SunOpta’s Humble Nearly $1 Billion Food & Beverage Handiwork
June 13, 2023
Founded in Canada in 1973 “before sustainability was cool,” says CEO Joseph Ennen, Eden Prairie, Minnesota’s SunOpta is a leading global company focused on plant-and fruit-based foods and beverages, including “better-for-you” snacks.
Like most ventures, SunOpta experienced “the twists and turns of business” over its 50 years, says Ennen, who was appointed in 2019. “But the company remained committed to its true north, which is sustainable foods and beverages.” The company specializes in sourcing, processing, and packaging of organic, natural, and non-GMO food products.
SunOpta operates today as one of the leading global suppliers of organic ingredients. SunOpta manufactures more than 300 organic products and 27 owned Non-GMO Project products.
SunOpta’s plant-based milks and creamers are “household staples that are outperforming the category.” “And we are one of, if not the largest, processor of frozen organic fruit in the US—if not the world,” says Ennen. The key to all that success, according to Ennen, is to not strive for perfection.
Says Ennen, “I think consumers recognize every company and every person is on a journey. I don’t think anybody lives a pure, sustainably perfect life. And no company is a pure, sustainably perfect company. But I think consumers reward and respect humility and progress. That’s how we approach it. We approach it very humbly.”
SunOpta’s very un-humble mission is to build a multi-billion dollar, value-added, sustainable, plant-based business that creates significant value for all stakeholders. With nearly $1 billion in revenue last year, and double that targeted for five to seven years, the company’s well on its way.
“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made,” says Ennen. “We’re proud of the sustainability of our products, first and foremost. We’re proud of the sustainable way that we approach manufacturing and running our company—but we resist the temptation to preach or to put ourselves on a pedestal. I think that’s where companies and brands get into trouble … we’re not a preachy company.”
It’s “always about people”
SunOpta’s non-didactic approach has helped it make significant progress on its ESG commitments for 2022, and has extended its priorities for 2023. The company defines sustainability as “continuously improving [our] … performance to positively impact employees, customers, investors, and the environment.”
Ennen credits the entire SunOpta community for the collective impact of its ESG efforts:
“I have a phrase that has really defined how I have built teams,” Ennen says. “And as I look back on a 30-plus-year career, I’ve coined this phrase as ‘results are always all about the people and the culture you build.’ One of the things that we really did correctly in amping our sustainability and ESG focus is we didn’t assign it to a person.”
“I think a lot of, especially bigger companies, they’re starting to form departments or a group of people: ‘This is our ESG team or this is our sustainability team.’ We took an opposite approach, which is we said it’s everybody’s job. Company leadership shared with the board in its last meeting all the progress the company had made on sustainability, Ennen recounts. One of the board members expressed concern that the company wasn’t dedicating enough resources to the sustainability goals. The presenter “smiled and clicked to the next slide and said, ‘Well, these are all the people that are working on it.’ And it was literally a list of 80 names.”
SunOpta employs about 1,453 people. And every mission-based initiative and responsibility is “everyone’s job,” Ennen reiterates. “I think that’s where you get real progress and organic momentum, when the values of the organization pick up the agenda and move it forward, right?”
Notice, says Ennen, that leaders have a better chance of getting large-scale buy-in when the focus is on something other than the financial bottom line. “People want to be part of something bigger.”
So, SunOpta communicates broadly and consistently throughout the entire organization, Ennen says. “Our vision is to fuel the future of food ... for healthier people and a healthier planet. It’s something that people are excited about.” Specifically, he argues, “certainly one of the seminal topics of our generation right now is climate change. And so, it’s not hard to get people excited about that and committed to it. I will tell you, [the excitement] absolutely feeds on itself.”
Adding to its nine production sites, a new mega facility in Midlothian, Texas this year was the largest investment and construction project –$125 million – in the company’s history. The Midlothian facility will manufacture the company’s entire suite of plant-based milks and creamers, along with tea and other products. The plan is for the new plant to help double the company’s plant-based business by 2025, relative to 2020 numbers.
Keystones of the 285,000 SF scalable plant are steeped in innovation and sustainability. Says Ennen, the plant’s a “shining star” that will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water, efficiently utilize power, and use recycled materials. Its strategic location outside Dallas will significantly reduce emissions through lower transportation usage (The plant’s regional location will reduce more than 15 million freight miles annually and save 59 million pounds of carbon emissions, the company says).
Obviously, supervising and innovating sustainability efforts for a company as huge as SunOpta can get complicated. But, for Ennen, there’s a simple touchstone: “Doing the right thing is always the right thing.” He considers himself fortunate to have an “incredibly supportive board that is very committed to that idea as well. Time and time again, when we’ve come to a decision point, we have always focused on doing the right thing.”
If you’d like to dive deeper with more purpose-led companies like SunOpta, check out the Lead with We podcast here, so that you too can build a company that transforms consumer behavior and our future.