SVI 2013: Ian Walker, Left Coast Naturals

“You can’t have a business that contradicts who you are as a person.”

After five generations of family business, one might imagine things could get a little stale.  Not so for the latest generation of the Walker family.  As a Director of the family business, and the founder of his own firm, Left Coast Naturals, Ian Walker exudes the comfortable confidence and easy humility of the kind of leader who tends to leave their mark on the world.

Ahead of the 19th annual Social Venture Institute September 18-22 at Hollyhock, I had the pleasure to connect and chat with an entrepreneur I found to be open, warm and eager to learn—even after 17 years of leading his own organization. Scheduled to deliver a keynote ‘True Confession’ talk at SVI, Ian is as excited to connect with the 150 social entrepreneurs that will fill the campus as he is to share his own insights into the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime in independent business.

Timing is Everything

SVI Hollyhock

Ian has wanted to attend SVI since 1999, but his company’s annual strategic planning retreats always seemed to conflict. “I’m looking at SVI as an opportunity to reinvigorate and re-inspire,” he said, adding that sometimes the best learning is simply a reminder of best practices that get forgotten amid the hustle of day-to-day business.

“I’m looking forward to hearing about entrepreneurs who are ‘punching above their weight,’ and to breaking some of the patterns” shared Ian, echoing a theme for many SVI attendees. “Even best-in-class continue to need inspiration.”

Walker’s company started out as two friends selling nut butter at a local market.  Today, the organic and natural food manufacturer distributes nearly 30 brands, including three of their own, and 200 bulk foods to grocery, specialty, and natural food stores across Western Canada. Since day one, Walker and his colleagues have felt that business has a real role to play in making the world a better place. As his company’s reach has increased, so too has Walker’s interest in measuring and improving on their corporate footprint.

Sustainable Complexities

Even though Left Coast Naturals has always been dedicated to sustainability, Walker knows it “takes hard work to make the right moves.” Using tools like the B Corp Assessment and the Climate Smart Businesses programs, Left Coast Naturals has quantified much of its impact, but in doing so discovered that some 55% of their footprint was upstream—namely, how the food they distribute is cultivated and grown.

Walker’s respect for the complexities of running a sustainable business is born of his own company’s efforts to meet this challenge. “There was no ready-made document that outlined the factors that go into sustainable farming, and I was falling asleep reading all the white papers!” Trying to piece together insights from various trade organizations and researchers proved too difficult, and so Left Coast Naturals embarked on their own research program, distributing a detailed questionnaire to their farmers, so their footprints could be quantified and then managed.

“Much of what we’ve defined as best practices in Left Coast Naturals is shared,” explained Walker. “We’ve reached out to many other companies and people we respect on sustainability to learn from them.” Walker looks forward to sharing the benefits of their “grunt research work” for the benefit of similar companies.

This is the sort of dedicated approach that Walker has presented throughout his work and career. When asked for some insights to share to entrepreneurs whose trajectories are a few years behind his company’s, the wisdom flowed with ease.

Readiness for Growth

“There’s no perfect time to grow your business—so it’s kind of like having kids!” Ian explained that he recalls doing too many things himself for too long, rather than delegating more, and increasing his organization’s capacity. “We entrepreneurs, we all need help. We think we can do it all, but we really can’t. The sooner you learn that lesson, the faster you’ll build success.”

He also advocates making a decision, and moving forward as readily as possible. “Doing something is always better than doing nothing.” It’s commonplace to hear entrepreneurs today talk about ‘failing fast,’ but Walker has a different slant: “The path of entrepreneurship has no end—unless you stop walking. Trust your instincts, and balance them with the research you have the resources to do. In my book, good intentions mean a lot.”

And he’s convinced that no entrepreneur has a handle on time management: “We all suck at it!” For his first ten years in business, it was “full out effort.” After starting a family, Walker swung the pendulum of his efforts the other way – and now finds he needs to swing it back again. “The work today, particularly around growing our culture, demands more of me,” he said, “and really, I find I’m more engaged when I’m fully part of something.”

Lastly, it’s always important to look out for mentors. “Aside from my father, who taught my brother and me about business from a very early age, many of my mentors have been from memorable quotes from meetings that may have been long forgotten by the people who shared their wisdom.”

Walker’s reflective and clear when he says, “I always try to appreciate those little hits of advice.” Certainly, Social Venture Institute looks forward to hearing a few ‘little hits’ from Ian in September.

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