Balancing Nature and Business: The Organic CEO’s Insights

CEO & Founder Matt McLean takes us through the challenging and rewarding world of organic farming.

Step into organic farming and entrepreneurship as Gary Nowacki engages with a visionary guest who shares the remarkable story of turning a family legacy into a pioneering organic endeavor. In this Conception to Consumption episode, you’ll hear why becoming the nation’s number-one-selling organic orange juice brand takes determination against the odds with guest Matt McLean, Founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic.

Tune in to explore the challenges of citrus greening, the power of differentiation in a bustling market, and the inspiring commitment to sustainable practices that define this unique journey. With decades of familial organic farming wisdom spanning decades, Matt McLean has led the brand to inspiring and hands-on support to aide fellow farmers in their transition to organic methods. As a Certified B Corp, Uncle Matt’s Organic continues to give back through their nutritious and organic products and various non-profits they support. You’ll leave the episode inspired and encouraged to pursue your passion despite the obstacles along the way.

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Gary Nowacki: Welcome to the show everybody today. Exciting guest, Matt McLean, who is founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic. Matt, welcome to the show.

Matt McLean: Thank you, Gary. Pleasure to be here. Appreciate the opportunity to tell our story and talk to you.

Gary Nowacki: So, let’s get into the story. Tell us your origin story. You started this company, I believe, in 1999. Tell us about all that and a little bit how it’s evolved over the years

Yeah, it’s hard to believe 24 years ago, June of 1999, a little over 24 years ago, started Uncle Matt’s Organics, started with one little skew, pulp-free orange juice. I graduated college in ‘93 from the University of Florida. I went there to get out of the citrus business, quite honestly. I’d grown up working in the citrus business, the hot groves in the summer. My dad and grandfather, they had a lot of different groves around the area, so I would help out, doing all kinds of different things, but it really taught me great lessons.

– Matt McLean

Continue reading the full transcript here:

Matt McLean: When I went to college, I said, you know, I want to be on the business side of it, not necessarily in the ag side. So I got a degree in finance with a minor in economics. Before I knew it, I wound up right back in the citrus industry, but this time I was selling juice and concentrates to Europe and the Middle East. I had one German grower, he owned some groves that my dad consulted on in Florida, and he wanted some help on how to get his fruit over to Europe. And so I said, well, that sounds interesting, I’ll start an import-export company and try to help you do it. And before I knew it, we were selling juice to a lot of the different bottlers in Germany he knew. He had friends up and down Germany that had juice bottling plants. And so, I went around the state and I had 35 different plants that I would talk to and we would buy juice, we’d put it on a boat and send it to Flushing over in Holland, and then it would go to the German bottlers. And we had a great business for about five years and really built it up.

And before I knew it, I had one customer in southern Bavaria, a little town called Freinheim, that asked for biologic grapefruit juice. He wanted organic grapefruit juice. And I didn’t know what organic was at the time. I said, you know, I- I don’t know what it is, but I’ll go back to the States and in Florida and I’ll try and find it for you. And I looked for different growers and I eventually found some organic grapefruit juice or grapefruit and we processed it into juice, and we shipped it to him.

But it also had my aha moment of looking at the market and there was no organic Tropicana or Simply or any other brand out there. And so, it made me think, hey, can we do this? Perhaps I could start a brand. I had a passion for citrus in the industry. I went to my father and grandfather and asked them, can we even grow it organically? And that was when my grandfather was, he pretty much was offended. He chuckled, he’s like, well, you know, of course we can grow it organic. You know, I’ve been alive long enough to tell you before pesticides were invented that we grew it organic. They just didn’t call it that. And so that gave me the confidence, like, all right, if we can grow it. then I believe I can get out there and sell it, or at least I would like the chance to go out there and try and sell it, because our family had never had a brand, we’d always just been growers. And so that really excited me, it excited our family.

My grandfather said, hey, I believe organic actually is a really a better method to grow. I think it’s something that we should go back to as an industry, and we have focused a lot on pesticides and single factor analysis on if you have a pest, find a pesticide. If you have a disease, go find some kind of fungicide. And so it made a lot of sense to them and it made a lot of sense to me that, hey, why don’t we try and do it a little different and do it the way mother nature intended.

And so I launched Uncle Matt’s and June of 99 with that one little pulp-free orange juice skew. The funny story about that is the gentleman, it took me a couple of years before I really understood how to do the CPG world and how to do a product. I was really good at bulk orange juice and bulk grapefruit juice and the quality and flavor of it and going to Europe, but I had no idea about how to put it into Publix and those places. And so that was a lot of fun as an entrepreneur, putting all those pieces of the puzzle together. And when I did find the right co-packer to process it, he was a friend of the family who ran the plant. And he just smiled when I walked in and laughed. He’s like, you have no idea what you’re doing.

Gary Nowacki: Ha ha ha.

Matt McLean: You’re going to lose all your money and you should not be doing this. Do your parents know?

Gary Nowacki: Ha ha ha.

Matt McLean: So that was my beginning.

Gary Nowacki: It’s amazing that you went back across all those generations and your grandfather remembered how to do it,

Matt McLean: Yep.

Gary Nowacki: And he passed that down to you. Now, when you work today and you’re dealing obviously with all organic, how does that work, your partnership with farmers, how does it work with things like citrus greening disease, how do you manage all, is it tough, is it difficult?

Matt McLean: So that is one long story. You won’t have enough time on your podcast, but I will, I’ll give you this synopsis. Organic farming is definitely difficult. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will make a lot of mistakes quick, and you can’t just take a conventional system and substitute organic products and hope for the best, especially in Florida. Florida’s a subtropical climate. So while we have a great climate for producing high quality fruit and yielding good results in production, it also grows a lot of disease and pests because of that climate and the weather.

So organic becomes more challenging and more difficult to handle disease and pest pressure without synthetic pesticides. So, in our peak up until 2015, we had 1500 acres that we farmed ourselves. So, my dad and my brother, they’re the agronomist in the family. I’m more the business guy that had the vision. So, it was the perfect match, dad and Ben. They would go out, we would meet with growers, we would transition them to organic, it took three years from the date of the last prohibited substance. So, there was a lot of planning, a lot of work to transition it to organic. A lot of paperwork and then just the care and nurturing it took to go from conventional to organic. But it was great.

We probably had almost 40 different growers and not just citrus. We converted blueberry growers. We converted some blackberry growers, some avocado growers in Florida. But then citrus greening showed up. And in 2015, our industry started to rapidly become infected. We had some hurricanes that blew through and blew the little vector, the Asian citrus psyllid, the little like mosquito that spreads, the analogy of mosquitoes spreading malaria, the Asian citrus psyllid is the insect that spreads the citrus greening disease and it bites the leaf and feeds on the leaf and that bacteria transmits from its gut into the tree. The bacteria is not life-threatening for anything, it’s not a food safety issue for us as humans, but it’s definitely deadly, ones at being deadly to the tree.

So, it has changed our philosophy because Florida, now what we have left in Florida, the grows we have left are solely for research and development to try and find a cure for greening organically. Our industry has been cut at least into half since 2015 in acreage and even way more so in crop size. So, we’re seeing the demise of an industry right in front of our eyes. Something that you know has taken four or five generations to build is now within one generation of becoming extinct, literally, because of the damage this green disease has caused.

So, we have about 100 acres left that my brother and father do different trials on every day to try and get the right cure. We have since moved our supply source in addition to Florida, which used to be our only source because of where we’re at and who we are. We now source from… Southern Texas, the east coast of Mexico, and California are our three primary citrus producing areas for Uncle Matt’s.

Gary Nowacki: Hmm. And so, you know, what’s the prognosis with citrus greening? Do you guys think you’re going to come up with a solution to it? Are you still working through it?

Matt McLean: Yeah, I mean, there’s several solutions that we think are good. I mean, there’s long-term finding new root stocks and replanting, right? New root stocks and scions that are either resistant or tolerant of it. And some of those are showing promise, but that takes a lot of time. You know, you probably need at least five to seven years before that would play out and you have a productive crop. It takes a lot of money and investment from that standpoint. So that’s in the works.

The industry has poured a lot of money into new root stocks and breeding, classical breeding, and also some genetic. Organic would only be using the classical breeding solutions. But then also just are there other things that you can use? It’s really about trying to stop the spread through the vector and then also clean out that bacteria in the main artery of the tree, which is also known as the phloem. And so can you, currently they’re doing trunk injections. So, kind of like an IV into a human, they’re doing an IV into the tree. The conventional growers are putting in oxytetracycline, I think that’s the right antibiotic that they’re putting into the tree that’s helping with some of the resistance to the bacteria or killing off the bacteria. Organic does not use antibiotics, so we’re looking for other solutions that we’re working on for trunk injections, more like botanical oils on organic peptides and things like that. But we don’t have a silver bullet. Nobody in the industry has a silver bullet yet. We continue to hope and pray for that solution. And there’s been a lot of money and a lot of smart people that have thrown things at it and we’re still waiting for that breakthrough.

Gary Nowacki: Yeah, well, good luck. I hope it comes to the whole industry.

Matt McLean: Thank you.

Gary Nowacki: Because your work, you know, with organic, it’s really important. So, we’re rooting for you, no pun intended.

Matt McLean: Yeah, thank you.

Gary Nowacki: So you said, Matt, that, you know, your family had the history in growing. You had the experience in bulk processing.

Matt McLean: Mm-hmm.

Gary Nowacki: But you hinted that, you know, it was a whole different challenge figuring out the consumer package goods industry. So, tell our listeners about the journey you had to become successful in CPG.

I mean next to farming it is the most exciting and challenging thing you can do. You know farming you can’t control mother nature so every season is different which makes it challenging the fun and then CPG you can’t control consumers and you can’t you definitely can’t control buyers that are the gatekeepers to those consumers to try and get on shelf.

Continue reading the full transcript here:
Matt McLean: So you have to you know really put together… You have to first start with a great product, right? The quality of your product, we’re fanatical about it at Uncle Matt’s. We have a saying that we want to be consistently great with every glass of juice that you pour. So, you know, what does that look like? You first got to start with very passionate employees that are all on mission with us, and we have that same desire to be consistently great every day. You got to work closely with your growers on their growing methods, their growing varieties, and in the certain growing regions now. It’s more challenging because we have California, Texas, and the East Coast of Mexico. They all have different climates. They have some different varieties. So, to make sure we’re consistently great tasting, moving from our Florida profile, which was a little different, that was challenging in the beginning. So it is, you know, a constant challenge every season to manage from those different regions to make sure it tastes consistently great. And you can’t control weather, so that’s interesting.

Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm.

Matt McLean: But you know, for CPG, it’s really, you got to have a great product to start with. If you have that, you can go in and you can get on the shelf. You may not get on the shelf overnight. You got to then have good promotional strategy. As much as everybody thinks that hey my product is the best and it’ll just fly off the shelf and it’ll sell itself, the retailer’s not going to agree with that. You’re going to have to have a good promotional strategy.

You know, do you promote every six weeks, every eight weeks, every twelve weeks? How deep do you go? Do you go 50 cents off? Do you go a dollar, two dollars? Those are all part of the, you know, kind of best practices and strategy that you’ll come up with. So, you get people to try it. You get people to repurchase and buy it again. And then what you really want them to do is tell a friend. You know, the best way for somebody to buy your product is through a referral from a friend, not an advertisement, somebody pushing it on you. And that starts back to the number one thing of quality and just being consistently great with everything we do.

But it’s a journey, it’s a very fun journey. It can be stressful because there’s a lot of things you can’t control. But if you just keep showing up with a really good product and you stay true to your mission, I think that you’ll have a path to success.

Gary Nowacki: Hmm. So, in CPG beverage sector, always crowded. Um, what, how do you differentiate in this crowded sector? You mentioned a little bit when you started out, you know, the big brands did not really have organic. Is it as simple as that, or are there other strategies to differentiate?

Matt McLean: So, in the very beginning that was my first strategy. And it took me too long. It took me a couple years to figure out CPG from the time I had my encounter in Germany to the time I actually launched Uncle Matt’s. And so I had a couple of competitors right in front of me that were already organic. I had Papage, who was very well known in grapes, organic grapes, so they had a good produce presence and a brand, and then I had Horizon. You know, the largest organic dairy at the time, they launched an organic juice. So, I was the third me too product and you really never want to be a me too.

Gary: Mm-hmm.

Matt McLean: I can tell you that right now. The fact that I was young and dumb was actually an advantage for me because I didn’t know any better and I was hardheaded and by God, I was going to persevere and I was going to make this thing work because I just loved what I did and it made sense from a family perspective for me and for my granddad and father and I didn’t have a wife or kids at the time. So, I was fairly expendable at failure and not being successful there. So, it was worth it for me to put my head down and keep going. And I believed I had a better product, and I did. I was more knowledgeable just on fruit quality, what I had done through the generations for the family. I was closer to the grower. Both Papage and Horizon weren’t in Florida, so they didn’t know agriculture, and they definitely didn’t know citrus growing. They knew agriculture in California, and they knew dairy farming, but they didn’t know Florida citrus.

And so, I was able to really differentiate ourselves on quality and consistency on quality. And eventually they both got out of the business because of that. They didn’t have enough supply. They didn’t have enough quality supply. And what I did was started to turn growers organic and make them part of Uncle Matt’s. And so we signed up long-term marketing agreements with them. We went in and provided all the expertise to convert to organic. So, we got them certified. We had our own team of people that would do all of the compost. We put out plant cover crops, even help them harvest it. And then we would charge a marketing fee. and that would be it.

And so we had, it made it very easy for them to turn organic. We were the largest fresh fruit supplier of organic citrus on the East Coast and that was really our specialty. So, at one point I wanted to see Uncle Matt’s be the Sunkist and also simultaneously the Tropicana of organic, right? And we had a great thing going until greening showed up. We took, packed most everything fresh fruit and got a high return. The ugly, the second fruit that was culled out, that went to the juice plant and we made it into juice because it was too big or too small or it had too many blemishes on it.

So, it was the perfect business plan. We had plenty of investor money that backed us to expand and purchase more land and convert more growers and then greening showed up. It changed that whole plan. But we now have great partners in Texas and Mexico. in California, we’ll eventually find a cure in Florida. And I think we will either replant or transition other conventional growers to organic. And you know, we’re in the long game. It’s not something that has to happen overnight. We’re 24 years in and if I do it another 24, fantastic, that would please me because then I don’t have to learn any other trade.

Gary Nowacki: I love your strategy. That’s a pretty rare strategy. Differentiate by just being more patient and waiting your competitors out until they leave the business. That’s amazing.

Matt McLean: Well, you know, we did have better quality, but yes, we eventually got to the point where it was really tough. Supply and organic, consistently great supply and organic, is hard. And so, we did a really good job of that. In between there, Organic Valley also got in, you know, the other largest dairy nationwide. And so, we became like the fourth brand that was on the shelf.

Matt McLean: But we continued to chip away and chip away. And at the end of the day… They all got out of the business because citrus greening took over. We had a better strategy to be able to handle the adversity and the better quality. So, you know, that was our story.

Gary Nowacki: And you chose to become a Certified B Corp. Why did you do that and what does that mean to you?

Matt McLean: Yeah, so B Corp, you know, their mantra is people, planet, and profits, right? And having care about your employees, care about the environment, and care about more than just your shareholders, also just kind of the stakeholders, more people. Like from our standpoint, Uncle Matt’s, we already were there. We’d flirted with B Corp for a long time because of our environmental stewardship with organic farming. All of our employees now are stockholders in Uncle Matt’s. So, we treat them, we want them to be owners as well. So, if I’m not here, they’re all acting like owners and they have a share of the game, which is great.

And then from a community standpoint, we’ve always been active in our community and giving back to the community. We plant organic gardens for schools locally. We have a- a program we call the R2Sense campaign where we give back a portion each quarter to a local charity that our employees choose. Some good ideas of those, like the Special Hearts Farm is coming up. They have help for the disabled, people with Down Syndrome. We’ve given the 1% better. That was the Chris Nickit, she was our first one. He was the first guy with Down syndrome that completed an Ironman triathlon.

And so he’s about inclusion, his 1% better of helping people with disabilities like that be able to participate in sports. Other places like a gift for music, after school music programs for underserved communities, music helps with education and all kinds of stuff. But we kind of already had that within our DNA, sort of the golden rule. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated, as the Bible says. And B Corp has some of those similar traits, and it just made a natural progression for us, and a lot of our customers, it resonates with them.

Gary Nowacki: Fantastic, fantastic and congratulations on all the great work you’re doing all around. Not just your product and organic but all the related activities. It’s just fantastic.

Matt McLean: It’s been very rewarding well beyond just growing organic citrus. You know, and that’s the fun thing about a business. You have so much more success than just the bottom line. There are other things that are so much more rewarding when you’re actively given back and employees feel engaged and you have the right culture and people are on mission with you really trying to, you know, climb the mountain. And for us, it’s about organic acreage and conversion. It really, it’s in our DNA and our mission is to educate farmers and consumers about the benefits of an organic lifestyle. If you walked into my house and looked into my pantry, I would say 95% of what’s in there has got the organic seal on it. And the other 5% has organic ingredients listed on the package. So, I mean, we live it as well.

Gary Nowacki: Fantastic. So, what can you share with our listeners about what’s next for Uncle Matt’s Organic?

Matt McLean: Well, we continue to innovate. We like to be some of the first people in different categories. We’ve recently expanded outside of just the refrigerated juice case. We’ve got into the Asceptic Kids juice boxes. I’m a father of two kids. My daughters are 11 and 14. And so I’ve watched them grow up. And part of my motivation daily is protecting the next generation. We like to say we’re growing a healthy generation with our organic products. And so, we in the septic juice box were the first ones to do a no sugar added lemonade. We lightly sweetened them with stevia. We boost them with acerola vitamin C and zinc. And so, you know, that’s nice. It’s a different part of the store for us. That’s innovative and on trend.

And then also we just launched a super fruit punch, another one that’s no sugar added, lightly botanically sweetened with stevia. It has, you know, 40 calories per serving. It’s boosted with the acerola cherry for vitamin C and antioxidants. Has things like blueberries, elderberry, dark sweet cherry, and it’s just delicious dark purple. Those are kind of the innovative things we’re trying to do. Just bring nutrition, health, and wellness to parts of the beverage space to be better for you and also be on trend and functional what consumers are looking for.

Gary Nowacki: Fantastic. So, you’ve got a lot to be proud of, Matt. A lot of successes and interesting things you’ve done. A lot of good. Is there… I’m going to ask it anyway. Any one thing you’re particularly proud of?

Matt McLean: Well, I gotta say it goes back to really our mission of educating consumers and farmers about the benefits of an organic lifestyle. We’ve stayed true to that. All we do is organic. That’s all I believe in. I really still believe, if my grandfather was here today, he and I would be high-fiving. That initial conversation he and I had about a better way to farm. And what I saw the sparkle in his eye about, hey, this is how we should go back to farming because it builds a healthier soil, it builds a healthier tree, and that’s what long term we want to do. And in farming, he saw that back in the 40s and 50s when they farmed organic and they didn’t call it organic. And we stayed true to that, and we continue to convert people in acreage and more customers know about it. So, I think I’m the most proud of that.

Gary Nowacki: That’s fantastic. So if you look at our listeners and you were to give them advice we know organic is a big trend and it’s you know we see fads in CPG. I don’t think organic is a fad I think this is a long-term secular trend so a lot of our listeners are probably scratching their heads and saying how do I how do I get into the CPG business with an angle with organic any advice on that?

Matt McLean: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean, the best thing you could do is walk the store. Go out to your, wherever you shop, walk through there and say, you know, as an organic customer, what do you need that’s not offered? You know, what is there that the customer does demand? I don’t recommend being a me too product. You know, don’t be the next organic salsa. Don’t be the next, you know, organic olive oil. You know, unless you really feel you have a new variety of tomato or a new variety of olive that is far better in quality.

But walk the store, go online, look on Amazon, what’s selling, what do you think is actually popular but you need something that can differentiate yourself in the marketplace because business is hard enough. You don’t want to be seen as just the third or fourth organic orange juice brand out there just as an example. That’s a long hard road. Not saying you can’t succeed because we have had success but I wouldn’t choose that right out of the gate. That’s something that’s a me to be unique be authentic And make sure you have enough of whatever you’re going to do you have a good partner that you can produce it with and you have enough supply that’s good high quality that you can scale with.

Gary Nowacki: So Matt, before we go into wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share about your business and your products?

Matt McLean: You know, I hope if you haven’t heard of us, please go try it. Go to our website. Our website has a store locator on it. You can just type your zip code in and it’ll tell you what it is nearby.

Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm.

Matt McLean: Email us. We’ll send you some coupons to help you with that first initial purchase. And we’ll send you two coupons, one for you. And if you like it, then give it to a friend. That’s the best way to help us. It’s all about velocity on the shelf. We’re competing against the big guys that are a lot less expensive than us. So that real estate is prime, and we have to show that we can continue to turn. And if we can chip away at those big guys with our quality, all that every little bit helps, and we’ll continue to help our mission.

Gary Nowacki: So just type into your search engine, Uncle Matt’s Organic. Check out the website, go to the store finder. Are there any particularly common national retail chains that folks will be immediately familiar with where you’re on the shelf?

Matt McLean: Yeah, absolutely. So nationwide we’re Kroger, nationwide. We’re in Whole Foods, we’re in Sprouts, we’re in all Publix stores, we’re in a decent amount of Safeway Albertsons, we’re in some Walmarts, and then if you can’t find us nearby you can always order us online. We do have some stuff direct on our website you can order or find us on Amazon.

Gary Nowacki: Terrific. Well, thank you so much, Matt, for being on our show today. Matt McLean, Founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic. We really appreciate you sharing your experience with our listeners.

Matt McLean: Yeah, thank you very much, Gary. Appreciate it. Love to talk with you anytime.

This podcast is produced for informational purposes and does not constitute any scientific, legal, or medical advice.

The views and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are those of the guest alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the host or any other entity or organization. Listeners are encouraged to listen with an open mind and form opinions of their own.

This podcast originally aired on August 24, 2023.

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