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Honest Tea CEO: Small Isn't Beautiful

<p>Although Seth Goldman says the company is still his baby, the planned full acquisition of the organic tea company will be another interesting experiment in how a smaller company can help shape the values and performance of its much bigger owner.</p>

Seth Goldman, the president and Tea-E-O of Honest Tea, made it official this week: The Coca-Cola Co. will exercise its option to buy all of Honest Tea, the Bethesda, Md., maker of organic, healthy beverages.

Coke bought 40 percent of the firm for a reported $43 million in 2008, a controversial move at the time for the upstart company that positioned itself as a challenger to the conventional way of doing business in the beverage industry.

Seth broke the news in a letter to his shareholders, in a blog post on Wednesday and in an interview with me at the State of Green Business Forum 2011 in Washington, arguing that his mission to "democratize organics" will be supported by Coke..

In an unusual twist to the deal -- one that amounts to a vote of confidence in Seth's leadership -- Coca-Cola will allow him to repurchase most of his own equity stake in the company. His name will remain on the bottle, along with that of his co-founder, Yale prof Barry Nalebuff, and the company will continue to operate out of its offices in downtown Bethesda, a short bike ride away from Seth's home.

"This is absolutely still my baby," he said.

Honest Tea didn't say how much Coke will pay for the remaining 60 percent, which was tied to the company's sales. Those sales have just about tripled in the last three years -- they're still shy of $100 million -- in part because Honest Tea has been able to ride on Coca-Cola's powerful national distribution network. The brand can now be found not just in natural food outlets like Whole Foods but in supermarkets and drugstores like CVS and Rite Aid. Honest Tea is now sold in about 75,000 outlets, up from 15,000 before the Coke deal, and the company grown from 38 to 125 employees. Green jobs!

Of course, we've seen this story before, as one "green" or natural foods company after another is swallowed up by global giants. Sometimes it ends well -- Gary Hirshberg, an Honest Tea board member, has been thrilled since his Stonyfield Farm became part of the much-bigger Group Danone. But the acquisitions of White Wave (Silk Soymilk) by Dean Foods or Ben & Jerry's by Unilever did not bring happiness to the founders. Seth quoted one entrepreneur who told him: "For the first few weeks, they want to know your opinion, for the next few weeks they want to know your phone number, and after that, they don't want to know you."

So far, Seth told me, his experience with Coca-Cola has been excellent, if not always friction-free. Coke supported Honest Tea as it expanded its Fair Trade offerings across its full line of teas and juice drinks. And, of course, as the company's sales grow, so do its purchases of tea from organic farms, most in the global south.

Packaging is "by far our single biggest footprint," Seth said, and his work with Coke helped Honest Tea move to lightweight plastic as opposed to glass bottles. The company is developing a better bottle, using plant-based materials, which it will bring out later this year.

Tension did arise when Honest Tea brought out an Honest Kids product which proclaimed, with an exclamation point, that it contained  "No high-fructose corn syrup!" Coke's Minute Maid division, which distributes Honest Kids, vetted the language on the packaging and suggested changing it to "sweetened with organic cane sugar."

"Is that a regulatory request or is that just a preference?" he asked.

"It's a preference," he was told. "But it's a preference from a high level."

Honest Tea's brand promise is to be as natural as possible, he explained. The company likes to say: "Nature got it right. We put it in a bottle."

"High fructose corn syrup is quite a few steps from nature," he said. The original wording remained.

The other worry about the Coke sale is the potential for consumer backlash. Some people complained back in 2008 that Honest Tea was selling out -- Inc. ran a story headlined Did Seth go to the dark side?.

Seth takes the concerns seriously. "We're selling a lot more tea than we were, but I don't want to lose a single consumer," he says.

He tried to respond to phone calls and emails about the transaction.To the critics, he poses questions like: "What's your strategy for changing corporate America? What's your plan to get organic and sustainable products to consumers who don't have access to them?"

"It's easy to fall into the 'big is bad, small is good' trap," he says.

I agree: To magnify their impact, the better companies have to go beyond small and local to get big and global.

Seth is confident that this story will have a happy ending -- not just for Honest Tea and its shareholders, but for its customers and for the planet.

"If we're serious about making change in the American diet, and about making change in the way agriculture happens in the developing world, then we have to take this to scale," he said.



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