John Rowe has dickered with Dragons, rebounded from business failure, and, earlier this month, saw his latest venture blast into space – and he has yet to reach his 40th birthday. Mr. Rowe is co-founder and CEO of Island Abbey Foods Ltd., a Charlottetown company that turns gooey honey into a dried solid substance, sold under the Honibe brand of honey drops, candy and lozenges.
In 2010, Honibe won an award as the world’s most innovative food product, but the ultimate tribute is that astronaut Chris Hadfield, Canadian commander of the International Space Station, is snacking on the drops during his current mission.
It’s almost legendary now – you were on a B.C. camping trip and a jar broke in your backpack, leaving you with a mess of honey. Was that the start of your solid-honey idea?
That was in 1996. I started doing research and figured out a way to put honey in a solid form that’s 100-per-cent pure. We like to say we solved the honey problem – honey is messy and sticky but we’ve put it in an easier-to-use form.
Are you from PEI originally?
I’m from Montague, PEI. My family has been in business here for 200 years – from farming to fishing to retail. Both parents were teachers. When I was 11, my father encouraged me to start my first business. I was picking strawberries in a neighbour’s field, and I sold them at the end of the lane.
How did you get to this point in your life?
After university, I went west and worked in the tech sector in Vancouver, but I wanted to get back to my roots as an entrepreneur. In 2001, I made the leap and started a business in Texas manufacturing computer products. That was just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when retail took a dip, and I spent three years trying to get that business off the ground. I ultimately had to close it. But that gave me the opportunity to come home to relax. I intended just to be here for the summer but some important things happened.
And they were?
I met my wife Susan and discovered some business opportunities. Among them, I had the chance to take my research in honey – including some potential production processes – and test them at the university’s food technology centre. I had been looking for a place to hire resources and lab time to vet what I was trying to do. Then we launched Honibe in 2008.
How are you doing?
We do make money but we are reinvesting every dime and more. We have doubled revenues each of the last four years; we are close to $3-million in 2012, and in 2013, sales could go as high as $5-million. We have a well-defined target audience that is fanatical about what we make.
In the sugar and sweeteners industry, honey is typically 10 per cent of what is consumed [in North America]. But Europe is double the North American rate, and the Mideast and Asia are double Europe. So we are launching in Ireland and the U.K. with our own brand; in Asia, we co-brand with established partners.
What about the investors on CBC’s Dragons’ Den? On TV, you accepted their offer of $600,000 for 35 per cent of the company, plus a $400,000 line of credit.
We actually turned them down. After shaking hands on the show, we did enter into negotiation. However, that episode was filmed in spring, 2010, and our company started to grow dramatically later that year. In the fall, we won the top food prize on the planet, which opened up a lot of doors. We told the Dragons that we wanted to see how this played out. Then in January, 2011, the Dragons’ Den program finally aired and that really helped our brand grow in Canada.
Couldn’t you have used the $1-million?
You can never have enough money when starting something up but, fortunately, it is not the only business I own. My wife and I have been able to finance it ourselves. I own several software companies in PEI, and they have been paying the bills.
But why not take the Dragons’ cash anyway?
They were too expensive for us and they wanted too much for too little. Our intellectual property alone has been valued at almost $5-million. What we have is unique and we have since expanded the platform; we have now patented solid maple and solid agave, as well as solid honey.
Do you have outside investors now?
We took on some equity partners in 2012; it is venture capital.
But aren’t you concerned that you have to move quickly before others catch up?
I’m a firm believer in the mantra that only the paranoid survive. Currently we are exporting into about 10 countries; by the end of 2013, that will be double. I believe we can grow to revenue of $100-million a year in a decade. I suspect that in five years, we will be in 30 countries.
Is it a problem to be located in remote PEI?
I’ve lived across Canada and the U.S. and I’ve had fewer barriers to getting a business off the ground here than elsewhere. It is a lot cheaper to do business here than most people realize. I can ship a container of product from my loading dock to California in four days; I can put it on a freighter in Halifax and get to Britain in five days. It’s just as cheap as when I lived in Dallas and shipped internationally from there.
And a key is the bio-science community here. The centre of excellence for natural health product research for the National Research Council is in Charlottetown. We collaborate with people there. We are not developing a food platform but a health platform, an all-natural health platform. This is what will propel our growth.
Where are your bees?
I do not keep bees. We buy as much honey locally as we can, but the PEI crop is very small as a percentage of the Canadian crop. We buy from across Canada.
How did Honibe get into space?
For several years, we worked through the Canadian military approvals process and they alerted us that the Canadian Space Agency might be interested. The agency was running a contest for food in space, and we submitted our product. We were one of the 12 Canadian food products – of 150 entries – chosen to go up with Commander Hadfield. Most important, he was one of the people with the last say, and he liked our stuff.
You had an earlier U.S. business which failed. Is it hard to come back from that, especially in Canada?
There is such a contrast. I have friends in finance and investment in the United States, and when they look at people to invest in, one of the first questions is how many times have they gone bankrupt. Down there, it is looked at as a good thing. Not so in Canada. Yet I learned more in three years living hand to mouth, and trying to get a business off the ground in challenging economic times, than had I not experienced it.
[After the computer company closed] my family immediately encouraged me to continue to pursue commerce. In my family, failure is just another stepping stone to success.
Co-founder and CEO, Island Abbey Foods Ltd., Charlottetown
Born in Prince Edward Island; 39 years old
BA in economics and music, Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Que.
Career highlightsAfter university, moved to Vancouver to work for tech companies.
In 2001, Started a company in Texas that made computer products.
Closed the company in 2004 and moved back to PEI; later, formed Island Abbey.
Launched Honibe line of solid-honey products in 2008.