Marie Moody, Founder and President of Stella & Chewy's, a multi-million dollar pet food company, reflected on her company's history as we were sitting in a café in New York City. In 2002, she had just been given the boot at her third fashion industry job. But this serendipitous event launched her career as a raw, natural pet food advocate and manufacturer.
While living in Los Angeles, Marie adopted Chewy, a rescue dog who was seriously ill. Following her veterinarian's advice, she fed Chewy a homemade diet of raw meats and vegetables. Chewy's rapid return to health inspired Marie to learn more about the benefits of feeding less processed, grain-free foods to animals. The more she learned, the more convinced she was that there were other pet parents like her who would want to feed their animals high-quality meals. After relocating back to New York City and finding herself between jobs, she started preparing raw pet food in her Manhattan apartment. Her two dogs, Stella and Chewy, were early product testers. Now, nearly 10 years later, Stella & Chewy's frozen and freeze-dried raw, natural dog and cat food is available in more than 3,000 retail stores nationwide.
But how did a young, single woman living on the Upper West Side, who didn't even cook her own meals, start to tackle that project? Marie took it on with single-minded determination -- and no shortage of obstacles. She purchased huge quantities of organic ingredients and several industrial freezers, which took up residence in her living room. Then she had to market, sell and deliver the food to retailers in New York -- all without owning a car. During our meeting, she described hailing taxis with her boxes of frozen food stashed behind parked cars (because no taxi driver wants to pick up a fare hauling that sort of baggage). In the process, Marie attracted the interest of a young Wall Street trader who helped her in her delivery efforts as a part-time job on the side.
"I guess I thought he needed the extra money." He eventually became her husband, and despite no longer being married, works closely with Marie as Director of Sales for Stella & Chewy's.
Expanding the Business
As her operation grew, Marie outsourced the manufacturing to a production facility. That worked well for a while (and liberated her living room from the freezers), but it brought on additional challenges.
"Imagine a semi pulling up at 4 a.m. and having to unload it using the residential elevator!" Furthermore, the lack of control over the process irked her. "The equipment broke down; and the manufacturer wasn't able to do more flavors. Then I wanted organic fruits and vegetables; I wanted statements where the meat was sourced from; I wanted proof. So it became apparent to me that if I wanted to grow the business, I was going to have to figure out the manufacturing piece of it."
In 2007, Marie relocated her family and opened a small manufacturing plant in Muskego, Wisconsin -- a suburb of Milwaukee and her hometown, an area well known for food and beverage manufacturing. Her timing was impeccable. Suddenly, many pet food manufacturers were facing product recalls because of contaminated ingredients sourced from China. People were paying much more attention to where and how their pet food was manufactured. Health and safety -- for people and animals -- became the primary focus.
The ability to control all phases of her raw pet food operation led Marie, working with a leading food safety scientist, to develop an exclusive, patent-pending, food safety procedure called Hydrostatic High Pressure Process (HPP). HPP kills pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella, using high pressure without diminishing the health benefits of raw ingredients. "Nobody had ever considered using HPP on a pet food product before it was further processed." In addition, Stella & Chewy's has an independent lab test each batch to check for pathogens and they post the results on their website. You'd be hard pressed to find a human food manufacturer that's using such stringent food safety processes.
Marie has implemented some other "non-traditional" activities in her female-dominated manufacturing operation. Of 155 employees, 98 are women -- or 63 percent. And just over half of her senior management team is female, which is typical for a woman-created enterprise. "Our first banker was a woman, and presently our accountant, attorney, and CEO are all women. We really have a lot of women in management positions and that's just part of our culture."
"I find that the types of people who thrive in the Stella & Chewy's environment are really good at what they do, and self-starters. They wouldn't work well if they were being micromanaged. They tend to need room in order to fly and they need the right tools. I feel like that is our job -- management's job -- to give people what they need in order to best do their jobs."
"We went through a couple of plant managers. The first one had a military background, which is great and can really be an asset. But he used to not let the guys on the line take a bathroom break. They could only use the bathroom on their break. When I heard this, I said, 'No, that's not okay. I'm not comfortable with that.' He just didn't know how to manage. Then we had another plant manager and he was very political. It was all about his ego. He forbade people to come and talk to me. They had to go through him and that's just not the culture of our Company. I'm always available."
Traditionally, the command-and-control manager tends to be associated more often with men. Marie seems to embody a type of management philosophy that is more "female," and certainly at odds with many of today's alpha-driven entrepreneurs.
Here are some clues to Marie's success:
1. Respect, encourage and reward individual effort
"You have to show respect to the people who you work with as an example of how you run your organization. That should be common sense and the fact that it's not is what's surprising to me. And there is always room to reward people, to recognize achievements, to name an 'Employee of the Quarter.' It took a long time for the company to be profitable, and now that we are, I really want to share that with the people who are in there every day - especially the production people. We've got the most amazing team."
"I told my plant manager to go and buy a couple thousand dollars' worth of gift cards. I said, 'If you notice something that somebody does on the line, or somebody thinks of something or solves a problem, here's a way to say, 'Thank you, great work today.' We also just started an 'Employee of the Quarter.' When our vendors donate gifts like tickets to Brewers baseball games, we use those as additional rewards. It's recognizing the hard work and dedication of our employees. That's what we are celebrating.
2. Give back -- philanthropy
"I find that a lot of what really gives me the most fulfillment is figuring out how to keep people incentivized, and what can we do for the community. Since the beginning of Stella & Chewy's, I've always wanted to help animals in need. We have worked with nearly 500 rescues, shelters and organizations across the nation and in 2012 the Company donated close to $400,000 in product. Giving back is part of our corporate culture and something we hope will continue to grow in the future."
3. Be a facilitator -- don't micromanage
People learn management skills from some amazing places. In Marie's case, she experienced an important realization when her son was born: How to be a facilitator.
"When I gave birth to him, and the doctor whisked him away to check whatever they check, I said to myself "Oh my God, he's already off having his own life!" That was a really profound realization because then it occurred to me that what I really am is his facilitator. That is my job: to facilitate him to be the best person that he can be and to grow into the person he's supposed to be.
"The business also has its own existence. For example when I first started, I did everything; sales, deliveries, customer service and the business felt like an extension of me. Now there are a lot of people involved and it has a life of its own. It's an independent entity. That's a great thing because then there is so much more momentum. I will still sometimes look around at staff and sales meetings, and I'll think, WOW, all these people are pushing forth this idea I had about feeding dogs differently. This person next to me, who probably never had heard of raw pet food before joining Stella & Chewy's, is now so passionate about and totally focused on how to market these products. What an amazing thing!"
"I hear that it's so hard to let go of things, and often, people don't want to let go of any control of anything. And for me, it's always been the opposite, where I'm like, 'Go, go. Take this, figure it out, do it better and improve it. This is your area of expertise; run with it.'"
Now that Marie is master of her own destiny, it's unlikely she'll be fired anytime soon. But my dogs and I, longtime Stella & Chewy's customers, are very happy she did get fired from the fashion industry.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.