A Man and His Mission to Give It All Back
Tax day at Bob’s Red Mill turned out kind of slow when comparing it to most days, according to company founder Bob Moore, who took visitors around the Milwaukie, Oregon-based plant in his red golf cart.
Massive 2,000-pound bags of grains lined rows upon rows, moving through the spotless factory toward production and packaging. Stone grinders turned corn into corn meal in one area. In another, gluten-free products were being made. While up above, a small lab ensured their gluten-free purity. In still a different part, other machines packaged products for wholesale distribution. In a separate shop, workers fixed machinery. And in still another area were 25-pound bags printed with Bob’s trademark label.
“It’s usually busier,” he said over the din of the plant that operates 24-hours-a-day to ensure Bob’s Red Mill products are shipped to outlets across the planet.
Tour the plant with the 86-year-old founder and namesake of Bob’s Red Mill and you quickly notice how much he notices. No detail is too small for his rapt attention.
Despite the bustle, nothing is in disarray. The plant is spotless. Pride-of-place among the employees is as evident as Bob’s face, which is the company logo and adorns virtually everything in the plant.
Before the tour, Moore took a brief moment from a lengthy conversation about his business to sign a few remaining checks for the Internal Revenue Service. Moore signed away several sizable bills with the brief stroke of a pen.
“Yesterday I paid my personal taxes,” he says while signing.
He describes the bill right down to the penny, smiles, shrugs his shoulders, and returns to the story about his early business life. While talking, Moore had to pause for another polite interruption from his Executive Secretary Nancy Garner to sign for an expense quite a bit more than the taxes he paid. He signed away a third of his multi-, multi-million dollar company, which would finish changing hands through an Employee Stock Ownership Plans to his employees the day after tax day.
That pride-of-place evident in every employee in every far reaching corner of business stems, at least in part, to the upcoming celebration, during which Bob would hand out the stock. For five years the company worked toward employee ownership. Now it’s a fact.
And Moore himself, who just lost a third of his company, couldn’t be more pleased.
“When we started this we hoped to finish in nine years,” he said enthusiastically as he signed the remaining papers. “But we did it in just five.”
The ESOP, as it’s commonly called, made national news when announced in 2010, drawing attention from diverse news outlets like CNN, Mother Earth, Inc., and even ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer.
“It was so natural and sort of evolved in a perfect way. It’s really cool,” Moore says.
In many ways April 16th, the day Bob’s Red Mill employees officially took over one-third of the company, culminated a mission Moore had when he decided to leave his retirement and jump back into the business of milling grains.
“My entire inspiration is a sense of continuity in life, and continuity in life means eternal continuity. I just don’t buy this idea that when I die, that’s it, I’m gone.”
His eternal perspective colors everything Moore does, not unlike the ubiquitous red on his clothing, his company uniforms, his business signs and his retail products. How he treats people, how he conducts his business, his passion for health and vitality, all have eternal significance he says, far outweighing the millions he has made so late in life.
Moore started Bob’s Red Mill with a simple goal of operating his business with the people in the business—customers, partners, employees—in mind from the outset, something he hadn’t done as much in his early business career, he says.
He set a simple goal for his employees: If someone left his company to do the same job for someone else, they wouldn’t do it because they could make more money.
Soon he had a health plan and a retirement plan. Profit shares were given to the employees on a monthly basis—when profits warranted it. Five times the first year, then seven, then eight. For the past 24 years, profit shares have been given out each month without fail. Then came the staggering news in 2010 that he would sell his company to his employees.
Garner said she is amazed how fast the benefit adds up each year for her and others who work for Bob’s Red Mill.
“It’s not a thing we have to earn. I don’t even know what it will be this year,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s extremely generous. He could just take it all.”
Moore shrugs. It’s the plan he had from the beginning to do things differently.
“I don’t think hardly any other company couldn’t do what I’m doing,” Moore said. “Any of them, unless they are going broke. But they think ‘Why should I do that? I’ll put that money in my pocket.’”
After the completion of the first third of the ESOP on April 16th, the plan continued to unfold. The ESOP wasn’t over. After some deliberation, Moore has prepared for the one thing in business that makes him really, really uncomfortable. When he puts a second-third of the company into the ESOP for the more than 400 employees to eventually own, for the first time in his life he will be a minority shareholder.
“I’ve always had at least 51 percent. Somebody’s gotta be the boss,” he says with a finger pointed for emphasis. “Now, I can insist. I’ve gotten along well that way. But at 86 (years old), I’m just going to have to let them have it.”
It’s just one of the ways Bob Moore has done things very differently in building a small rundown Portland mill into a globally recognized health food brand.
A business of giving
Another way Moore operates differently is the significant charitable donations that he and his wife Charlee have made. In 2011, Moore wrote a million-dollar check out of his personal checkbook to the Oregon Health Sciences University as an initial down payment on a $25-million-grant to establish the Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition and Wellness.
The institute’s goal is to halt the rampant rise in chronic illness caused by unhealthy eating and inadequate nutrition, according to its website.
“I’ve given way more than that,” Moore says simply. “What am I going to do with all that money? You can’t take it with you.”
Moore’s charitable contributions and the diverse charitable work of Bob’s Red Mill and its employees grew so large, he enlisted one of his employees, Lori Sobelson, to safeguard the charitable work.
“I don’t even worry about it anymore,” Moore said.
Sobelson said the institute emphasizes nutrition for young mothers before conception, during pregnancy and then throughout infancy and childhood, work that in part was pioneered by OHSU’s Dr. David Barker. Barker’s breakthrough research discovered four generations of maternal DNA impacts a child’s health.
“The sense of responsibility people should have to others—smoking, drinking, hamburgers and fries—all these things and these foods are surely unhealthy. So the young woman says ‘I’m not affecting anyone,’ but she’s wrong.” Moore says.
A summit this May will bring together more than 70 epigenetic experts from more than a dozen different countries for a multi-day conference focused on these issues, Sobelson said.
“We take our partnerships seriously,” Sobelson said, “because they represent us. Each has a separate focus, but they are all interconnected.”
That interconnected focus fueled donations to Oregon State University and the National College of Natural Medicine. A $1.35 million gift to NCNM established Charlee’s Kitchen, which is a teaching kitchen designed to educate about the dangers of early childhood obesity. A $5 million gift to OSU established The Moore Family Center for Whole Grain Foods, focused on nutrition and preventive health. All three institutions work together in a way that they didn’t before because of their shared link to the Moore’s foundation.
“I really hold their feet to the fire,” Sobelson said. “How will they sustain these projects when the money is gone?”
The overarching mission is nutritional education. In 2014, the foundation gave a four-year financial commitment to George Fox University for a “Nutrition Matters” emphasis that includes a free course for incoming freshmen and a host of healthy cafeteria offerings on campus.
“It is our goal to be—and to be known as—the premier university for health in the U.S., both in terms of the academic preparation of healthcare professionals and in outcomes of good health for our students,” George Fox President Robin Baker said. “This grant allows us to develop a multi-faceted approach to inform the entire campus community on the benefits of good nutrition.”
This and numerous other gifts to non-profits are designed to build a collective focus on healthy eating that will continue for decades to come.
When Moore started Bob’s Red Mill he envisioned doing what he loved and carrying out his mission to help others live healthier lives. This included some measure of business success mixed in with the overall mission: people.
“I have a driving desire to be successful with important things such as a people and customers,” Moore says, looking over those pictured with him on the mill’s steps back in the early days.
But don’t think for a minute the mission—his memoir is aptly named, People Before Profit—ever meant compromise in the business. He remains passionate about both, which explains why he still travels the country as an ambassador of his company, why he still occupies the corner office, why he still cares so deeply that the business is conducted in the right way, even as he slowly divests his ownership and control.
It needs to carry on, he says.
“Well, we don’t have to worry about selling this business,” Moore says. “Not while I’m alive anyway.”
On that point, he will insist, you can rest assured.