All the Ingredients for Family Business: A Conversation with Fourth-Generation Vitamix CEO Jodi Berg

April 09, 2019
In our feature article, we sit down with Jodi Berg, the president and CEO of Vitamix, to discuss how a relentless focus on purpose has made Vitamix a thriving fourth-generation family business. Berg also talks about why working outside Vitamix was essential and how the business is raising the next generation of family business leaders to be successful.

In 1921, William Barnard founded Vitamix, driven by a passion to help families eat healthier with whole foods. Ninety-eight years later, that passion still lives on at the company, now under the leadership of Barnard’s great-granddaughter, Jodi Berg, who credits shared purpose as the family business’s secret for making it past the third-generation curse, which results in only 3% of family-enterprises operating into the fourth generation.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Berg at Vitamix’s headquarters in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, to discuss the business’s passion for helping people live healthier lives, her journey to CEO and the importance of living with purpose.

Vitamix has been a family-owned company since 1921. How have you managed to keep it family-owned for nearly 100 years?

Our secret recipe for getting to the fourth generation is having a consistent focus on why we exist. We care about how we can help people eat and think about food differently. We started focusing on this in the 1920s with my great-grandfather. He wanted to help people eat healthier, so he started Barnard Sales and eventually renamed it the Natural Food Institute to teach people about healthy food and what food could do for your body.

Our secret recipe for getting to the fourth generation is having a consistent focus on why we exist. 

My grandfather was a young adult when my great-grandfather started the business, so he worked closely with my great-grandfather almost from the beginning and carried on that same passion. My uncle and my father were focused on making sure that family members who were involved in Vitamix had the same passion for that purpose, and that carried over into the fourth generation. We almost missed it in the third generation, though. There were six members, and they weren’t aligned in their purpose. They wanted different things, and it was tearing apart the company. Fortunately, we worked it out, but there was a real threat before we reached a resolution.

The beautiful thing about sharing purpose from generation to generation is that if you focus on why you’re doing it and make that the anchor that transcends generations, then you can let go of the reins when the time comes and let the next generation do it their way.

Your great-grandfather produced the first infomercial in the U.S. to demonstrate the power of the Vitamix blender to TV audiences. What motivated him to do this?

My great-grandfather and grandfather were traveling all over the U.S. demonstrating the Vitamix and selling machines, as well as helping people think differently about food. This newfangled thing called the television comes out, and my grandfather convinced his dad that he should put his demonstration on the TV.

My great-grandfather said something like, “Are you kidding? That box that’s sitting in everyone’s living room? Nobody is going to watch it. It’s going to destroy the fibers of the family. I want to do this in person. I want to be with people.” My grandfather finally convinced him to just try it.

The first few that he did were live and aired in cities all over the U.S. In 1950, he recorded it because he wanted more people to hear the story of how you can eat differently. He wanted more people to know that there was a different way of taking care of your family and that this tool could help you do that.

The first recorded infomercial can be seen on YouTube. Just look for the “Original 1949 Vitamix Infomercial.”

If you focus on why you're doing it and make that the anchor that transcends generations, then you can let go of the reins when the time comes and let the next generation do it their way. 

Will the next generation of leaders be family members? You have two teenage daughters. Do you see them joining Vitamix?

I’m fourth generation, and the fifth generation includes not just my daughters, but my cousins’ children. We have a sixth generation now that is growing up as well. Between the fourth and fifth generations, we are going to have a bit of a gap for the first time in the history of the organization when we will most likely have a nonfamily member leading the company until, and if, there’s another family member that is in a position to be able to do it.

Over the years, my daughters have expressed interest in being a part of Vitamix. I want them to live their purpose and do what fulfills them, but to hear them say they want to be a part of the company makes me happy.

How did you come to work for the family business? Was working outside the company helpful, and do you encourage the next generation to work somewhere else first?

My journey was similar to my father’s journey. He graduated from college and didn’t come back to the family business for almost 20 years. I got my undergraduate degree in hospitality management and worked with Marriott. Then, I went back and got my MBA, and I took one course in quality management and fell in love with the discipline. At that time, my uncle was setting up a quality program at Vitamix. I wanted to make sure that I loved the topic outside of the classroom, so I came back and worked for him to help set up the division. It gave me the chance to work in every department and understand how the entire company worked.

Meanwhile, the Ritz-Carlton had won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and I went to hear the director of quality speak about it. At the end of her acceptance speech, I went up to her and blurted out, “I want your job” – of course, after she got promoted. I had a background in hospitality management and quality management, and I knew that working at the Ritz-Carlton would allow me to combine these skills. I ended up getting my dream job as a director of quality, traveling all over the world and speaking about the Ritz-Carlton, quality and the Malcolm Baldrige award. This experience introduced me to my third love – international business.

At about the same time, Vitamix was starting to formally focus on international markets. I was able to come back to Vitamix and put the system in place for us to grow internationally. I’ve been here ever since. The outside experience was not only valuable to give me perspective, but it defined me. It gave me an opportunity to figure out what I am good at and what matters to me. I was able to have that and figure out how can I apply it versus allowing the family business to define me based on certain guidelines and positions already outlined.

I absolutely encourage the next generation to work someplace else. In fact, family members who want to come back to Vitamix and have aspirations of being in management are required to work outside the company for five years and get an MBA.

How did you become CEO?

I never set out to be a president or CEO. It was never a dream of mine. When my father said he was thinking about me for the CEO role, I laughed out loud. We talked to the board and outside family consultants, and they said I had an incredible vision for how this company can change lives. They felt that they couldn’t teach somebody that, but they could teach me how to be a president and CEO.

I brought that vision and passion for how Vitamix can help change people’s lives to my role as president and CEO. Now I’m in a position where I can create a culture that helps people recognize that they have a purpose and can have an impact.

You work hard at engaging your workforce and helping them find their individual purpose. Your company has double the national average of workforce engagement. To what do you attribute this success?

I discovered my purpose when I was 30. I had an autoimmune disease that almost killed me, but I knew it wasn’t my time to go. I was still trying to figure out who I wanted to be and what mattered to me. I quickly had the realization that I have to live with purpose because I need to make every single moment matter.

Today, the desire to help others find their purpose without having to go through what I went through drives me. Research demonstrates that people living with purpose perform better. I realized that if I could surround myself with people that were already living with purpose, and that purpose was symbiotic with what our organization was trying to do, then I’d have all their energy because they are fulfilled. That’s why living with purpose became such a passion for me.

How do you try and instill the importance of purpose in your daughters?

I try to lead by example. A key component of my purpose is to help people discover things about themselves that they don’t know and to give them the opportunity to fly. I look through that lens for everything – in my president role and in my mom role. With parenting, it allows me to look at a situation and ask how I can help my daughters discover something about themselves and navigate through this, because what I really want them to do at the end of the day is discover their wings and fly.

What is the biggest challenge facing Vitamix today?

There’s been a global surge in the understanding of health and wellness. Societies around the world are thinking about how food and lifestyle affect our bodies. However, I feel that we are reaching a new plateau, and people aren’t truly seeking to understand how they can make healthy changes. In the past, there weren’t a lot of solutions, and if you wanted to eat healthy, you had to do your own research and make your own meals. Today, there are products out there that claim to do it for you. In reality, it’s still processed food. You don’t know exactly what’s in it, and you don’t know where it came from.

If we settle and accept the processed foods being released that claim to be healthy, I don’t think we’re going to maximize what we could if we just stay on that journey of truly understanding the significance of food on our physical, emotional and psychological health.

What advice would you like to give other women?

The most important piece of advice that I can give anyone, male or female, is if you’re going to find a life partner, find someone that believes in you as much as you believe in them. Find a partner that you share values with, because when life gets difficult, values are the things that don’t change. Behaviors and preferences change, but values don’t. I also wish I could tell every woman that we face so much pressure to try to be everything. Be who you are, and that will be everything you need.

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