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Bob’s Red Mill Founder and President Bob Moore: People are everything

By Ali Montag, Apr 30, 2020 10:00:00 AM

Bob’s Red Mill Founder and President Bob Moore shares his playbook on building company culture around compassion. 

At 91-years-old, Bob Moore, the founder and president of Bob’s Red Mill, has seen a lot.

He was a child during the Great Depression and a teenager during World War II. He started managing a department in a warehouse at 16 years old. He served in the army. He ran a gas station in Los Angeles, California. He sold that gas station and bought another gas station, a tow truck, and a garage near a ski resort outside of Mammoth Lake. An unseasonably snowless winter deterred tourists and left him flat broke. He picked up the pieces. He kept learning. He discovered a book about mills, and spent countless hours studying 18th-century granite millstones. He raised three sons with his wife, Charlee. The family pinched pennies to open a small flour mill and grain store in the 1970s.

After another decade of detours and iterations — including a stint at seminary school and a fire that burned the mill to the ground — Charlee and Bob Moore’s business eventually became Bob’s Red Mill, the brand of healthy, unprocessed, whole grains sold in nearly every grocery store in the U.S., Canada, and in more than 80 other countries around the world. The company employs over 600 people.

In today’s state of uncertainty, Moore’s familiarity with the ups and downs of life brings him solace.

“I’ve had some difficult times in my life, but it gives me a perspective when things are good; how precious they are when they’re good,” Moore says.

Still, he’s not immune to the stress we’re all feeling. As we talk, he pauses for a moment and apologizes.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I think I’m feeling the pressure of the world we’re living in right now and how unusual it is and how it’s changed so many things. It makes me feel bad. I guess that’s a pretty typical way of feeling right now.”

But Moore has a job to do.

His company isn’t slowing down — and neither is he. In the last few weeks, Bob’s Red Mill has even hired new team members to meet the soaring demand for baking ingredients like flour and yeast.

“Our business is wide open, we’re running 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Moore says. “All our machinery is running, grinding, and packaging. Some 24 mills are running just all the time. We’re having quite a time trying to keep up with it. It’s challenging — but fun!

“People are home baking and cooking,” he continues. “For people who have kids, it’s a great time for them to give a little workout to the kitchen as well as to their relationships in their family by baking something. There’s nothing like whole-grain foods for every meal of the day to make you healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

Moore has been leading Bob’s Red Mill for over 40 years. I asked him to share his perspective on building trust with employees, creating a family-like culture, and leading a company during uncertain times. His answers have been lightly edited and condensed. Nancy Garner, Moore’s assistant, also shares her thoughts.

How do you approach building culture at Bob’s Red Mill?

Bob Moore: People are everything. I think you have to put people above money, even though money’s very important and you have to have money to keep your people. The love of money and the pursuit of it can get people in trouble.

I formed my own opinions about how to keep my employees happy. Small things, like we always celebrate birthdays, and I try my very best to keep acquainted with my people.

We had dinner parties for everybody when we had 20 people. It wasn’t so hard when you ended up with 40 people around the table. Keeping acquainted with my people when it was small was easy.

But the biggest thing that challenged me was success. At the end of the months, the end of the quarter, the end of the year, I had money left over  profit. That profit technically was mine since I was the one that put all the money into the business in the beginning.

I sat down with two things: myself, and the thought of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Matthew. 7:12.

It is a statement that has motivated and moved me. I cannot argue with it. Most people, quietly, with their unfortunate love of money, argue with it all the time, and bypass it as quickly as they can. But it has motivated my business, it has motivated me, and it has been a source of really incredible people success within my business and my world.

Bob’s Red Mill shares profits with its employees. What does that mean?

Long ago, I sat down with the profits, as it became obvious that we had a place in the world for our whole grain business, and I fashioned a system of paying back some of those profits to all my employees on a regular basis.

I worked out of a formula of the number of hours worked and how long they’d been with me, various conditions that fit the situation.

I divided the profit, about 25 percent of it, back to my employees on a separate paycheck. There’s nothing I can think of that surprised my people more than to receive an extra check with their share of the profits for the last month.

It has made a difference to me personally, and it’s made a difference to my employees. As the profits have waned and increased, as they will do in a company, the employees can feel the company like a breeze coming through the trees. They can feel through their profit sharing check how the company is doing.

I think it’s been one of the most wonderful things I’ve done in my life, and it’s something I’m very proud of. It certainly keeps down turnover!

Bob’s Red Mill employees also own part of the company. How does that work?

We’re an ESOP. The ESOP, an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, is in addition to the profit sharing that we’ve done since the early days, and its formation 10 years ago allowed us to transfer ownership of the company to the employees.

How would you describe the culture that ownership creates?

Nancy Garner: I think of the word family, and I know many other people around here do, too. We have a company newsletter that comes out every month, and even though we have over 600 people, we share anniversaries of who’s been with the company five years, 10 years, 15 years and longer. We share wedding news, new baby announcements, and company success stories we can all be proud of.

The culture here is about staying connected with each other. We are not just employees coming into a building every day and doing something that earns the company money. The employees here are proud of our company and the healthy products we make. We have a wonderful sense of camaraderie here.

Bob Moore: When the sales folks who work for us come to visit — most of them live here in Portland, Oregon, but we have people who live in the Midwest, and the East, and Canada, and even Singapore — our management team always includes a tour of our plant.

Having something real to show and then showing it; It’s very important that all of our employees have the opportunity to feel like they’re a part of the actual milling and packaging operation.

How do you approach enduring difficult experiences?

Most of the problems and failures I’ve had were my own fault. I just didn’t see things correctly. I didn’t surmise what, where, why, when, and all that. I didn’t have enough money. I tried some things that simply didn’t work — stuff everybody does.

Then, there are circumstances similar to what we have today, which are out of our control. Things like the weather when we moved to a ski resort at Lake Mammoth and bought a service station. We didn’t have any snow, so we didn’t have any customers, and we didn’t have any business, and we ran out of money.

Now, that was a calculated risk on my part. They’d never had a year when they didn’t have snow at Christmas time or Thanksgiving at Mammoth Lakes, California. The only thing I could do was to stay there until I ran out of money because I still had a lease on the place. I did get through it, but it cost me everything.

There are circumstances that you just don’t have anything to do with. I guess if I had a little restaurant someplace and I was told I had to shut it down because of the current virus, that would be similar to what I ran across at Lake Mammoth where we didn’t have any snow, we didn’t have any customers, and we didn’t have anything to do with it.

I went broke. That doesn’t sound very fun and I’m going to tell you something, for about seven years it wasn’t any fun. We had three kids. But we got through it. We had a good solid marriage, and it worked. But I’ll tell you what, I kept thinking of ways that I could get back on my feet again and have some control over my life and have something that I could depend on.

What does it mean to lead a company with empathy?

You come into the world with nothing and you go out with nothing. And, as a business person, you share a particular responsibility to remember that all the money you’re making, you’re not taking it with you.

Sure, it can make you feel better, live better, travel more, enjoy more, but it also can make a better world. You could make a better world out of your money. I think we miss a lot of opportunities to make it a better world, just on a day to day basis by being selfish and self-centered.

So I’ve worked at it  you have to work at it  as a fellow human being. You have to work at what you know to be human shortcomings. And certainly, a shortcoming is to take it all for yourself. But be a part of your community. There are always needs. Give of yourself.

What does the culture at Bob’s Red Mill mean to you?

I don’t want to leave it. Here I am at 91, and I still don’t want to leave it. I think that says something in itself. It’s so precious to me, I don’t care to not be here. I appreciate the time I’ve had.

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