Brought up on a Nebraska farm, the founder of Green & Black’s chocolate and Whole Earth foods is a serial entrepreneur. Here Craig Sams tells us about his latest creations – organic cola and a revolutionary fertiliser – and what he’s learnt in his extraordinary career
There’s no economic interest more powerful than the threat of extinction. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently warned that if we carry on farming as we are, we’ll be out of land in 60 years. That’s quite a wake-up call.
Things are moving in the right direction. As well as Gusto Cola, I’m currently devoting a lot of time to Carbon Gold – a soil improver that benefits organic farming but also helps non-organic producers to transition to organic without having to rebuild the health of their soil.
Looking into the abyss at an early age conditions your thinking for the rest of your life. The catalytic career moment for me was when I almost died in India of dysentery and hepatitis, and cured myself with diet. That led me into macrobiotics, which has a strong commitment to organic farming and avoidance of chemicals and other additives in food.
I was inspired by Japanese author George Ohsawa. His book Zen Macrobiotics really captures the zeitgeist of the Sixties, and harnesses its strong Zen streak to healthy eating. If you were into consciousness and [mind] expansion, it slotted in neatly to the rest of your lifestyle.
I’ve driven yellow cabs in Philadelphia, worked in a plastics factory removing dollies from moulds, worked in a restaurant at the end of Sunset Boulevard… My first entrepreneurial activity, though, came from having lived in the East – I imported Indian religious posters, Tibetan shoulder bags and Afghan coats. That was my contribution to Sixties fashion.
Green & Black’s was all about creating an absolute model of fair trade and sustainable, organic production. Initially, the Fairtrade Foundation was happy to endorse what we were doing, but they had one big reservation – we were the only customers of the co-operative farm we were dealing with, which made them too dependant on us. That co-operative is now completely independent, and the entire south of the country [Belize] is going organic and producing the best cocoa in the world. It’s totally transformed, and all I did was kick things off and sell the chocolate at this end – they’ve done all the rest.
I subscribe to doing good, but to doing well too. You have to make a profit, and I’ve never felt bad about generating surplus revenue. Charitable activity can sometimes create dependency, and that’s always dangerous. If there’s mutual reward, everybody pulls in the same direction. Those farmers in Belize work their butts off because there’s a profit in it for them – we all make money and we’re all grateful to each other.
My management style can be described as ‘delegatory’. I’m not the world’s greatest manager, but I’ve been lucky enough to have some really excellent CEOs – people who aren’t driven by the same motivations that I am, but know how to run a business, how to treat staff. I really like to have a CEO who can gently rein me in when I’m going off the deep end.
I’m not a huge technophile, but I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and I do spreadsheets. When I started at business school, which was the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, I spent a year studying Boolean algebra. I don’t know if you know what it is – I’m not sure I do! – but they thought that to be a successful executive you had to know how to write programs. Even in 1962, no one was predicting spreadsheets.
Britain has a historic role in entrepreneurship. Going back to Roman times, there has always been an English person squeezing a bit of juice out of the flow. I’m halfway through a novel, which could be the next Game of Thrones, about the early establishment of England, and the Anglo-Saxon-Frisian-Jute coalition – who these people were, why and how that led ultimately to modern-day Cape Town, Singapore, Gibraltar, Panama being as they are.
I get asked about my exit plan. Someone said to me recently, is Gusto Cola going to be like Green & Black’s, where you build a brand and sell it to some multinational? So I replied, ‘No, with this brand our strategy is to take over the Coca-Cola corporation…
Craig Sams: CV
Born 1944, Nebraska
Position Co-founder of enterprises including Carbon Gold, Gusto Cola and Green & Black’s chocolate (with wife Josephine Fairley), and of Whole Earth foods (with brother Gregory)
Interesting fact Sams has authored books including The Brown Rice Cookbook (1982) and The Little Food Book (1993)