You’re looking at a beautiful shirt. It would look amazing on you. It flows like a wisp of smoke. It’s totally unique. You can see yourself wearing it to the next big event. It’s perfect…except the designer was recently caught up in a scandal. On the other hand, there’s another shirt—also straight from heaven. It’s made of organic material. The designer is renowned for how well he treats his employees and suppliers, lives simply in the Italian countryside and gives generously to charity. Which one do you buy?
More and more these days, shoppers are asking themselves such questions before committing to purchases. Does this product line up with my values? What does it say about me?
We are no longer either Mac or PC people. We’re Team X or Team Y for many of our choices; we may not even know we’re asking ourselves if a product “represents” us authentically (“Am I a Starbucks person?”)—or what that really means—but we are looking at how businesses do their work and what their product “personalities” say about us. In other words, yesterday’s purchase is today’s buying power and brand identity. (If you’re skeptical, check out the interview with Simon Sinek that went viral, see “What’s Wrong with Millennials” at startwithwhy.com).
The change might have begun organically with the most unlikely of people: the late Paul Newman. Imagine not the iconic actor, praised far and wide for his talent and superstar looks. Instead, think of an old fishing hat—faded, tattered, but also authentic, practical. Use it as a symbol for lack of pretension. Now imagine him tugging it over those famous blue eyes. Just a regular Joe. Yet he couldn’t help but be extraordinary. When he and writer A. E. Hotchner (known as Hotch) launched Newman’s Own in 1982, little did they know it, too, would be irrepressibly extraordinary.
Newman’s Own was seeded in the then contrarian soil of Westport, which is where Hotch begins his story of the organization. “It was a creative community. There were writers, artists, architects,” he says, leading deftly into a funny memory of Peter De Vries getting his bridgework knocked out during a fundraising basketball game: writers v. artists. Not only does this tangent give Hotch a chance to boast that he was the only player to score, it’s also informative about the early years: “We treated the formation of the company as you would a new film or a new play. That’s how we looked at it,” he says from his home in Westport. “It was all fun.”
The grassroots business is rooted in our backyard. Newman and Hotch bottled the salad dressing in Newman’s barn before becoming reluctant food champions. Now the company’s products line supermarket shelves worldwide. That’s what happens when a company is planted by a philanthropist at heart—business is done in a new and meaningful way. And that gives shoppers something bigger than a product to get behind and to see themselves in a good way. Salad dressing can change the world.
“I see a sense of volunteerism as the best part of this world. When you hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are—that to me is the great care and spirit of the world. I stand back and admire that greatly.”
— PAUL NEWMAN, COFOUNDER, ACTOR & PHILANTHROPIST
Plan Not to Plan
Newman’s Own started as personal gifts, an oil-and-vinegar dressing he and Hotch batched up in Newman’s basement in 1980. When the idea of selling them popped up, that was fine. But using his face on the label, because people would be more likely to try it? That took convincing. “Paul was a man of immense humility. His celebrity came with his job—that’s the way he looked at it,” says Bob Forrester, president and CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation and executive chairman of Newman’s Own, Inc. Forrester adds that Newman eventually agreed to the commercialization of his face, but not without getting his own way: He would go against the marketing tide and use playful and irreverent images and label language unlike anything consumers had ever seen before. It would be fun, even self-mocking.
Such surprises continued unabated. “We introduced our company to the media at a gin mill [Hanratty’s] in New York,” says Hotch. “I tried to talk Paul out of it. I said, ‘Why don’t we do it someplace central, Manhattan, where the press will come?’ He said, ‘No, I like this place.’ But nobody ever introduced a product that way.” The press certainly did come, and they were treated to unexpected and newsworthy festivities. To get Paul out of having to make a speech, Hotch suggested a brainstorm: a musical extravaganza. He wrote funny lyrics, and Paul sang them (badly, it’s been said). “The next day or two, we began to get orders. I think Paul really believed at the time that we were going to be a boutique dressing. We knew nothing about the food business…we just invented what we did. That was the spirit of the time.”
They might not have known anything about the food business, but they knew a lot about that spirit, and their brew of cheeky ignorance and delightful creativity gave them freedom to challenge the limiting status quo. “Paul was very insistent that we only use the best foods that you could find in the garden,” says Forrester. That meant producers and bottlers, who were even willing to talk to the newcomers, were challenged to evolve their equipment to accommodate natural and chunky ingredients.
“It changed the whole industry,” says Hotch.
Customers gobbled up the good-time feel of Newman’s Own right along with each new product, such as pasta sauce and popcorn. Paul and Hotch were still hands-on, insisting (against the trend) on real chunks of tomato, onion, garlic and sausage in sauce, selecting the perfect corn kernel, even getting Joanne Woodward (Paul’s wife) to share her family’s lemonade recipe. “Once we came out with food we liked, it caught on,” says Hotch. “It didn’t hurt that Paul was behind it.”
Forrester, who came aboard ten years into the company’s history, says using Paul’s face only opened the door with buyers the first time. “They won’t try a second time unless it’s really good,” he says. “And it was great.”
Paul Newman may have been a terrible fisherman, but he was a natural at catching people’s attention. So, along with quality and sauciness, he decided to give away all net profits and royalties after taxes to charity.
“Paul said quality would always trump the bottom line. He meant the quality you find in the garden—he believed in good, natural food—but he also meant how we thought about ourselves, our place in the world, to be generous,” says Forrester. “When Paul started this, it was unique. People thought, ‘Give all your money away? That’s crazy! We don’t teach that in business school.’ ”
As many times as Newman and Hotch pivoted from the pack of industry pros, about being philanthropic and nearly everything else, they scored. They trusted their gut—and Newman’s palate—and shoppers ate it up.
“We were told we were nuts: ‘You can’t give away all your profits.’ We had to take out a bank loan every January 1 in order to keep it going, because we had given away everything.”
—A. E. HOTCHNER
The Big Play
Thirty-five years later, Newman’s Own has given away nearly $500 million to thousands of organizations in all fifty states and seventy-five countries around the world. Newman’s Own, Inc., the food company, has more than 300 products, both original and licensed. It continues to grow, even with Newman’s passing in 2008.
“I’ve always seen my role as a steward of Paul’s legacy,” says Forrester, “not the next CEO—that person who’s trying to navigate what Newman’s Own was when Paul passed away to what it is when I can move on and have other people take over.”
Forrester leads by the founding principle of the company. “We have tough business decisions like anybody else, but, unlike other companies, at the end of the day, we can look at faces and say, ‘OK, that’s what we’re all about.’ That was one of Paul’s great joys, not saying, ‘I did that,’ but, ‘I was part of what they were doing.’” Buyers come along for the ride. They stay for the taste as much as the sense of contributing to the common good.
Newman’s passing was a critical time. Aside from being a founder, he was also the company’s face and name. Forrester recalls reassuring employees, partners and grantees about the organization’s future, and personally writing a press release that only renewed his appreciation for its extraordinary purpose. It would serve as a touchstone as he faced practical business decisions going forward.
“In the old days, Paul owned it all and there were very few rules, because Paul didn’t like rules,” he says with a laugh. “We’re happy to comply, but, at the same time, not become so corporate that we diminish, or even destroy, the spirit of the organization. Paul never left instructions. His attitude was, ‘If I’m not going to be here in the future, I have no right to tell you people in the future what to do.’ Some days I wish he had left instructions. I could say, ‘Hey, he wanted me to do that.’ It was a profound gift on his part to say you’ve got to be relevant. I just hope it stays the same, too. People come to Newman’s Own because of its purpose, who we are, the spirit of the company, the heart.”
“When you’re in business, you have to be responsive; you’re not just sitting there giving away money. You have to have a good product, you have to have good service, you have to have a promise of your brand of who you are that is credible, believable and consistent.”
Privilege to Care
Newman and Hotchner looked beyond food to help others. One of their most enormous and moving accomplishments is the founding of a summer camp for children facing serious illness, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Connecticut, established in 1988. It is named for, and looks like a scene from, Newman’s famous film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He proclaimed it was a place where kids could “raise a little hell” in the tradition of good old-fashioned camps, and free of charge. They could be kids, not just patients. Although kids received treatment on site, Newman made sure the design was “as industrial as a gypsy”—dirt roads, tree houses, Old West buildings. A groundbreaking concept, it was built within a year. Now, Newman’s Own helps nurture thirty camps and programs, known as SeriousFun Children’s Network, around the world.
Newman’s Own Foundation, founded in 2005, is the grant-making entity of the Newman’s Own enterprise. It supports reputable charities, including a fellowship program for graduates providing work experience in the nonprofit sector.
Newman was also instrumental in founding, with Michel Nischan, the Westport Farmers’ Market. “It has deep roots here in Connecticut,” says Lori Cochran-Dougall, executive director. “With founders like Michel Nischan and Paul Newman planting the seed for this farmers’ market, we have been lucky to have a mission to impact our community and local farmers.” Newman’s Own Foundation also supports Nischan’s Wholesome Wave, which empowers underserved communities to make nutritious food choices by advocating for affordable access to healthy produce.
Paul Newman also helped save acres of open space (now in the capable hands of Aspetuck Land Trust), and founded or cofounded the nonprofit organizations Safe Water Network (providing safe water solutions in Ghana and India), CECP (Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, to encourage corp-orations to be a force for social good) and The Discovery Center in Connecticut.
In short, Newman used his influence to manually balance the scales. He thought he had abundant good fortune and would use it to help those with less. This reminder is mounted on the lobby of the new Newman’s Own building: “I’d like to be remembered as a guy who tried—who tried to be a part of his time, tried to help people communicate with one another, tried to find some decency in his own life, tried to extend himself as a human being.”
“I had such a string of good fortune in my life, but these kids have been brutalized by luck and most won’t get the chance to turn it around. Those who are most lucky should hold their hands out to those who aren’t.”
The Price of Fame
While some celebrities promote products, Newman’s trailblazing meant giving away all profits and being far more than the face of the brand. He also found suppliers and partners, selected charities and helped direct the marketing, all while filming Absence of Malice, The Verdict, The Color of Money and other famous films. His work inspired other celebrities to start philanthropic businesses: Kevin Bacon, SixDegrees.org; Ed Norton, CrowdRise; Ryan Devlin, This Bar Saves Lives; and Hugh Jackman, Laughing Man Coffee. In a 2016 New York Times article, “Charity That Begins with Spaghetti Sauce,” Jackman says he was inspired by Newman to sell coffee harvested by farmers in Ethiopia.
“Paul wanted to make a difference in the world. He was a humble man of great generosity, and he didn’t want any self-recognition,” says Forrester. “He even shied away from putting his name and face on the label of Newman’s Own food, but he said, ‘Shameless exploitation for the common good,’ since he was able to donate all the profits to charity. His legacy lives on and continues to help make the world a better place.”
As for its future, judge it by last year. In 2016 Newman’s Own Foundation gave away $27.2 million to more than 600 organizations. Products can be good, do good and make shoppers feel good. For the generation who did not grow up on Newman films, race-car driving and philanthropic enterprises, his trend-bucking decency remains irresistibly crave-worthy.