Los Angeles, CA — Marc Washington, the newly minted CEO of Irwin Naturals, took a break from a sales summit in Park City, UT, to discuss his plans for the family-owned business he came onboard to propel into the future. An Ivy League-educated executive with deep operational, finance and business experience in the health and wellness industry, Washington explained what drew him to the company founded by Klee Irwin, who remains its executive chairman. In a free-wheeling phone conversation, we talked about CBD, M&A, social impact, innovation and the diversity Washington brings to the industry as an African-American. Here are some excerpts.
What did you tell the sales reps?
First and foremost, given my newness to the company, it’s an opportunity for them to get to know me — my background, style and vision – and for me to get to know them and learn more vicariously about the channel/account challenges they are encountering.
Irwin Naturals is a great business. It’s very healthy, growing and has a great reputation, which is what really attracted me. According to Nielsen, we are the leading brand of nutraceutical formulas in liquid soft gels. Our products are sold in more than 90,000 retail outlets.
One of our historic strengths is our customer relationships – particularly with the independents. That’s something we want to leverage going forward.
So, what’s the vision?
We need to be thinking broader (inclusive of, but beyond soft gels) and become the all-out leader in healthy natural products — be it in supplements or other forms of nutrition, beverages, food, personal care – with products that are natural, high-quality and efficacious, but also provide exceptional value for customers.
I’m a big believer in the opportunity around CBD. I’ve been in supplements, food and beverages. There are not many products that have the real potential of CBD. This is a space we want to participate in. I wouldn’t close off any potential opportunities – through acquisition or organically. The emphasis is on impact and scale. There’s already product in the pipeline.
What role do you see for health food stores?
I’m a strong believer in having a robust omnichannel strategy. If you’re focusing on impact, let consumers buy wherever they are shopping. We can be in health food stores, have channels in mass and, regardless of where we are, offer affordable high-quality products.
One of the opportunities we have is increasing consumer awareness of Irwin Naturals. Not just who we are, but also where we’re going. We want to make it a more high awareness brand people know about and are looking for. A lot of that awareness is generated online – through social media, influencers, etc. Driving consumers into retail partners’ outlets.
I think we’re very well aligned when I look at the health food and independent stores. I see this channel as our foundation, such an important part of our future, driving the development of our products, our brand, our story. It will continue to enable us to stay on top of trends and the pulse of the natural products industry and will only grow over time as we expand our product portfolio. We’ll be partnering with them to try new things as we bring new products to market.
What’s your MAP policy and do you enforce it?
That’s a topic of discussion around the team that I need to get more specifics on. I think it’s going to be important to maintain some price consistency across our channels.
Do you think being an African-American CEO creates an opportunity?
Yes. 100% yes.
I notice both from an executive standpoint as well as a consumer standpoint that minorities in general have been underrepresented in the supplement industry. There are very few people who look like me at Expo West and SupplySide.
It starts within the company. Prioritizing diversity as a way of thought, background, racial profile, etc. How do you build a big robust organization for the 21st century? Having the attention of these communities is in the company’s best interest as well.
All communities need great products and healthy products companies can step up and more directly address minority communities from an organizational standpoint as well as communication.
How do you see that taking shape?
The way I think about it goes back to the general theme… Doing well by doing good, a company with soul. We’re not just trying to provide healthy products for high-income earners. For us, the definition of impact is to deliver high-quality great products that people need to the largest number of people possible.
It includes how we go about operating, the environmental impact, who we’re partnering with, making sure suppliers and partners are similarly aligned. Making the world a better place. It sounds a little cheesy, but that’s how we want to operate.
What do you think you bring to the party?
I’m very fortunate to have found this company and for them to have found me. It fits my background and aspirations. I’m essentially a healthy consumer products executive who’s done quite a bit across industries and functions. Most of my experience lies in healthy, natural nutrition, so it fits with my experience and passion. I’ve been fortunate to have done a little bit of everything from an organizational standpoint. Most of my experience has been with family-owned businesses … The Wonderful Company, BeachBody.
I know what you need to do both strategically and organizationally to scale a business. I know how to work with partners and entrepreneurs. I have a team sports background and that’s driven me to be both impact-oriented and competitive. A people-driven leadership style is how I’d express myself – around engagement, collaboration, aligning yourself and building a world-class organization. I’m always about continuous improvement.
Are you hiring?
I’m in the process of building out the team as we speak – adding resources to scale and build out a world-class organization. I already have a really solid foundation of leaders who have been a critical part of Irwin Naturals, especially Rebecca Pearman (president) and Mike Berg (EVP, sales), who have been pillars of Irwin Naturals helping run the organization. They have been and will continue to play critical roles.
What are you most excited about?
The fact we’ve got such a strong foundation and the organization’s aspirations and founders are aligned. We’ve had a lot of success, but our best days are to come.