My entrepreneurial journey began pretty much like any other: with a dream. It was the late 80s and we were living in Florida, surrounded by acres of citrus groves (my husband is a fourth-generation citrus farmer). I was a new mom, pulling my young daughter Natalie through the orange groves, just thinking about the fact that there wasn't any fresh, authentic juices available that I could comfortably serve my baby daughter.
At the time, there were only mass produced, preservative-laden and over-processed juices, all coming from a stable of large, established brands.
My dream was to change that.
I've always been careful about what I eat, truly believing our bodies treat us the way we treat them, and I knew other mothers and families who felt the same way. That morning in the orange groves, I realized that I needed to fill this void in the market, for me and others, and so the dream of Natalie's Orchid Island Juice Company was born.
At first, it was a small operation. I installed two 1,000-gallon stainless steel tanks and a juicer I had picked up from a local producer, founding the company in the back half of a fresh fruit retail store. I had to borrow a nearby butcher's refrigerated truck to deliver our first order, but I made it happen.
Soon I was calling in my brothers to help. All of us were passionate about working our business plan to its fullest and soon demand for our juice was sufficient to expand our operations. We went from two tanks to eight tanks, four employees to almost fifty. We moved into a new location, expanding our sales presence to other states and eventually going global. All the while, we held true to my original vision of supplying our customers with authentic, minimally processed juice made exclusively from fruits grown in Florida.
My dream quickly turned into our family's reality. Natalie's Juice Company was a complete success; we were a hit with customers looking for an authentic alternative to the processed juices offered by mass-marketed brands. I always say, we began producing clean label juice before it was chic.
Now getting to this level hasn't been easy. I faced many challenges in those early days, especially as a female CEO trying to build a unique brand in an industry dominated by men with a corporate culture that hadn't changed for decades.
For many entrepreneurs, the ultimate business goal is getting to an exit strategy: a profitable sale to a larger conglomeration that's been attracted to your financial success. At the time, Natalie's was truly a family-run business. We had done it all—taking no outside funding or even any debts. By this time, the juice industry became interesting to private equity investors, and we were approached by one who saw great value in our business. The private equity firm explained to us that, with their help, Natalie's could reach the next level.
So, in the year 2000, we sold our juice business to a large firm that promised to help us achieve even greater heights.
However, I quickly began to question our decision to sell the company we had worked so hard to build up, especially to people outside of our family. There was an immediate departure from the company's original core values, and we wanted more for the customers who had grown to know and love our brand. These people counted on our brand for their families' nutrition, and all of a sudden that brand wasn't delivering like it used to.
By 2003, we did something most companies don't do—we bought our company back! Once we did, we immediately returned to our original core values and mission: producing the best-tasting, authentic juice on the market.
So, what did I learn from this experience?
Don't Stray Away From Your Roots
When I decided to sell, I still thought I had the company's best interest at heart. The new owners promised to take the enterprise to a new level, a success beyond our wildest dreams. But I should have had confidence in the fact that we ourselves could drive that level of success—and eventually we did! We should never have questioned our abilities or strayed away from the core values that had served us so well.
When You're Passionate, No One Knows Your Business Better Than You
Since growing this business from the ground up, I've been an engaged participant in all aspects of the enterprise, from financing and marketing to R&D and taste-testing. If you truly love what you're doing, don't let anyone try to convince you they know better. Have faith in your choices, especially when they have been working!
Faith, Family and Friends are Your Best Business Partners
None of this journey could have been accomplished without the talent, care and passion of my family and friends. Their support has been a great pillar of strength for me, but without faith in myself I never could have taken the first step towards starting this business. You cannot undervalue any of these factors when making choices in your life.
I had the rare opportunity to correct a misstep in life and take back the company I built and loved. Today, Natalie's is once again a thriving family-owned company. We were recently named to Inc. 5000, which lists the "most inspiring" companies of 2018, and last month we launched a new line of cold-pressed, functional, holistic juices that represent the next generation of the Natalie's brand. The future remains bright, and my experience as an entrepreneur has taught me that an exit strategy is no-good if it takes you away from doing what you love.
WRITTEN BYMarygrace Sexton