Success has come naturally for Boulder-born trade group

BOULDER — Seven-year-old industry trade group Naturally Boulder is all grown up.

With a membership of 530, board members representing industry heavy hitters such as WhiteWave Foods Co. (NYSE: WWAV), and international food conglomerates such as General Mills Inc. (NYSE: GIS) nosing around, the local nonprofit group started with help from Boulder economic development folks and has arrived.

“We attract new entrepreneurs with innovation, and the early founders of some of the big companies have been very involved and generous with their time,” said Ellen Feeney, new president of the group’s board of directors and vice president for responsible livelihood at WhiteWave.

In the past two years, membership has grown by about 230 people from the approximately 300 members who belonged in December 2010, according to Sonja Tuitele, a co-vice president on the Naturally Boulder board and vice president for communications at Aurora Organic Dairy Holdings LLC in Boulder. More than one-third of the membership now hails from outside of the Boulder region, Tuitele said.

Sponsorship revenue — which comes from members and is used to fund the group’s education, promotion and networking efforts — has doubled in the same period.

Naturally Boulder’s board of directors and one 30-hour-per-week staff person operate on a budget of about $300,000 annually.

“We’re a volunteer board, but we put on dozens of events each year to add value to the entrepreneurial quest,” Feeney said.

Among the get-togethers are the annual Autumn Awards — an evening event added four years ago to acknowledge the rapid growth of many local companies big and small, Feeney said.

The group’s Pitch Slam, where entrepreneurs in the region pitch their companies to a panel of local industry judges for a chance to win business support prizes, also is well-known in the industry.

“We’re coming into our own with the awards and the Pitch Slam,” Feeney said. “It’s what the organization is all about. We nurture and cultivate the startup entrepreneurs (but) we want to keep the legacy folks involved with being one of the judges or being on a panel.”

“Morning mingles” are a new focus for the board of directors in 2013, Feeney said. Students and young entrepreneurs will be encouraged to mingle with industry veterans at the breakfast events, she said. The next “mingle” will be at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, in the community room at Alfalfa’s Market Inc. grocery store at 1645 Broadway in Boulder.

Adriane Little, marketing manager at Earth Balance, a brand of Niwot-based Boulder Brands Inc. (Nasdaq: BDBD), is the newest member elected to the Naturally Boulder board. Boulder Brands plans to host networking events and some monthly board meetings at its offices this year, Little said.

Boulder Brands is formerly Smart Balance Inc. The company, which is moving its headquarters to a Boulder location this year, includes brands such as Udi’s, Glutino and Earth Balance.

Naturally Boulder started in 2005 as a way to promote Boulder’s existing natural foods “industry cluster,” said Frank Bruno, who was city manager at the time. With support from Boulder City Council members, Bruno said he remembers awarding a $50,000 contract to the Boulder Economic Council to do research on targeted industry clusters, including natural foods and clean technology — the industry term used for alternative energy.

Well-known Boulder entrepreneurs — such as Mark Retzloff, a founder of Alfalfa’s and of Horizon Organic Dairy LLC; Sylvia Tawse, founder of the Fresh Ideas Group communication company in Boulder; Joan Boykin, a founding member of The Organic Center national trade group; and Linnea Simmons, attorney at Caplan and Earnest — were involved in a task force that became the nonprofit group. Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s Nut Butter LLC, remembers attending some early meetings.

These days, companies involved in Naturally Boulder pay annual dues of $300 to $10,000 to sustain it.

With the natural-goods industry seeing double digit growth annually in recent years while other consumer products areas are flat, Naturally Boulder’s strong run is expected to continue, Feeney said. The group has continued close relationships with the University of Colorado-Boulder’s business school as well as the Innovation Center of the Rockies, a nonprofit business incubator that also receives money from a variety of sources, Feeney said.

Wall Street also has recognized the importance of the natural and organic industry across the nation, creating a Dow Jones “sustainability index” that has encouraged companies nationally to become more environmentally conscious. Natural and organic products make up an estimated 5 percent of the total number of products on grocery store shelves.

The new Naturally Boulder board wants to build on the group’s strength in the coming year and add value to the community, Feeney said. More companies are looking to join the natural and organic fold through groups such as Naturally Boulder, and that’s a positive step for the entire industry, Feeney said.

“It’s all good. More food options are being consciously produced, and consumers have more choices,” Feeney said. “I’m not a purist who says you have to be small to be organic. Being big doesn’t mean you’re not good at heart.”

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