Michael May on Evolving a Family Business for the Future

Changing the focus from product to people

by Michael May

A family company often takes on the character of the family who owns it. Early startup struggles and difficulties become ingrained in its culture and fixed in its corporate identity. My father’s struggles in establishing our company set our culture at Wisdom Natural Brands, makers of SweetLeaf Stevia.

When my father, James May, first introduced stevia to the U.S. market 40 years ago, he fought an uphill battle. Simply put, large artificial sweetener companies did not want him to succeed. Stevia was a plant from the rainforests of South America and naturally 30 times sweeter than sugar without calories. To the growing artificial sweetener industry of the 1980s, stevia was enemy No. 1.

Nevertheless, my father persevered amidst challenges, setbacks and even some outright failures to ultimately succeed in establishing a vibrant natural sweetener industry. What constantly propelled him was his crystal-clear vision of what a future without sugar or artificial sweeteners would look like. I now find myself tasked with the challenge and opportunity to build upon that vision and move my father’s company — my family’s company — into the future.

Evolving a longtime family business into the future presents many challenges but also many opportunities. First, one needs to decide whether or not to keep it in the family, have it be managed by the family, divest part of it, or invest in future growth. In the last years of my father’s life, we often discussed how to move the company forward, how to evolve it but, at the same time stay true to the legacy he built. Although he was revered around the world as the “Father of Stevia” for the work he did to establish the natural sweetener industry, he was very clear that the vision that would guide me — and our company — into the future had to be my own.

I was to manage the business for my family. I decided my primary task as CEO was to ensure the founding principles and values of the company remained while we embraced new science and technologies, confronted a changing competitive landscape, explored new markets and channels, and provided new wellness options for our consumers.

Second generation family-run businesses work best if the original passion and a continuing vision remain. Founders often identify very strongly with their businesses. This can lead to over-confidence bordering on arrogance that makes it difficult to see beyond “what got them there,” to notice changes in the competitive landscape, or even to hold onto favorite products that have long since lost their competitive edge. To be sure, one of the most difficult things for any business to do is plan and innovate outside its own paradigm, but that is exactly what is necessary to transform a family business for the future.

In our company, past innovations gave us our preeminent market position many years ago, but those innovations — like all good innovations — were copied and, sometimes, eventually bettered. We had to accept the new competitive landscape, recapture the entrepreneurial spirit, and alter the paradigm in which we operated in order to create new value and establish a new sustainable, competitive advantage different from the one my father created many years ago.

Our company was indeed founded upon vision and entrepreneurial drive. My father wanted to change the world. In the beginning, however, we focused on products. Now, we focus on people. We are not a merely product company anymore; we see ourselves as a service company that provides wellness to consumers through our products. It may seem like semantics, but the change in focus is critical for our company’s transformation and viability into the future. Everyone around the world should have access to premium-quality, natural health and wellness. That drives us and separates us from our competitors.

Defining what separates a business from its competitors drives its leaders to grow the business and creates new value and competitive advantage. Everything else cascades from that: the demographics, the markets, the channels and the products. It comforts investors and encourages partners that the family business is in good hands moving into the future.

Finally, I have noticed that opportunities for growth and expansion as we move into the future can be ubiquitous. For instance, at SweetLeaf, exporters and international distributors have consistently sought us out for introduction into their markets because of our position as the top natural sweetener brand in the natural channel. We have learned, however, that focusing on a few markets proactively with the right planning, preparation and investment brings greater success than being reactive and just taking whatever opportunity comes our way. It’s alright to close the door on one good opportunity to maximize success in a better one.

Maximum weight of effort on a few goals will be more impactful than trying to accomplish everything that is on the table. The key for the family business is to stay true to the founding principles and values our original consumers and partners latched onto, even as we update the founding vision for the future.

The Local Connection to Stevia

  • Gilbert-based SweetLeaf was founded by James May, known to many as the “Father of Stevia.”
  • May was the first to bring stevia to the United States from Paraguay in 1982.
  • May imagined sweeter world where consumers could enhance their beverages and recipes with a healthful, natural sweetener alternative.
  • May fought to have stevia line the shelves of the sweetener aisle alongside sugar, instead of in the aisle with dietary supplements.
  • Today, SweetLeaf is spearheaded by James’ son, Michael May, who carries on the company’s legacy while moving the company forward with science-backed stevia taste innovation and new products.

Did You Know: Gilbert-based SweetLeaf is the country’s most-awarded natural sweetener brand.

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