Insights & Inspiration

Industry leaders took a time out from the daily to-dos to answer 5 Qs, reflecting on their careers and dishing out some wisdom for COVID-times and beyond.

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1.What mindset, or motto, has helped you achieve success? 

Dan Chapman, 2nd Generation Owner Sunrise Health Foods & Founder Redd Remedies: Stay calm & love people! This has been a stressful year for everyone and we have seen it in some of our customers. We have always worked to serve our customers at Sunrise Health Foods from the perspective that Sunrise might be the only peaceful place the customer experiences that day. We do not know what difficulties each customer faces in their life and we want to make sure that during their visit to our store that they are greeted with a smile and a kind word. We have added to that the understanding that if a customer is upset or angry with us that it rarely has anything to do with us, but in most cases is a reflection of other frustrations in their own life.

Jim Emme, Chief Executive Officer, NOW Health Group: “Do the Right Things for the Right Reasons.” Do business in an honest and honorable manner while treating others in a dignified respectful way. Our founder Elwood Richard used to say that our company will always run into problems at times. His belief was that during those times of problems, you can feel better about yourself if you follow these tenants no matter the severity of the problem or level of pressure you’re under. Admit mistakes that have been committed and make them right.

Perteet Spencer, Co-founder, Ayo: For as long as I can remember, Gandhi’s mantra, “Be the change that you wish to see” has stuck with me. It is such a tremendous reminder of our personal responsibility to lead by example, and that each of us has the power to create change. This mindset is what ultimately led us to launch AYO Foods as [husband and Co-founder] Fred and I looked to create a place in mainstream grocery that represented the food we enjoyed at home.

Scott Sensenbrenner, President & CEO, Enzymedica:I grew up in a household of five children. From an early age, we were taught that if you wanted something in life you had to earn it. I remember around the age of 12, on a hot summer day, my friends asked me to join them at the neighborhood pool. So, I ran in the house and asked my mother if I could have $1 for the entry and another 50 cents for candy. Rather than simply giving me the money, she walked into the garage and handed me a large bucket and said once I had filled it up with acorns, she would give me the money. I remember being very disappointed as my friends left and went on to the pool without me. Meanwhile, I stayed back and filled that bucket to earn my day in the sun. I share this story because it was a lesson of learning the value of each dollar. In today’s world, that is often forgotten. But beyond the $1 itself, my life and career was built on filling “one bucket of acorns at a time!”

Scott Nash, CEO, MOM’s Organic Market: I think the most important element of MOM’s success has been the intelligence and communication dynamic of our Leadership Team. We have been together for many, many years—and we’ve been able to make good decisions as a result of healthy conflict, which brings robust debate and a deep analysis and understanding of all issues at hand. To ensure healthy debate and conflict, egos must be in balance—neither too large or too small.

Greg Ris, Vice President, Sales, Indena U.S.A., Inc.: I think my competitive nature has served me well during my career. Losing business was not an option so I applied a whatever it takes attitude to build trust and credibility. In my early years with Indena I drove 50 kgs of Ginkgo Biloba extract to Idaho—from Seattle—on a Sunday because they had scheduled production for Monday. We secured the business and planted the seeds for a long-term relationship.

Beth Lambert, CEO, Herbalist & Alchemist: “Fortune favors the bold” is a phrase I use a lot, especially when wrestling with technology. Software and hardware change quickly and we have made considerable investments in both. We tend to be a bit cautious in our decision making, and there comes a time when one just has to go forward and try out your best educated guess.

Cynthia Kupper, CEO, Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG): Because our organization works to meet the needs of the gluten-free consumer, my mindset is always focused on the consumer. Making life easier for everyone living gluten-free is the mission of the Gluten Intolerance Group and that is the motto that we live by. Our organization serves the gluten-free consumer through both outreach and food safety and these programs do not work independently. Knowing and understanding the wants and needs of the gluten-free consumer makes it possible for us to translate those insights to the food industry, so that their brand can deliver what the consumer demands, building loyalty. The challenge we face is how to help food manufacturers build more trust with these consumers, as there is still a level of distrust within the gluten-free community. This is often due to a lack of transparency in manufacturing practices and companies using proprietary recipes and formulas not publicly shared. To resolve this, we are actively working with manufacturers and their marketing teams to ensure their messaging is clear in helping gluten-free consumers understand and accept the product as being safe.

Shaheen Majeed, President Worldwide, Sabinsa: When I was very young, my father [Dr. Muhammed Majeed] would tell me, “whatever you do in life, do it with passion.” That stuck with me. In this family business, his tireless efforts, his dedication, and his passion quickly rubs off on a lot of people around him. I owe my success to these very words, but more so to the man that inspires me and continues to work tirelessly so that others become successful, and the world’s people healthier. As an example, the entire portfolio of our GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredients came from the passionate work, and many late nights, for months actually, from a challenge I accepted from my boss to get it done. That was nearly 13 years ago, but today our #2 selling ingredient, LactoSpore, enjoys great success the functional food space because of that effort. We had a brilliant toxicologist working with us, and I became a sponge to learn everything and anything about GRAS, to a point where it got so fluid that we had several products obtain GRAS status, one right after the other. I was passionate about the cause and could see the endgame, even if it was years later.

2. Given all that you have learned over the course of your career, what would you go back and tell your younger self just starting in the industry?  

Sensenbrenner: In the early 2000s, my professional philosophy on management changed dramatically when I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great. He redirected my mind on the importance of recruiting the right team. He said that too many leaders look at themselves as being the answer to problems. To this day, we relentlessly follow his advice in that we take a bottom-up servant style leadership approach and seek out candidates who are driven to succeed. It’s the job of the manager to support team members and ensure that they have all the resources needed to thrive versus telling them what to do.

Chapman: Take more time for reflection and celebration. It is important to have goals and work toward them, but it is just as important to celebrate all of the many little accomplishments along the way.

Perteet: The first step is always the scariest and hardest. Don’t ever let fear be the thing that holds you back.

Ris: My advice: You have to push yourself, find the self-motivation. Never get too comfortable—success can be fleeting. Be straight with people—don’t compromise your integrity.

Emme: Many of these lessons I’ve sometimes had to learn the hard way. The main thing I would tell my younger self is that it’s OK to ask for help when you need it. It was easy to fall into a trap of thinking that no one I worked with would know the solution better than I did at the time, yet I didn’t realize that belief can be self-defeating in the long run. I eventually learned that it’s more powerful to ask for help and collaborate towards a better solution. I became a more effective leader once I learned that lesson. It just took longer than it should have to have that “ah-ha” moment.

Lambert: Stay open to opportunities. Listen, but make your own decisions.

Majeed: I was very young when I started out in this industry, just 17 when my father sent me to the warehouse when my school was finished for the day. I look back and I’m humbled by all whom I’ve met and have learned from. But there were moments where I would like to tell my younger self not to be molded by someone else’s thoughts or their directions in life, or what they thought was best for me. It puts you on their path, and that’s not your destiny. It was hard for me to realize that, but once I did, I paved my own way forward, allowing me to learn from my own mistakes, instead of others. It also allowed me to enjoy my successes, and not be told it was because of someone else’s triumphs. It also gave me confidence to make tough decisions, and not be indecisive when faced with them. I would also tell my younger self to not be afraid to fail, that I can handle those failures. I would tell myself to take more risks, and that everything will be fine, you’re young, just make sure you learn the heck out of those miserable times and rise above it. I would probably also give Chem 101 a second chance.

Nash: I started MOM’s in 1987 when I was 22.  It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I finally obtained the confidence to realize that there are no external magic bullets as solutions to our problems. We are extremely incestuous at MOM’s- skeptical of outsiders as consultants, “experts,” or as executives coming from other retailers. So, I’d tell my young self to trust his judgement more and to not be so influenced by all those who think they know what’s best for him.

Kupper: I think one thing I could have done earlier is to spend more time in helping the gluten-free consumer to understand food manufacturing in an effort to create a stronger connection between the food industry and the consumer. I think the lesson here is in the importance of education  and communication. Educating both sides would have helped to drive home the value of a partnership between consumers and manufacturers; that both should be working with, not against, each other.

3. What have been the main challenges of running an essential business during the pandemic, and what strategies are helping you navigate and succeed?  

Sensenbrenner: No one could have anticipated the impact of COVID. For us this resulted in both positive and negative trends in the various channels we sell to. Our retail marketplace experienced considerable declines in consumer traffic, while our online and international business outperformed. Our belief: As you look forward, it’s important to build your business so that any part of it is designed to fail. Why? Because no one has a crystal ball and you cannot anticipate what you do not know. 2020 was a great example. It was this forethought years ago, in diversifying our business model, that has created numerous growth engines – each capable of driving growth and/or making up for areas that are experiencing challenges. This does not happen overnight. If you take on a new channel or segment make sure that you have the resources and are committed long term to making it successful. Otherwise, you can extend your company too far and all segments could fail. The key is to implement one area at a time to ensure the foundation for success is in place.

Nash: At first, the main challenge was supply-chain related—and getting products stocked quick enough. We had just struck a partnership with KeHe last fall, anchoring a new DC for them here in Maryland. The timing couldn’t have been better, as we basically had our own designated warehouse. And working with them has been great this entire year. Also, it’s been tough dealing with the high anxieties of both customers and employees. Some people have become terrified of COVID to the point of hysteria—and others think it’s a big hoax or think that wearing a mask is the actual health threat! Thankfully, the majority of our customers and employees have remained calm and reasonable—and grateful. During the early months of the pandemic, we set up daily huddles for our Leadership Team, and those were crucial to solving problems as they came at us.

Chapman: There have been many. Fear is a strong driver of people’s actions and living this way for a year takes a toll on a person’s health. We work hard to communicate to our team our plans, we are open about our challenges and make sure to let them know how much we appreciate them. This has helped us all feel like we are working together to get through the daily challenges. Supply has been a significant challenge this year and continues to be. Our buyers have been spending a significant amount of time sourcing alternatives. We have also accommodated more time off for “safety” than ever before which puts a strain on the rest of the team. We get through this again by communicating with the team and appreciating them.

Perteet: As a frozen brand that launched in the midst of the pandemic, the biggest challenge has been not being able to lean on traditional trial vehicles like in store demos to allow people to experience the food we are so proud of developing. Alternative sampling models, building our community of AYO Explorers, and exploration of alternate product fulfillment models have been key to our success to date.

Ris: As an ingredient supplier, we’ve had to keep up with increased demand for our immune health ingredients as well as manage longer delivery times. Fortunately, Indena has many long-time relationships that have allowed us to maintain supply and adapt accordingly.

Kupper: GIG has been deemed an essential business during the pandemic due to the fact we provide services to food manufacturers through our GFCO certification and we audit other foodservice establishments for safe practices, such as restaurants, through our Gluten-Free Food Service. So, as an essential business, we needed to ask some very critical questions: First, how do we maintain the health of our staff?  How do we help our customers? For a while, our auditors weren’t allowed into plants because manufacturers were being cautious and trying to navigate the restrictions for their staff, as were we. Many asked if there was another way to conduct audits. Could we do virtual audits? Could we provide extensions on their certifications? Manufacturers worked with us to create short term solutions to performing audits and still provide the same level of assurance to consumers.

Fortunately, we’ve been successful in finding ways to maintain the certification that companies have with us and continue our auditing to ensure the manufacturing of safe food products. In doing so, we have been able to help other essential businesses maintain their reputation for producing gluten-free products. Product certification is especially important today as the FDA is allowing temporary substitutions of some ingredients for packaged goods, creating a lot of fears in the gluten-free community.

Emme: The biggest challenges in the last several months of COVID-19 have been many, yet most of these fall into a few key categories. Number 1 is keeping everyone in our company of approximately 1,800 people safe. We’ve had to shut down lines and facilities at times, yet it’s the right thing to do to keep our team safe while at work. Supply chain challenges are new and novel when demand for products spiked nearly 60% overnight in some cases. We’ve been rapidly investing in capacity and capabilities that are now beginning to improve service levels, and we have more to come in the next few months. We are winning, yet still have many opportunities to improve. We will stay true to not compromising our core values and keeping the safety of our team our top priority. We have stepped up our communications and transparency with our people to make sure they have the latest information as to how the virus is affecting our company and our business.

Lambert: Managing projections and inventory has been a challenge during 2020, and I’m glad we have a good MRP system. Buying extra materials when suppliers tell you there could be issues is the smart decision. Having long term, good relationships with your suppliers will help get you through the rough times. Also: Pay attention to Human resources. We’ve made sure our staff does not get overwhelmed with the peaks and valleys that have come with the pandemic. There were several weeks when we could have made tinctures and packed boxes around the clock, but we made sure staff took time for themselves to regroup. We managed the fear factor by talking, listening to our state experts, and asking everyone to adhere to the same health and safety rules.

Majeed: There are certain worries and concerns that exist, pandemic or no pandemic, but this year, everything got heightened attention. For us, especially on the manufacturing side, it was people. As the lockdown occurred in India mid-March, our five facilities experienced manpower shortages rather quickly. While we navigated through that by claiming and meeting the essential workforce requirement to the local state police, we were able to harness the various Sabinsa global warehouses to help meet our customers’ demands. If a product that a European customer wanted was not available at our EU warehouse, but was available in either the USA or Japan, we got it to them. The second challenge, which continues today, concerns logistics. As flights and airlines halted their services, in particular where countries were in lockdown, getting our cargo out of India became an imminent issue. It was like a leaky faucet, so much material had to be moved, but only drips of it were happening.

In the first case of people movement, ensuring a workplace that is both safe and healthy was in large part already existing due to our GMP (good manufacturing practices) rules and regulations that we abide by. While not every workplace is a manufacturing site, workplace safety guidelines are available in every sector of the industry and in every country; having that in place will get you ahead of the game.

The second challenge being logistics, in many ways we were fortunate, especially with our growth over the past 30 years where we had setup global warehouses. However, companies can meet some of these challenges by engaging with their customers and forecasting ahead of time, taking into consideration how freight companies ration shipments causing delays. Good communication, trust, and the ability to listen are essential for this.

One last lesson we learned has been the constant need to carefully test the incoming products even more vigorously than usual. This example might be specific to raw material suppliers, but it affects everyone down the chain. Our relationships, built over long periods of time, helps us secure the extraordinary number and volume of materials we require. Many of those relationships are directly with farmers, so we know the fields which our materials are coming from. Lockdowns forced many small farmers to focus on their family and village needs, in some cases driving down the volume we would normally get. But fear not, there are suddenly new suppliers out there, claiming how well and clean their product is, and we cannot simply accept their product without testing, even in the face of great demand. I believe this pandemic time truly tested us all on that front, we have seen large-scale adulteration practices run rampant. Where we could stand our ground and fight back, we have, but we’re just one company. We have sounded the alarm of those who have falsified, sent cease and desists letters, explained scientifically what’s possible and what’s not, but in spite of all that, demand rages on but so must our tenacity to do the right thing.

Lastly, this is a time of great distraction, with one crisis after another, so staying focused has been harder, but is crucial.

4. What can leaders of the natural products industry do better to help ensure collective success in the future? How are you leading to foster positive change?

Chapman: We need to stay true to our roots as an industry. To provide shelf space to wholesome, quality focused companies in every department of our stores and work to educate our customers. It is also essential that we are unified. Our strength historically has been our unified voice and efforts. As we have grown that voice becomes fractured. If you are not a member of a trade organization, join one and be involved.

Sensenbrenner: There are many practices that good leaders follow, but one thing I hold in very high regard is to always stay true to your authenticity and be uncompromising with your values. This is important whether it’s in your personal life or career because that resolute commitment to your own integrity, to me, will foster success for you and those around you. For example, people may not see our facility, but we are a LEED Gold certified building with a farm of solar panels on our roof and we are carbon neutral.

Our culture is about giving back and not taking away, which is what our supplement quality standards are built around and why we have such a robust People & Planet philanthropic initiative. We are dedicated to leaving a legacy to the world that will extend beyond the individual lifetimes of our team. This drives our success as a company just as much as the business decisions we make every day and also enables us to recruit top talent because so many people are tired of being just a number in a company and want to have a purpose that goes beyond the paycheck. These ideals and commitments will not only drive collective success for our industry but also for our world.

Lambert: Ensure sustainability of our botanicals! With heightened demand, supplies can become strained. Especially with wild crafted herbs, protecting long-term sustainability is essential. Become a B Corporation and measure your progress so you stay focused on long term goals.

Ris: The industry needs continued investment in science ensuring safe and effective products for consumers. Research & Development has always been central for Indena in the support of our ingredients and we’re also continuing our focus in sustainability programs and traceability with DNA and quality testing from field to finished ingredient.

Kupper: To foster collective success in the future, leaders in the natural products industry, from manufacturers to certification and accreditation programs to retailers, need to work collectively toward common goals and support each other in the process. For example, it is good for our organization to have a strong connection to Kosher and non-GMO certifiers, as many companies are promoting products that encompass all three of these. We should be working together to make it easier for manufacturers to be able to have certifications that makes it possible to market products collectively. Natural product retailers play an important role here too. A staff knowledgeable about the requirements of specialty diets, the manufacturing process of packaged products, and an understanding of what certifications mean, can inform that new customer and immediately build loyalty.

We are starting to form partnerships with some of these other certification programs to make it easier for the food industry. We would like to be able to cross promote with other programs about the quality of certifications, as well as why standards are so critical. One might ask why is it important to have a non-GMO mark along with a certified gluten-free mark? It is important because specialty diet consumers think about what is in their food, care about products being non-GMO, or kosher. As industry leaders, we should be working together to ensure our collective consumers eat with confidence, whether it’s through legislation or education, or both. We are not quite sure where this is going as of now, but we’re definitely working on it.

Another example is working with the industry to define agreed upon terms that are not government regulated. GIG worked with gluten-free oat growers to create a standard definition and growing requirements for oats that would be labeled Purity Protocol oats. We also worked with several manufacturers to determine if mechanical sorting of oats (but also applies to other grains) could be used to produce the same level of safety as Purity Protocol oats do. These collaborative effects serve both the needs of manufacturers to produce products that meet consumer needs, but also increase consumer understanding and confidence in foods. Natural product retailers who would like to learn more on the subject are invited to visit https://gfco.org/published-research/ for more information.

Perteet: Collective success of the industry is contingent on our ability to enrich our communities, be it investing in a more diverse set of entrepreneurs, mentoring the next generation of industry disruptors, or activating the communities that inspired our brands. One of our core beliefs at AYO is that real food can do real good. We recently launched The Moonboi Project (Moonboi means prosperity in Kpelle) which is our focused effort to reinvest in the communities that inspired the AYO brand. One of our first initiatives through this work is the conversion of 15 acres of land in Liberia to usable farmland that will create inputs for entrepreneurial ventures of women who were impacted by the civil war.

Nash: Well, as in politics, the extremist ideologues who seem to be perpetually outraged at any perceived imperfection within a movement need to stop creating a circular firing squad and focus on the true problem… those huge agricorporations who are poisoning us and the environment with their toxic chemicals—and whose lobbyists essentially create corporate welfare through tax breaks, entitlements, and subsidies for companies making billions in profits already.  We strongly support the Organic Trade Association’s work in the progression of organic farming. Also, I think manufacturers have jumped the shark on labeling—it’s confusing and redundant (GMO-free salt, anyone?). On that note (pet peeve alert!), expiration dates are rarely rooted in science or reality and are incredibly wasteful as perfectly good food is routinely trashed. Honestly, the dating system is often so egregious that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not suspect that some manufacturers are participating in planned obsolescence in an attempt to increase profits.  Many products don’t even need expiration dates (for example, canned/jarred goods, salt, baby wipes, shampoos and soaps—all have expiration dates currently).

Majeed: There is a lot of talk about what we want from the environment, we want organic, we want non-GMO, we want sustainable…it’s time we talk about what we want to give back. Sabinsa’s reforestation program is a key example. We identified a tree that has tremendous value to humankind, but before we made a commercial impact on demand by producing products from it, we realized that humankind should make a tremendous value by growing more trees, so that’s exactly what we did. Planting trees is one minor example, helping our youth understand the need for health and wellness can radically change how our future generations inhabit and consume on Earth. My father’s philanthropic organization, the Dr. Majeed Foundation, helps educate underprivileged children in India. We may often take our education for granted, but imagine never having one. His foundation is changing lives.

Emme: The great opportunity we now have in our industry in that more consumers than ever are interested in how our products can support their healthy lifestyle goals. This also brings a much higher level of responsibility to all of the companies involved in the supply chain steps leading to these same consumers. Today more than ever we need to be vigilant in making sure the products we provide to consumers are safe, and accurately reflect the ingredients and levels listed on all label panels. These new consumers are giving us a chance to earn their trust. We must consistently meet and exceed their expectations, or these opportunities will be in jeopardy of being lost. Let’s not let that happen, for its time for us to shine as an industry.

5. What do you see as the biggest bright spots for your company and the industry in general as we move into 2021?  

Chapman: I have always believed in the importance of the local health food store. This year has solidified the importance of our place in the community. It truly is essential for their to be a place to shop for health food in each community. As we step into 2021, we need to continue to improve our processes and ability to serve our customers in store and with appropriate delivery methods.

Nash: I’m feeling good about MOM’s. We had a lot of store growth 2016-2018, but have taken a pause this past year or two to focus on our scaling-up systems.  Hence, I think MOM’s is as well run now as ever, and we feel ready to push again into new regions. I think our industry should feel good, too, in that organics continues to grow, as it has for decades. And the in-person 4-wall customer experience is still proving to be in high demand, as people have been driven into their kitchens and online ordering, even in these extreme circumstances, is still a low % of the total grocery industry.

Ris: 2021 marks an important year for Indena as we celebrate our 100-year anniversary. It’s a significant milestone for our company and we’re very excited to celebrate it with our suppliers, partners and customers that have supported Indena throughout our history. It is a proud legacy.

Emme: Challenges almost always bring opportunities. Our sales are up in all channels, and also at record levels in worldwide sales. Our industry has so many great opportunities at this time, and so does our company. I have never seen this level of increased consumer interest in dietary supplements in the nearly 26 years I’ve been in this industry.

Lambert: More people are relying on botanicals as part of their wellness plan. It’s been gratifying to see that when people are concerned for their health, they immediately took herbs and supplements more seriously.

Perteet: While the last several months have come with their own set of challenges, they have also reinforced the importance of being nimble to effectively compete in today’s dynamic marketplace. This year changed how consumers fundamentally engage with retailers and brands, so I am excited to see what innovation is born out of that change. Our team at AYO is most excited about giving more people and opportunity to explore the food of West Africa at more retailers and with new product formats!

Majeed: This pandemic is surrounded by one major theme, health and wellness, and our industry is central to this point, in so many ways. Some overstayed at home, and now need to lose weight in a healthy manner; others stressed too much, and need rest and relaxation formulas, and there many examples like this. Sabinsa’s ingredients will be sought after for many indicative areas, since the vaccine is only part of the solution. People are taking their health more seriously ever than before, that’s not a switch they’ll turn off. Our industry has to get back to connecting people, and I do think that can happen as we move into later parts of 2021, given all the correct measures.

Sensenbrenner: We know that education is the key to making it easier for everyone to have life-
changing great health – and this will be especially true industry-wide in 2021. Enzymedica pioneered education in 1998 and right now we’re continuing that innovation by creating new learning platforms and we also recently formed a Scientific Advisory Board to oversee our educational development programs. This is a bright spot for our company. The level of diversity and expertise of the Board we’ve assembled is unprecedented. Accuracy and accessibility are at the forefront of our new initiatives for both consumers and retailers. This is a truly massive game changer for the industry. Coming home to true education is the only way to ensure our healthiest future.

Kupper: One of the biggest bright spots for GIG, and the work we do with the food manufacturing and foodservice establishments, is our launch of two new certification marks we now use for our GFCO and foodservice programs. It is important to us that the gluten-free community is able to clearly know whose mark is whose and be confident the mark represent the standards of our programs and services. Too often our marks were being copied or used inappropriately and without authorization by establishments that wanted to work around actually meeting the certification process and standards, yet use a mark that they knew was very important to the community. We now have identified a mark for each of our programs that stands out and is not easily replicated. This new mark is now starting to appear on wide range of products and consumers are thankful that they now can easily tell the new mark from look-alikes. Now, the community we serve will be able to easily recognize these marks and the quality standards behind them.

One of the other big bright spots is the future unveiling of a new program we will launch in 2021 that will help provide a closer connection between manufacturers and consumers. It is designed to work with community-minded manufacturers to have more exposure to gluten-free consumers and address concerns in underserved populations. We will announce this program soon.

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