birds or go to the plant, it's an early hour. And to be able to know that we're able to do that because we have something bigger than us and the team I believe follows in that ideal, I think is that little extra. We've had a lot to accomplish in a very short amount of time and building a large operation like this, is an incredible amount of work. And I think everybody contributing from their emotional standpoint is even more important than contributing from a physical standpoint or a mental standpoint.

Matt Wadiak:
We have to feel good about what we do as people otherwise why are we doing it?

Holly Shannon:
Very true. Have your employees been reaching out to you about working for a company that gives them a sense of purpose?

Matt Wadiak:
Absolutely. We talk about it all the time. Not only as executives, but throughout the entire team, throughout the culture. And I have a philosophy of being very hands on with the team. I don't know if you saw the letter to employees that Elon Musk sent out a couple of years ago where he said, we don't have an organizational system where you have to go to your manager and then you have to go to the senior manager and the VP or whomever to get to me. I think everybody in a company should be able to talk to anybody and we should be able to receive that feedback at any level. So if somebody who is working on the line, or is working on one of the farms, or who's working in our operation in the hatchery, wants to talk to me, we should have that openness and that freedom and same thing with other employees in different parts of the company in different orgs.

Matt Wadiak:
I think that's where part of the innovation comes from because in a vertical economy, everything affects something else upstream and downstream. So that ability for employees to work freely and talk to one another at any level is essential. And also it builds a level of respect and trust I think throughout different levels in the organization. That is empowering both to management and to employees of the company that they know that they can trust one another and have that respect. That is okay, I'm going to come to you if there's something that I think is important, but I'm not going to use that for personal gain. It's beyond I think the scope of somebody's self-interest and always of the benefit of the company, when you have that kind of conversational freedom within an organization.

Holly Shannon:
That's great. You've been able to nurture that connection at all different levels is typically hard to attain. We all live in our little, in most businesses, traditional businesses, everybody has their silos, they have their department, if you will. And they're not really privy to talking to other departments or other heads of departments. So that's great that you've eliminated that within your company.

Matt Wadiak:
I wouldn't say I've eliminated it. I mean, this is something that every company has to work on constantly and people also self silo.

Holly Shannon:
True.

Matt Wadiak:
So companies build up walls certainly, and I think bad managers certainly put up a lot of walls, but if you're able to continuously encourage as a leader, companies or organizations within an organization to talk to one another and folks at different levels to talk to one another, through continuously reminding employees, hey, you don't have to get this approved, just go and talk to them yourself, it's okay, you can do that. I mean, I probably say that five times a week. So I think continually reminding folks that they can do something, especially when they've come from a more traditional organization, is usually a shock to people when they come into a company like Cooks Venture, there's a lot of companies like us, who cultivate that kind of leadership. And I think it is really empowering for folks, but I think one of the roles of good management, as opposed to stifling people is to get them to speak up and to communicate their ideas and their feelings.

Holly Shannon:
Well, I guess you are still nurturing then that empowerment and entrepreneurship within your people, which is really amazing. I want to bring up, obviously, there's a huge uptick in eCommerce, as far as grocery deliveries and how stores are working and farms are working during COVID. And I really didn't want to land on COVID to end out our conversation, but it's unfortunate, it's a huge part of it. How has your team, and how has your culture reacted to the present moment and have you had to increase your workforce suddenly and has that changed it?

Matt Wadiak:
Yeah, we've changed our entire company in the last few months from being 50% food service, 50% retail, so selling to restaurants and such and selling to retailers, to close to 100% retail almost overnight. And that was an immense amount of effort and teamwork from our folks, obviously, when you're packaging everything versus using bulk food service containers, so a lot more work involved with that. So bringing on new employees while also thinking about how to social distance and create the right protocols, not only for us, but under the guidance from the USDA and the CDC was not great for facilities as we've all read. So we actually got ahead of it. And we had some friends in other countries who were working in the industry and they had given us a warning and said, hey, listen, masks work, this is back in February, you should put some protocols in place. So we were very aggressive on that in the very early days of COVID and got not only masks and PPE for our employees, but also the USDA who is working at our plant every day and everybody associated with that.

Matt Wadiak:
And there were little things like providing childcare for our employees that a lot of folks weren't able to do in other companies that we went ahead and did for our employees to make sure that people had childcare, to make sure that people had the right equipment. To make sure that if anybody was sick or was exposed to being sick before there was a guarantee to cover that payroll. We just said, hey, listen, we're going to take care of this and pay you and we'll take a loss on that. Because it's the right thing to do. So it affected us in that respect, but because of that, we've had zero cases of COVID in our plant. And I think to my knowledge, knock on wood, nobody's impervious to this, I think because of that, we've been able to protect the way that our employees perceive this and also perceive the seriousness of this.

Matt Wadiak:
Because we meet with them once a week in small groups and talk about it, say, this is not over yet, until we really know that this is done, we have to be careful, and we're going to take care of you if you take care of us. So that's been critical. And I don't know of any other plants that haven't had any cases. I'm sure there are a few out there, but all of the major poultry plants have had a lot of them and providing that protection and that security for our people is number one. And I think that builds a lot of trust with the team and it's expensive to do that, but it's also been an opportunity to grow and commercialize our business and retail channels. So yeah, it's been, it's a different world we're living in right now.

Holly Shannon:
It's a very different world, but it looks like you're getting behind it as much as possible, being proactive like that really I'm sure garnered a ton of trust amongst your team. That you had already been employing some of those measures before it became what everybody else was doing, because I think everybody else probably jumped on board mid-March, so that-

Matt Wadiak:
It came a little bit late from the industry. And I really have to give a credit to our plant manager and management and VP of operations who have really instituted all of that work and done a fantastic job, engaging with the team. Also, director of quality, I mean, it was a team effort from everybody to get aligned. And also to the employees who spoke up and said, this is how we're feeling, this is what we need and listening to them and getting it to them right away and not hesitating. So there were a lot of good suggestions that came from the employees on what we could do to do a better job, to make sure that we were protecting them.

Holly Shannon:
Testament to a good company culture and good communication as well. That's great. Thank you, Matt. This is really amazing.

Matt Wadiak:
Yeah, thank you so much.

Holly Shannon:
It was really a pleasure having you on The Culture Factor. I have to say I'm a huge fan of everything you're doing because I'm a huge foodie and I honor all of the farms in my area and have done, contributed to buying a share in their agriculture each season and getting organic and local. So I'm a big advocate of that. Maybe I was an early adopter myself. So I really sit from a place of appreciation for what you do. And of course, having been in an industry, in the food industry myself, working with high end hotels, I understand that whole process. So much respect from The Culture Factor here and from Holly Shannon. And I want to thank you for coming and to our listeners, cooksventure.com, where you can purchase these heritage chickens, correct?

Matt Wadiak:
That's right.

Holly Shannon:
Excellent. And we will have the links in our show notes so that you can follow Matt and access their website and keep track of his world domination.

Matt Wadiak:
World empowerment.

Holly Shannon:
World empowerment, I like that better. Thank you so much, Matt. I really appreciate it.

Matt Wadiak:
Thanks Holly, I really appreciate it. Take care.

Holly Shannon:
Take care. Bye. Bye.