It’s as cold as a meat locker inside the lab-like BluePrint juice factory in an industrial slice of Queens, N.Y., and the air smells of lemon zest. As a worker in a white coat and Wellingtons stirs a barrel filled with 55 gallons of moss-colored sludge, Irwin Simon, CEO of BluePrint’s owner, Hain Celestial, looks on admiringly. “Liquid gold,” he says.
Per ounce this cold-pressed concoction of 11 organic fruits and vegetables, including current yuppie favorite, kale, is more expensive than all but the priciest wines. A one-day “cleanse” of Green Juice–six 16-ounce bottles of purportedly detoxifying nectar, to be consumed every two hours instead of food–costs $75. This one plastic trash can of juice is worth $5,000.
BluePrint is one of the latest in a spate of canny acquisitions spearheaded by Simon, 54. Since founding Hain 20 years ago he’s turned it into the world’s largest natural foods company (2012 revenues of $1.4 billion with margins around 7%) and an economic home run for New York.
Brands like Terra vegetable chips, Dream nondairy milk and Celestial Seasonings tea are household names for affluent, health-obsessed shoppers who don’t mind dropping $12 on a jar of almond butter–or a bottle of Green Juice.
“Irwin came to New York with not a lot,” says Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, a longtime pal of Simon’s. “He did a lot of this on fumes. He kept putting pieces together.”
Robb knows the story well. Whole Foods counts Hain Celestial as its largest supplier, and the two companies prospered by symbiosis, stocks soaring side by side.
It was a Whole Foods executive who tipped Simon off about BluePrint. He snapped up the company from cofounders Erica Huss and Zoe Sakoutis for $25 million in January 2013. The duo, who met tending bar at New York’s stylish Hudson Hotel, started the company out of Sakoutis’ kitchen with one juicer in 2007.
Revenues hit $20 million in 2012–a year that saw the organic and natural juice market grow 13% to $2.4 billion, according to the Nutrition BusinessJournal. But “the BluePrint girls didn’t have the capital, and they hit the wall,” says Simon.
Simon expects BluePrint to do $50 million in revenues this year, doubling again to $100 million in 2014, much of this thanks to Whole Foods’ national rollout. Manufacturing will move from its current 10,000-square-foot factory, the smallest of 24 plants operated by Hain (workers still remove lemon skins by hand), into a larger facility 30 minutes from Manhattan in Long Island’s Lake Success. That’s where Hain occupies the bulk of a 94-acre campus that once housed the United Nations.
Inside BluePrint's Multi-Million Dollar Juice Cleanse Empire
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Packing Them In
For its first few years in business, BluePrint's juices were only available via phone or internet order. Shoppers can now buy single servings in outlets like Whole Foods, although many still choose to order full cleanses, i.e. multiple bottles, directly from the company.
Walking the halls of Hain’s headquarters, Simon is adamant that he’ll stay in New York and not just because of the incentive of $4.5 million in tax credits from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s job-creation agency, Empire State Development. “We’ve created 4,000 jobs in 20 years,” he says. “There are 257 people in this office now. In two years there’ll be 500.”
Simon embraces New York with an immigrant’s fervor. He grew up in Nova Scotia’s Glace Bay, where his father ran a 900-square-foot convenience store selling kosher food to the area’s tiny Jewish population. His first job was in Canada as a marketer for billionaire retail family the Westons, owners of the Loblaws grocery chain. He worked on their newly acquired Haagen-Dazs business, learning the value of branding as the company rolled out ice cream cafes.
He moved to Manhattan in 1983, having rarely left Canada before and not knowing a soul. In 1990 he started a gig with another billionaire, a quintessential New Yorker: S. Daniel Abraham, or “Danny,” as Simon calls him, founder of trailblazing diet-shake outfit Slim-Fast. There he observed that a certain health-conscious shopper appreciated a daily food regimen–a shake in the morning and one at lunch, in the case of Slim-Fast. It was, in many ways, BluePrint’s predecessor, although Simon is quick to point out that the latter is all-natural organic produce.
After being fired by Abraham–“Too much politics,” Simon says–he used $600,000 in savings and loans from friends to go out on his own. Simon’s first acquisition was Long Island kosher outfit Kineret, followed by frozen health food firm Barricini Foods and later by Hain Pure Foods, which seemed like a good name for an umbrella company. When he took Hain public in 1993 to fuel further growth, the Nasdaq ticker he chose was pure New York: NOSH.
The Hain Food Group rapidly bought up small natural-food companies, making its biggest and most profitable purchase to date in 2000 with Celestial Seasonings, maker of well-known Sleepytime Tea. The value of the merger was about $320 million, significant enough to merit a name change, to Hain Celestial. Its market cap now hovers around $3.5 billion.
Today the company counts famed activist investor Carl Icahn as its largest single shareholder, who owns just under 15% (Simon owns just under 5%, worth some $170 million). Icahn’s two top managers, son Brett and David Schechter, sit on the Hain board. “Carl started buying at around $20,” says Simon, who glances at Hain’s share price on his BlackBerry regularly (it now trades around $74). “We’ve made him over $300 million.”
In his vast corner office up the stairs from an in-house yoga studio, Simon shows off whiteboards scrawled with notes on new acquisitions, like organic baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen and Britain’s bestselling peanut butter, Sun-Pat.
He’s aiming to spend a minimum of $100 million buying companies like these every year, narrowed down from the 20 or so pitches he gets each month, often at trade fairs (“My hunting ground,” he calls them). Acquisitions at that pace would double his U.S. business to $2 billion in sales in three years, he says, gesturing to Hain products that cover an entire wall of his office.
“That’s what’s going to change America,” he says. “It’s not GE or Heinz or Campbell’s. Growth is coming from companies like Ella’s and BluePrint–entrepreneurial startups.”