CPG Firms Fuel Harvest Group

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 491 views 

Being a NO. 1 choice is extremely important to the decision-makers of The Harvest Group.

“And in this market,” said Bill Waitsman, “that is not something we take lightly, the whole idea of being preferred.”

That philosophy doesn’t just apply to the company’s clients, either. It also pertains — perhaps even more so —to current and future employees of the up-and-coming company in Rogers.

The Harvest Group is a sales and marketing firm that — to its small portfolio of clients — operates as the link between consumer packaged goods manufacturers and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. by developing collaboration strategies and go-to-market plans.

Founded in September 2006 by Waitsman, Ross Cully and Dan Arnsperger (who is no longer with the company), THG has built its team from those three men to a roster of 25 employees, who all have a background working for some of the top names in the retail supplier community.

“We’ve got people from Dial, Kellogg’s, Kraft, General Mills; a lot of the larger companies,” Cully said.

Their combined experience helps provide the company’s clients a better understanding of how to get products onto the shelves of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and then maintain a healthy business with those retailers.

And though tight-lipped about revenue figures, Waitsman did offer that THG’s success is mirrored by that of its clients, the identities of whom are also held close to the vest.

“Since we’ve opened our doors, our clients have delivered on average double-digit growth every year,” Waitsman said. “Ultimately when our clients win, we win.”


Assembling Top Talent

Because of the size of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and the complexity of doing business with both, suppliers have assigned their best talent and their best business approaches to working with the world’s largest retailer.

The founders of THG set out to match that approach by gathering the best CPG talent in the market, then building the customer team model  — which is an understanding of client needs and priorities and built to reflect specific client strategies — that is prevalent in the supplier community today.

Many of the small and medium-sized companies who do business with Wal-Mart fly in and out of Northwest Arkansas.

THG was started to service those companies, offering a team of experienced CPG professionals based near the Wal-Mart home office.

“We gave them another option, which was to hire us,” Cully said.

THG’s first client, Cully recalled, was secured two months in while huddled around a cellular phone set to speakerphone.

Today, the company partners with approximately 25 clients, seven of which have a dedicated customer team. The rest are under the shared resource model.

“Our original vision was to double our business every three years, and we’re on track to do that twice,” Cully said.

THG will discuss a handful of its clients. Others are kept confidential “to maintain a competitive advantage,” said company spokesman Mike Malony.

Three clients made public by THG are FidoPharm, makers of PetArmor; The Village Company, makers of several products including Mr. Bubble and Sesame Street bath products; and Casabella, makers of cleaning and kitchen products.

What they get from THG is the same type of business support typically provided to their larger competitors.

Waitsman hopes that will ultimately make his company a preferred partner among small and medium-sized suppliers.

“Large customer teams operate with multifunctional resources like marketing and research analytics supporting the team,” Cully said. “We saw the opportunity to take the same approach that the big companies are taking and make that same approach available to all small and medium-sized companies.”


Successful Partnership

Waitsman was an account executive at Procter & Gamble for four years before founding NorthStar Partnering Group in 2001 in Fayetteville.

It was there he met Cully, who went to work at P&G after graduating from college in 2003.

Waitsman successfully recruited Cully to NorthStar, and by 2006 — while Waitsman was planning the launch of THG — Cully was looking at a number of other options himself.

“We sat down and started talking about this whole idea of Harvest, versus him jumping back into big CPG,” Waitsman said. “I really saw in Ross a unique spirit [and] I didn’t want to see him leave entrepreneurship and go back to CPG.”

One of the dynamics that make the two men effective business partners is their generational gap.

Cully graduated in 2003 from the University of Missouri. Waitsman graduated in 1987 from Davidson (N.C.) College, where he lettered four years in both football and baseball.

“If you look at the business community today, there’s a real skill and purpose that’s very different between the older generation versus the younger generation,” Waitsman said. “The older generation tends to bring more of the experience, the know-how, business savvy. The younger generation brings an analytical and technical expertise, some intellectual creativity. Combine the two and I think you have something special.”

Cully describes their partnership as mentor-mentee.

“To me, having a partner in business is an awesome thing, versus being out on your own,” he said. “[You have] someone who can coach you, help you, all those things.”


Unrivaled Place to Work

Because of its proximity to Wal-Mart, Northwest Arkansas is rich with talent in the retail supplier industry.

The question, then, becomes: Who can attract and retain the best talent?

Waitsman has recognized the importance, and believes THG has built a business model that will allow employees to grow both professionally and personally.

In turn, that will make the company a more attractive option, both for the seasoned vendor talent in the market and those just getting started.

The company’s attitude toward work-life balance and creating a unique workplace culture is unmistakable.

“When I say we are on the offensive in terms of trying to aggressively pursue being an unrivaled place to work, it’s not just a phrase to throw out there,” Waitsman said. “It’s not just saying, ‘Everybody be nice to everyone so we have a great place to work.’ It’s about creating something unique.”

THG has a team of staff members who work internally to address the employee-led objective. The group recently studied a company in Seattle whose employees, among other things, have unlimited vacation days.

“Nobody has a title, there are no levels and everybody reports to everybody,” Waitsman said. “It’s pure accountability across the board. They really stretched how we look at our culture.”

THG also partners with Compassion International to sponsor needy children in a village in El Salvador. The company matches employee donations, and also pays for a trip to the village on an employee’s five-year anniversary.

“We are taking our first trip down next spring,” Cully said. “We want this to be instilled in our [workplace] culture.”

THG was a finalist recently in the small company division of the Governor’s Work-Life Balance Awards, which recognizes employers across the state for adopting ideal strategies to support a healthy work-life balance.


Reputation and Results

Today, THG is still a small up-and-comer that is, for the most part, not on the radar for a lot of CPG companies. And Waitsman is OK with that.

Down the road, though, he doesn’t believe that will be the case. In 10 years, THG will be an unrivaled place to work, and be recognized as the best go-to-market partner for small- and medium-sized companies doing business with Wal-Mart, he said.

“We are less concerned about size and numbers right now and more concerned about reputation and results,” Waitsman said. “In 10 years, I expect that to be well known.”