President & Founder, HealthyBrandBuilders
For more than 44 years, Jim has served the private sector as a brand and marketing development professional and Founder and President of HealthyBrandBuilders.
For more than 44 years, Jim has served the private sector as a brand and marketing development professional and Founder and President of HealthyBrandBuilders. He directs the building and design of national infrastructures for food and beverage industry clients. Tonkin has successfully created and implemented business and financial strategies for domestic and international players focusing from production to branding, marketing through sales implementation and distribution, to include exit strategy. Tonkin has focused branding initiatives in soft drink, bottled water, functional foods and beverages, and non- carbonated “new age” beverage verticals. His extensive hands-on expertise has stretched across many sectors including domestic cheeses to natural potato chips; bottled waters for people and pets; and nutraceutical-functional- cosmeceutical enhanced beverages. Jim serves as a popular keynote speaker covering new beverage trends, successful branding insight and with his blunt and sometimes stinging humor, pushes the envelope! He has many repeat performances and is truly a respected and admired entrepreneur in his own right!
I got into the industry kind of circuitously. I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1973 and immediately went into my father’s business, which was a manufacturing operation as well as a distributorship for 7UP, A&W Root Beer, the Crush line, Welch’s… We had about 60 different brands in the Bay area and Sacramento and up to the Nevada border. I worked for my dad from ‘73 until ‘82. I went through a massive training program until I became Vice President, General Manager of the business.
Once I got there I realized In 1982 that I did not want to produce carbonated soft drinks anymore and continue to be a participant in this horrible lack of nutritious oriented kind of business. And so I had no idea what I was going to do but I left the business and was in Hawaii on vacation trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself. I started eating these Maui style potato chips, which are Russet potatoes with the skin left on. Eventually I called the guy on the back of the bag of potato chips and I ended up going to his house and spent three days with him learning how to manufacture the product. I came back to the mainland in the Bay Area and I built a plant to be able to produce in mass the type of products he was producing in the basement of his house. So my first entrepreneurial business and experience was in developing Maui chips. I was in that business for about a year and a half, then I sold it to a company called Laura Scudder’s, which was the largest potato chip company in the Western US next to Frito Lay. Then I did the same thing in a Cheese manufacturing business after that and I sold that company. Then I went into the Banking business. A friend of mine started a bank in Northern California and wanted me to help him get deposits and I knew a lot of people in business and so I thought that would be fun and I could learn the banking business at the same time. So we built the bank from one branch to 19 and sold out to Wells Fargo. Then in 1987, I didn’t want to go to work for Wells Fargo so I hung out a Consulting shingle. It took me about two years before I could make enough money to support my family. And the rest is history as I’ve been doing this for almost 33 years.
I think they’re coming in multiple quadrants. One would be packaging – the world of sustainability is forcing a lot of big corporate and even small business to think about the over-packaging of their products. the light-weighting of products, the size and capabilities relative to shipping because of the logistics and cost. Those things are all relevant issues that put pressure on business today. In addition, on the product development side, things like new types of proteins, plant proteins and other forms, are very hot today. Probiotic health, the ability to keep your lower gut, big and small intestines in good health, which is called your microbiome, is a focus of many doctors today and therefore it’s becoming a focus of consumers. Getting rid of things like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Colon cancer and all those kinds of things has a lot to do with what you’re eating. So Probiotic and Prebiotic health is an important focus. Certain diet structures are also of import today and are gaining popularity like the Keto Diet and the Paleo Diet. Those things are trends that seem to be sticking around and you can probably throw on top of that the banter about Non-GMO, Vegan and Organic. Those are all things that are very important to consumers today.
The industry is in a really good place right now because there is a ton of entrepreneurial energy, which is bringing a lot of new product innovation to the market and is satisfying a need that big corporate has both in America and abroad. Their innovation pipelines are not really that solid so they look to these small and medium companies to bring the innovation to them and then they write the big checks to buy these companies out and assimilate them into their operation.
I think on the negative side of that, there’s a tremendous amount of consolidation that’s still taking place in the industry and as consolidation happens it causes a shrinkage — not capital because there’s plenty of capital in the market — but the players that are available to end up being exit partners are shrinking. And so some of the private equity firms out there are buying companies and holding them for a period of time and operating them doing what is called Mezzanine financing and then they’ll flip the company when the time is right or when the market might be more receptive.
As it relates to Food and Beverage particularly, which is my area of influence, being mindful of the ecological and environmental impacts of bringing new products and services to market. With our population growing as fast as it is, both food and water sources are becoming less plentiful and therefore being mindful about what you’re bringing to market and how you’re bringing it to market is something that will be really important on a go forward basis.
The inspiration for me was to be more helpful and more involved in the forefront of innovation around functionality and functional food and beverage. I’m morphing from my strategic consultancy at HealthyBrandBuilders to Innovative Brands Accelerator. I’m doing this at this later stage in my life to give back to the entrepreneur community, the businesses that are 1-10 million in sales, where we can bring this C level group of Executives to the plate and cradle and grow these companies in a more structured fashion giving them the ability to scale, the understanding of how to scale, how to use capital and how to report their monthly operations more effectively, all aimed at helping them get to a logical exit for their company.
The Accelerator is at right place at the right time. My partner Joe Jacober is great at operating businesses. I’m really good at scouting businesses so it’s my job to go find the entrepreneurial ventures that are going to come into our business. Then it’s up to Joe and the rest of the team to cradle them and develop this 18 month relationship where we can help build better executives and potentially better product, tighten up their supply chains, make sure that their financial reporting is top notch and then that they’re ready for fundraising. That’s the immediate future for me.
Staying very focused. Not wanting to grow too fast. Not taking too many clients on at one time. We don’t know how many clients we can take on concentrically, which means if we bring on a new client every quarter then after one year we’ll have four clients in the pipeline and they’ll all be exiting at different times as well. We think that’s very easy to do. So if we bring on one or two new clients every three months, we can probably have a very nice confluence and a very nice outflow.
In my HealthyBrandBuilders business, I think the most difficult thing was trying to be patient at the beginning of the process, when I was trying to build the business in the late 80s. I had to reinvent myself and I really had no outward face to the market outside of the Bay Area of California. So being really patient. At the same time, the patience gave me the impetus to be able to grow a very successful strategic consultancy that’s lasted 32 years. I’m very mindful of the success and very humbled by it.
An ideal experience for one of our clients would be signing up and coming on board at the beginning of month one and us being able to perform the tasks that we set forth and agree to do for them and for them to come out the other end after 18 months ready for financing, watching them get financed and then continue to grow their company to the logical conclusion where they can have an exit. That’s a fairly simplistic view but that’s really all my interest is.
My personal motivation structure is to do what I do, not what I say. So I believe I would never ask anybody to do something I haven’t done before or am currently doing. I like to lead by example. I also am a big believer in sharing, so one of the things that’s really important to me is share the experience but also share the upside. So in our business all of our employees are sharing in the upside of our business.
It’s always going to take longer to get to the end zone than you think. It will cost more money and it will take twists and turns that you will not see coming. You can only prepare for certain things in life. But the fun thing about being in the world of entrepreneurship is that nothing is written in sand. It’s not the same kind of business every day. Being flexible. Not giving up when adversity strikes. Being creative and seeking help. Those are pieces of advice I would give.