Local produce, global impact: Grower’s Organic

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Brian-FreemanIf organic food conjures up images of laidback hippies, Brian Freeman quickly blasts such stereotypes. Clean-shaven, energetic and intense, the Denver-based entrepreneur hits his office at 3 a.m. each morning to make sure last-minute orders from customers will be delivered that day.

Freeman is the founder of Grower’s Organic, which distributes organic produce to groceries and restaurants. Launched in 2005, the company generated revenue of more than $16 million in 2012 with customers in seven states.

Grower’s Organic is devoted not only to healthy food, but also a healthy planet. “One of our missions is to educate people about how conventional farming methods are adversely affecting the earth’s environment and the health of future inhabitants,” says Freeman.

A byproduct of this mission has been job creation. In 2013 Grower’s Organic employed 70 full-time workers, providing them with health insurance, sick days, vacation time, educational reimbursement and profit-sharing — all unusual for its industry. What’s more, Grower’s Organic has sponsored two refugees from South Africa and Myanmar, who are now employees.

“Through our mission of doing something good for the planet, we’ve been able to take care of a lot of people along the way,” says Freeman.

That extends to suppliers. Farmers are included in Grower’s Organic profit-sharing plan, and Freeman frequently pays more for produce than they ask. He allows farmers to use his warehouse for packing if their own facilities don’t meet federal standards — and he has underwritten expenses for some to attend industry conferences and extend their education.

“Being in second stage has given us the greater bandwidth to do these things,” says Freeman.

Looking ahead, Freeman aims to double Grower’s Organic annual revenue to more than $30 million by 2018 and establish regional offices in Texas and Missouri. He’s also started a transportation company to service Grower’s Organic and is converting its fleet of trucks to natural gas.

Scaling the business means that Grower’s Organic can bring quality food to more people — and ramp up its educational efforts. Indeed, Freeman wants to create a nonprofit foundation that enables inner-city children to learn about organic farming and distribution. He envisions a facility with acreage for crops and a greenhouse, along with a processing area, production kitchen and restaurant. Children would start plants at the end of the school year, and Freeman’s staff would take care of the plants over the summer at the foundation’s facility. In the fall, the children would visit the foundation to see the progress.

“We’ll show them what can be done without pesticides — and how conventional farming affects soil and groundwater,” Freeman says. “The more people know about where their food is coming from, the better choices they can make — not only for themselves but also for our planet.”

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Second-Stage Rockstars

Because second-stage entrepreneurs are so focused on their businesses, their contributions often go unnoticed by the media, policymakers, economic developers and community stakeholders. With that in mind, celebrating growth entrepreneurs and communicating their value is part of the foundation’s entrepreneurship mission, which it carries out in a variety of ways.

Among these is Second-Stage Rockstars, a series of online articles that examines the ongoing impact of second-stage companies. These stories chronicle not only second-stagers’ economic growth, but also how they may be transforming their industry, creating empowering workplaces or excelling as corporate citizens. Below are some recent Rockstars; others can be found in our archives.