Alumnus Neil Grimmer, CEO Plum Organics: Success You Can Taste

Alumnus Neil Grimmer in Times Square after opening the New York Stock Exchange

Neil Grimmer (BFA Sculpture 1995) epitomizes success.

He’s an accomplished conceptual artist and designer (with past exhibitions at Catharine Clark Gallery, New Langton Arts, Southern Exposure, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, among others) and today serves as CEO of Plum Inc. (formerly Nest Collective), a pioneer and global provider of premium, nutritious organic baby food with brand name Plum Organics, which Forbes magazine named #19 on its 2013 list of "America's Most Promising Companies."

And he's a dad on a mission. Watch video »

in June the New York Times sunk its teeth into this human-interest, business-savvy success story. And then in February the Wall Street Journal also decided to have a taste.

Add to this the San Francisco Business Times identified Grimmer as one of its “most admired CEOs," and we have a media coup.

Plum's Success Based on New Formula

The success of Plum Organics is mind-blowing. It began in 2007 as a three-person company who shared a vision -- and a mission -- but had no product! They knew they wanted to address the fact 16 million children in the United States (one in five) do not receive adequate nutrition, so they developed a fully repackaged product and significantly raised the nutrition value.

Plum Organics uses eco-friendly pouches, not jars, which helps ingredients stay fresh. The squeezable pouch delivers spinach, apples, carrots, oats, white beans, and other “ultra healthy ingredients” directly into the mouths of children. The packaging is also more conducive to travel.

The innovative business model addresses a new way for parents not only to contribute to the nutritional needs of their children, but also to uphold environmental practices that are more sustainable.

The baby-food industry (dominated by Nestlé-owned Gerber) is a billion-dollar market. According to Fast Company, which highlighted Grimmer in its "Who's Next" series: "Baby food sales had been declining year over year by 2%; meanwhile, baby-food pouches -- which currently represent about 9% of the total baby food category -- have grown 506%, according to Nielsen Data."

The company’s unique product, both in terms of the organic quality of the food and its packaging design, is the growth-driver responsible for more than 50 percent of the overall growth now seen in this market.

By the end of 2012, with 90 employees in three regions, Plum Organics reached $81 million in sales.

“We wanted to build a creative team that would design a product that would thrill the little ones,” recalls Grimmer, a father of two young girls, who graduated from the Institute of Design at Stanford and also spent seven years as a creative at IDEO.

Taking the Creative Approach to Market

“Creativity applied to business doesn’t mean there’s an absence of business aptitude,” Grimmer emphasizes. “It’s absolutely essential to understand the [business] fundamentals. You have to know the rules to break them. We’ve uniformly almost always taken a creative look to how to do business differently.”

Critical Thinking Starts Here

"The CCA community builds endearing friendships," asserts Grimmer. In addition to having maintained a close network of CCA alums as his close friends (Jason Jagel (BFA Painting 1995); Kelli Yon (MFA Photography 1997); Douglas Hellikson (MFA Sculpture 1995); and Karen Kersten (MFA Sculpture 1997), the extent to which CCA played a role in Grimmer’s unique business model is indisputable:

“I would not be at the same place if it weren’t for CCA,” admits Grimmer. “The experience I had and what I took away is that CCA taught me to be a critical thinker and creative problem-solver. I also learned to be a maker and builder. … These things are at the core of [Plum]. This combination is at the core of everything I’ve done historically.”

Grimmer explains, “Critical thinking lets you look at the company and question the prevailing wisdom … allows for stepping back and analyzing. Is there a creative solution? The creative solution comes from artists and creative types who are designed to rethink and relook and evaluate through a new lens.

“My time at CCAC was all about this."

New Business Approach

Citing both Stanford's D-School and CCA's MBA in Design Strategy as models for creating successful "disruptive break-through innovations," Grimmer maintains people learn in different ways through different mediums. "Artists have a unique role [in shaping business models] by holding a mirror up to culture. ... Designers, creatives, and artists are the pioneers in business tomorrow because it's creative thinking at the core."

One of the most distinct approaches Plum Organics exemplifies is the integration of classic divisions (e.g., business thinking vs design thinking) to drive business leaders who understand the creative process. One in seven of its 90 employees works in a creative capacity, all in-house at the company's Emeryville headquarters.

Inspirational Lessons

Among inspirational faculty members at CCA, Grimmer highlights Critical Studies instructor Lydia Matthews with having left an indelible mark. “[Lydia] really was a thought leader for us … She turned us into critical thinkers and helped us to evaluate the world to better our own art. She taught us to think about the cultural landscape and how to internalize a conversation in the work.

“She emphasized it wasn’t enough to just make great work, but that we had to talk about the work too. The power of critique -- even 20 years ago -- helped me realize how to share work across multiple venues to talk about it and visualize it.

“It was like opening the aperture of what it means to be a great artist. A very dynamic time to be at CCAC.”

As CEO, this valuable lesson comes into play often in Grimmer’s daily interactions. He is increasingly challenged with talking about the mission of Plum Organics -- its nuts and bolts -- to a growing number of business professionals, including those parties interested in collaborating.

Participant Media and the Full Effect

Participant Media, which exists to tell compelling, entertaining stories that also create awareness of the real issues that shape lives, and Plum Organics recently collaborated on a social-action campaign called “Full Effect” to address infant hunger. A new product, a Super Smoothie, was designed for “food-insecure children to address the nutritional deficits in the nation’s food banks as well as other secondary support networks.”

Plum Organics has donated half a million Super Smoothies to various causes, with 100,000 smoothies ear-marked this year alone for use in the "Full Effect" campaign. Each time a ticket for A Place at the Table, the critically acclaimed documentary about hunger in America directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, was purchased -- or downloaded on iTunes -- or the book purchased during opening weekend (March 1-3), one smoothie was donated to “a little one in need.”

Learn more about Participant Media »

The NASDAQ OMX Group caught wind of the “Full Effect”campaign and wanted to tell the story, so Grimmer was invited to ring the opening bell and give a two-minute speech. The ceremonial New York Stock Exchange opening was projected live in Times Square on April 4. CNN and Fox News provided additional media coverage for the campaign, including a secondary segment on Fox News.

“It’s not a political issue,” Grimmer explains. “It’s neither left nor right; it’s a human issue … for parents and those who empathize.”

Art School Is the New Business School

"People find their paths in art school," explains Grimmer. "They find their creative voice. Artists and designers are starting companies that depend on creative expression. Parents have to believe their creatives are going to do great things in the world."