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Illustration of Irwin Simon, president and chief executive officer, Hain Celestial Group Inc. (Anthony Jenkins For The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of Irwin Simon, president and chief executive officer, Hain Celestial Group Inc. (Anthony Jenkins For The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Hain Celestial’s Irwin Simon: An insatiable appetite for organic foods Add to ...

The world’s most voracious collector of organic food brands, Irwin Simon, waltzes through the crowded aisles of the Whole Foods supermarket in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, pointing out the products he supplies – Terra chips, BluePrint health drinks, Celestial Seasonings tea, Garden of Eatin’ snacks, the free-range organic chicken … It goes on and on.

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This store sits at the epicentre of the natural and organic food explosion in middle-class North America, and Mr. Simon is the master of the shelves. His Long Island company, Hain Celestial Group Inc., owns about 50 brands and sells 5,000 products around the world – and more than 2,200 of these products find their way into Whole Foods.

Yet this is New York, where you can’t get no respect. A well-dressed middle-aged woman with an overflowing cart tells Mr. Simon to get the hell out of the way. He happily obliges, and the two of them, smiling fiercely, engage in that aggressive kibitzing that New Yorkers love.

This is Irwin Simon’s world and it is a long way from the hardscrabble Cape Breton coal mining town of Glace Bay, N.S., where, as a kid, he stocked shelves in the family corner store, Simon’s Dairy.

A lot of very smart people are feeding off North Americans’ desire to live longer, healthier lives – from foodie author Michael Pollan to Whole Foods founder John Mackey and Loblaw scion Galen Weston Jr. – but no one does it with more lusty gusto than Irwin Simon.

“We’re a major force in changing the way the world eats,” he says, reflecting the blend of appetite and idealism that drives the $70-billion-plus global industry in mass-market healthy food.

After a cook’s tour of the Whole Foods shelves, we retire to the store’s basement saloon, which serves the classiest pub grub in the world – popcorn with truffle oil, organic cured meat and an all-natural beer from Louisiana – as he describes how a Glace Bay grocer’s son became, at 54, the vanguard of an eating revolution.

He is driven by dreams, he says – to sustain the environment, to do good as a philanthropist, to sell healthy food – and, he adds, “it is important for me to make money.”

To that end, he is president, CEO and chairman of Hain Celestial, a rampant consolidator among the cottage industries of natural food, having bought three dozen companies in 20 years. With an added boost from personal care products, Hain Celestial is approaching $2-billion (U.S.) in revenue, with dramatically rising profits and a stock price that has almost quadrupled in four years.

It has been on a buying spree in Britain, as it seeks to pull Europe into its orbit. It has forged a partnership with Hutchison Whampoa Limited, billionaire Li Ka Shing’s retail and financial colossus, to take on China and emerging markets such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. And it has a lot of room to grow in North America, with just 30 per cent of potential U.S. distribution and plans to double sales in Canada.

The man who pulls it together is a larger-than-life tycoon who devours small niche companies – often founded by counterculture types or lone wolf idealists – and absorbs them into his well-oiled merchandising machine. “I want to bring energy and creativity to a business. And if a business has its challenges, what can I and my team do to turn that around?”

He also eats his own merchandise – although he admits to a weakness for juicy cuts from that New York shrine of carnivorousness, Peter Luger Steak House. Eating well is part of managing a feverish lifestyle. “I travel all the time, and there is food coming at me every which way. I am eating at different hours – I go up 10 pounds, I drop 10 pounds. I fast, I work out.”

Hain Celestial owes much of its success to the expansion of prime customers such as Whole Foods, a rising retail force with plans to expand to 1,000 stores, up from about 375 today. The chain’s pricey natural fare has earned it the nickname “Whole Paycheque” – and Mr. Simon allows that his products are usually priced 10 to 15 per cent higher than mainstream fare. But he also sells a lot to Costco and Wal-Mart and to mass-market grocers. Loblaw Cos. Ltd. is his biggest Canadian customer, which means he is delighted that the supermarket chain is buying Shoppers Drug Mart. “I see a big opportunity for Hain,” he says.

He bristles at the suggestion that only top earners can afford to buy his products, pointing out that there seem to be large numbers of students and regular middle-class folks shopping today at Whole Foods. And, he says, “maybe the 1, 2 or 3 per cent are our biggest consumers, but there is a big 1, 2, 3 per cent out there, so we have a big base to keep tapping into.”

Mr. Simon was not a 1-per-center growing up on Cape Breton Island. Armed with a commerce degree from Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, he got into the food business in Toronto and moved to New York to work for ice cream maker Häagen-Dazs.

His epiphany came when he joined Slim-Fast, the weight-loss company. Shedding pounds is one thing, he concluded, but the challenge is keeping the weight off through a healthy lifestyle.

His entrepreneurial catalyst was getting fired by Slim-Fast. Never a shrinking violet, he clashed with the company chairman, who showed him the door in late 1992. Mr. Simon was newly married and applying for his Green Card under Slim-Fast’s sponsorship. His exit left him virtually unemployable. So he decided to build his own business, based on the concept of taking natural food beyond niche status.

“People thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “They thought I had to be a tree hugger, or someone on some type of cause, because natural, organic or granola-crunchy meant you had to be weird. A lot of people didn’t accept me as part of the industry, but I had a vision. And at the end of the day I had to, because I had no alternative.”

In 1994, he bought out Hain Food Group, a well-known brand in natural foods, which became his vehicle to building a portfolio of products. In recent years, he attracted the attention of activist investor Carl Icahn, who acquired 15 per cent of Hain and gained two seats on the board. Mr. Simon has forged a healthy relationship with his notoriously demanding shareholder. “Carl’s been a good shareholder – very supportive and respectful of what we do.”

But, he adds, if “a day goes by when you think Carl is going to take his foot off your head when you screw up, you better wake up. But so far we’ve delivered, so we have not had to deal with that.”

It helps that there is scarcely a moment when Mr. Simon isn’t checking out consumer tastes. In the Whole Foods pub, he watches intently as a young man sits reading a book and drinking an organic beer, with a bottle of BluePrint’s green drink – a concoction of pressed kale and other leafy ingredients – sitting unopened on the table. The young man turns out to be Ryan Quinn, a Shakespearean actor who plans to drink his green beverage at home that night. It confirms Mr. Simon’s thesis: Even a young actor will pay $8 to $9 for a BluePrint drink because it keeps him healthy.

It is a good moment for Mr. Simon and it puts him in a generous mood. “You’re in my city – you’re not buying,” he blusters at me, as we battle over the bill. I surrender, figuring I’ll get the next one – and I know where we will dine. After an afternoon in this temple of holier-than-thou eating, I can’t help slavering over the sinful prospect of a Peter Luger steak.

CURRICULUM VITAE

PERSONAL

Born: Glace Bay, N.S.,

July 30, 1958

Education: Bachelor of commerce, Saint Mary’s University

Family: Wife of 21 years, Daryl Simon, is a Hain

Celestial manager in international sales. They have four children and live on

the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

How he battles stress: By working out, including boxing in the morning.

PHILANTHROPY

Focuses on at-risk, hungry children. Honorary chair of the Valentine Gala for the Bowery Mission, which has served homeless and hungry New Yorkers since 1879.

REAL ESTATE

Company, based in Lake Success, N.Y., has just moved to a much bigger head office – in a building that served as United Nations headquarters in its early days from 1946 to 1952. Globally, Hain has 5,000 employees and 24 manufacturing facilities

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