Editor's Note: The article that follows is part of the 13th edition of The Packer 25 Profiles in Leadership. These reports offer some insight into what drives successful people in produce. Please congratulate these industry members when you see them and tell them to keep up the good work.
Paul Lightfoot and his 110 “true believers” are on a mission: to grow local greenhouse produce on a commercial scale for major supermarkets across the country.
With a greenhouse in Pennsylvania supplying Albertsons and Wal-Mart, one in Virginia for Giant, a third in Illinois for Mariano’s and Kroger’s Pick ‘n Save and Metro Market stores and an Ohio farm scheduled to open early next year, so far it’s working.
“I can easily see our staff becoming thousands relatively quickly,” said Lightfoot, a Wall Street lawyer turned entrepreneur who spent 10 years improving retail supply chains before launching BrightFarms Inc. in 2011.
“We have a market opportunity and a strategy that seems perfect for where we are in history,” he said. “Consumers want more local food, they want it more than organic, more than anything, and they don’t trust much of the food they buy now.”
Unlike greenhouses that ship product across the continent, BrightFarms tells shoppers their lettuce was grown 70 to 150 miles away by a guy named Nick or a woman named Fallon, reaching stores in hours rather than spending days on a truck from California.
“We also have an agility that enables us to react to market demand with breakneck speed,” said the CEO, who is “super passionate” about eating clean, healthy food and was an early adopter of organic, local and plant-based eating.
Crafting a culture that jibed with his values was key from the beginning, he said, “because it’s a privilege to work on what you care about.”
His leadership principles include accountability, ensuring employees understand the company’s goals and empowering them to make decisions.
For transparency’s sake, all employees know as much about the company as possible, including revenue.
“I can’t imagine why I didn’t do that my whole career,” Lightfoot said. “There’s no downside. It’s all upside.”
Failures are accepted as a natural part of an innovative business, results are reviewed often and the company can change course quickly if required.
Abby Prior, BrightFarms’ vice president of marketing, calls Lightfoot an engaging and passionate leader.
“He cares deeply about the BrightFarms mission and our people, and his committed leadership drives our success,” Prior said.
People called Lightfoot an idiot back in 2011, “but the people who didn’t think I was an idiot were the retailers that I went out and really listened to,” Lightfoot said. “They were dissatisfied with their supply, their freshness and their ability to meet the consumer’s demand for local. I listened like crazy and reacted to it like crazy. That has served me well.”
After raising a big Series C equity financing last fall to expand, Lightfoot looks forward to a bright future for his farms.
“We’ve nailed it,” he said, “and now we’ve raised the capital to scale it.”