Cheese Wiz

 

John Foraker, MBA 94, leads Annie's beyond the kids' menu to an IPO

By Josh Sens

 

As a testament to how much his life and times have changed, consider the photograph of John Foraker, MBA 94, that stares out from the website of the company he runs. It shows the businessman when he was a boy, blond-haired and bespectacled, spooning down a bowl of the kind of breakfast cereal his own children today are forbidden to consume.

 

"I'm sure it was Count Chocula or some other nuclearcolored concoction," says Foraker, now 48 and the CEO of Annie's, a leading national purveyor of organic and natural convenience foods. "My mom didn't have the tightest screen against that stuff."

 

Like most families of that era, before the dawn of the organic movement and the rise of health-conscious companies like Annie's, the Forakers paid scant heed to ingredient panels and their tongue-twisting lists of chemical-laden additives. Even in the farm belt of Chico, Calif., where Foraker's family made a living growing rice and almonds, the family snacked on foods that bore little resemblance to anything found in the natural world.

 

"Back then there was very low awareness that most packaged food was full of junk," Foraker says. "A lot of it still is, but nowadays there are significant options for people seeking healthier alternatives."

 

A seismic shift, Foraker says, has swept the country, shaking the old order on supermarket shelves and altering the way families shop and eat. As Foraker sees it, Annie's, which he joined in 1999, has benefited from that groundswell while serving as a driving force behind the change.

 

Once a modest $7 million business, specializing solely in all-natural mac and cheese, Annie's has evolved into a prominent player in the natural and organic market, with $117.6 million in revenue for its last fiscal year, which ended March 31, 2011. Like the bunny that emblazons every Annie's package, the company's product line has multiplied and now includes such items as snack crackers, grahams, fruit snacks, and even organic rising-crust pizza. On March 28, when the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, Annie's stock price popped a whopping 89%. Its ticker symbol: BNNY.

 

In Annie's explosive growth lie echoes of a broader boom in the organic and natural food market, which swelled some 12 percent a year from 2000 to 2010 in the United States and today accounts for more than $40 billion in annual domestic sales. Industry analysts project that growth to continue at 8 percent through 2013.

 

Foraker could not have foreseen such a future in the early 1980s, when he set off to study agriculture at UC Davis. But during college, his plans to be a farmer dovetailed with an interest in finance, and after graduation, he landed at Bank of America, administering loans to timber companies and wineries. As his understanding deepened of the wine world's inner workings, so did his fascination with the power of brands.

 

"It amazed me that you could have two wineries using the same grapes and doing essentially the same things to them," Foraker says, "and one could sell its product for $8 while the other one sold for $19.99."

 

At Haas, with its then-new-founded Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and its emphasis on socially conscious business practices, Foraker relished an education that fell in step with his beliefs. MBA in hand, he went on to run a specialty food business before joining Annie's, a small but growing company with an alluring bunny icon named Bernie as its public face.

 

Foraker's career shift overlapped with changes in his personal life that propelled him to think differently about food. He and his wife, Beth, had just welcomed their first child.

 

"I remember my wife coming home with organic milk, and I said something like, 'What are you doing with that?'" Foraker says. "She said, 'You can drink whatever you like. But my baby isn't getting anything with synthetic growth hormones.'"

 

Today, in the Davis home he shares with Beth and their four children, ages 5 through 18, junk food is off limits, a policy the kids accept with only the rare protest.

 

"We have occasional points of contention—my youngest daughter over fruit snacks," Foraker says. "But that's only because she wants the ones with the Disney fairy princess on the label."

 

A similar ethos holds sway at Annie's new corporate headquarters in Berkeley, a light-filled space where employees nosh freely on samples of organic and natural snacks. Before driving to work, Foraker fuels up on fruit and yogurt. Count Chocula is out of the question, as is almost any item with synthetic ingredients.

 

The only lingering evidence of a taste for junk food lives on in a vice that Foraker has tried but so far failed to shake.

 

"Diet Coke," Foraker says. "I haven't found a goodtasting natural alternative to it yet."

 

 

 

 

 

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