Like many of the nearly 90 people at the recent Breakfast of Champions session with Jack Aronson, founder of Garden Fresh Gourmet, I was eager to hear his story about what it takes to lead people and an organization successfully.  I mean, he sold his salsa start-up to Campbell’s for $231 million – the guy must be doing something right. Not to mention his new venture, Clean Planet Foods, is poised to take off in similar fashion.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected – maybe stalwart words of wisdom on how the local “mom and pop shop” can still make it big in the world of ever increasing mega-corporations.  What I didn’t anticipate was this refreshingly simple takeaway message: Old school leadership is alive and well and can still breed success.

Three themes stood out the most –

Know your people and take care of them – Time and again, Jack spoke of the importance of taking time for regular interaction with his employees.  When morale started to drop during the pending sale to Campbell’s he and his wife, Annette, met personally and individually with all 450 employees to listen to them and share details of what was ahead. Performance quickly turned around. A top reason leaders tell me that they don’t interact more with employees is they don’t have enough time. Takeaway: You can’t afford NOT to spend time with your team. 

Stay true to your values – With Garden Fresh quickly becoming a household name, many big-name suitors came calling –Pepsico and Nestle, among them. None of those financially attractive offers materialized because Jack said they didn’t “feel right.”  He was committed to keeping the company operations in Michigan and retaining the current workforce.  Eventually, Campbell’s came calling with the right conditions. Takeaway: Patience pays off – literally.

Experience is the best teacher – Audience members were curious about how Jack learned to go from a small restaurant owner to growing a multi-million dollar fresh food company.  While he gave credit to the insight he learned from many informal mentors, he shared that he learned the most from jumping in and doing things and the mistakes he made along the way. Jack’s philosophy – first-time mistakes are actually lessons.  Takeaway: Mistakes make great mentors.

Even though Jack’s lessons are things we’ve all heard before, many people lingered afterward talking about them. It was inspiring to see that in an age of technology overload, financial pressures and reports of the increasing employee disengagement, there’s proof that old school leadership hasn’t gone out of style

If you’d like the opportunity to learn more directly from Jack Aronson, be sure to attend Taste of LO on March 24 where you can bid on a one-one-personal lunch with him during the silent auction!  Hope to see you at our next Breakfast of Champions!