Lessons from the C-suite: Craig Sams

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My biggest mistake has been always investing more time in my latest great idea and not enough in consolidating earlier achievements

I started out…

Selling brown rice finger food at the UFO Club, which was where Pink Floyd was the house band. Between sets we’d explain to people what brown rice is, why it is good for you, why sugar is bad for you, and get their contact details to come to the macrobiotic restaurant I was opening. The restaurant spawned a shop, then a wholesale business; then in time Whole Earth peanut butter, Green & Black’s chocolate and Gusto were created.

I knew this was the right career path for me when…

I met people in the organic business. They were hard-headed and conscientious and I liked working with them. I was born on a farm in Nebraska so had a natural affinity with farmers.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way…

Outsource. Don’t try to do everything yourself. My motto is: ‘somebody somewhere can do almost everything I can do cheaper and better’. Find those people, make sure they are reliable and let them do what they do best.

My proudest achievement…

Launching Green & Black’s Maya Gold, the first product ever to carry the Fairtrade mark. It pioneered a mutually-beneficial way of working with farmers.

Mondelez, which owns the brand now, has modelled its cocoa sourcing on it with a programme called Cocoa Life, which is making a profound difference to farmers. We invested £20,000 to make it work. The Cocoa Life programme now has a $400 million budget and a zero-deforestation commitment.

My biggest mistake…

Always investing more time in my latest great idea and not enough in consolidating the success of my earlier achievements.

My biggest inspiration…

George Ohsawa who wrote the book Zen Macrobiotics. He mapped it all out: whole grains, organic, plant-based, waste minimisation, fair trade, avoiding processed food (in particular meats), keeping sugar to a minimum, stopping eating before you’re full, and exercise.

Before I embarked on the diet in 1965 I wasn’t very well. I haven’t been to a doctor since.

Keeping me awake at night right now…

Climate change. We are still investing billions in daft ideas like burning wood and capturing the carbon dioxide and pumping it into the ground in the hope it stays there.

Half of the US corn crop is burnt as gasoline and two-thirds of the EU’s palm oil imports are burnt as diesel. Have we gone completely mad?

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be…

Adapting to carbon pricing. When the market prices carbon into everything organic food will be cheaper than industrial food. General Mills already has 250,000 acres that are fully organic.

I need my HR director to…

Be proactive. Attitudes are changing and education in appropriate behaviour will help people to avoid #MeToo moments.

It annoys me when HR…

Is just box ticking. HR can and should construct a positive climate in which people are working.

More HRDs would become CEO if…

They understood financials, the supply chain, sales and marketing – ideally through direct experience.

What I’m reading right now…

Infused: Adventures in Tea by my dear friend Henrietta Lovell. It’s the story of her extraordinary success at the premium end of the tea business.

My top leadership tip…

Work with people you trust, make absolutely sure you are on the same page by getting them to repeat back to you what you have agreed, and then let them get on with it.

Craig Sams is creator and chairman of Gusto Organic

This piece appears in the October 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk