Austin Kelly, CEO of Willamette Valley Pie Co., tells us how they make pies and dessert with natural ingredients.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you joined WV Pie Co.
Austin Kelly: I started my very first job in high school which was working harvest in a cherry orchard. One day, I followed those cherries back to the manufacturing processing facility and saw a big manufacturing operation behind the curtain. From there, I was intrigued and asked for a job inside the manufacturing plant, where I worked my way around on the production floor. I began in maintenance, moved to manufacturing, then to sanitation, and eventually, I am working my way over to quality control. I was very adamant about finding people who were experts in what they were doing. I’d ask them questions while figuring out how to do it as well as they were. From there, I really built my quality, and then eventually operations, experience before joining Dave’s Killer Bread during their big national expansion. At Dave’s, I assisted in building out the quality and commercialization side of the business. I then spent some time consulting and working with small brands before venturing into the supply chain side of the industry, where I eventually became a Director of Supply Chain at Bridgetown Natural Foods. After several years in that role, I moved from the contract manufacturer to the brand side, joining Mason Dixie Foods and building out their operations and innovation team for the frozen bakery brand.
It’s a very full circle that I started in fruit processing, spent a good part of my career so far in baking, and now am in pie. So, it was kind of a serendipitous and very well-catered opportunity for me to join Willamette Valley Pie Co.
How does WV Pie Co. market your brands specifically online?
Austin Kelly: We’ve really leaned into being artisan and handcrafted. And so, we’re not trying to sell a commodity pie or dessert; all of our pies have some artisanal aspect. We want to ensure that we produce premium and stand-out products, and we believe that’s our niche in the space. So, we market our products online, through our website and social media, and partner with other marketing sales groups like Gold Belly. We position ourselves as suppliers of products you would get from a high-end restaurant or bakery. And even though we’re producing these in a manufacturing facility, we stay true to that kind of artisan concept, which connects with consumers.
Do you have small habits that made a meaningful impact on your life and business?
Austin Kelly: I frequently listen to audiobooks while driving, using my commute to learn about ideas and pulling insight from authors and other entrepreneurs and leaders. I also am always writing down quotes. So, if I hear inspirational quotes or things that pique my interest, or perhaps something I need to think about, I write them down to come back to. Setting up a time to think is huge. I would encourage all leaders in an organization to do that. Even if it’s half an hour after work, stop for a cup of coffee and just sit there without your phone; sit there and think; drink a cup of coffee and reflect. It’s amazing what happens when you actually slow down and start analyzing what’s happening in your life.
What is your hiring policy/process, and how do you retain employees
Austin Kelly: We’ve hired a tremendous amount of people in the last 12 months – probably close to 100 new employees – at every level of the organization, from senior management down to your entry-level manufacturing work. One of the things that we try to do in our job descriptions and initial interviews and conversations is to be as transparent as possible about the business and the work. We understand that our workplace and our culture are not for everybody. We work hard and fast. And we like to challenge the way things have been done. Not everyone works well in that environment. And so, we try to be as transparent as possible in the interview process and job descriptions/early communication so that people know what they’re getting into, avoiding that surprise factor. We don’t want people to be surprised after joining our team.
The other thing is that we try to do as many group interviews as possible. So, we try not to hire in a vacuum. We want multiple people to be involved in the hiring process. As you’re bringing people in, we will have multiple interviewers chat with that person to ensure that the team agrees they will be a cultural fit because that is just as important, if not more important, than the perfect skill set or resume experience. You need to make sure that people fit culturally with your team.
How are you funding your growth?
Austin Kelly: Our business has grown. I describe us as a 20-year-old startup because we’ve been around for a while but still are in the very early stages. We’ve grown at a slow, steady pace over the last 15 to 20 years. Now we’re accelerating that growth. And as we’ve built a stable base of business, the time has come to build a profitable base of business. So, we are still funding our growth. We’re still 100% family and farmer-owned. And we have some great relationships with our bank. They have been phenomenal partners, and we treat them like part of the family. This partnership and trust-extending lines of credit allow us to maintain that family and farmer ownership.
Who are your competitors?
Austin Kelly: A few regional players throughout the country make premium pies and desserts, like The Village PieMaker and Achatz Handmade Pie Company, which I would say are our closest direct competitors. We don’t like to see ourselves as competitors of Sara Lee, Marie Callenders, or Mrs. Smith’s, mainly because our pies are way better. Our pies and desserts sit on the top shelf, and we don’t even want to try to compete with those other guys. We just want the shelf right above them. Our products are for the folks who want a premium pie and dessert to take home or to their family and friends’ houses. That’s really the market we’re going after. So, we’ll let Sara Lee and the others battle it out over the cheap pies because we’re positioned in the premium dessert space.
Tell us a customer success story of yours.
Austin Kelly: Whole Foods is one of our largest customers. And we started supplying them regionally out here in the Pacific Northwest, slowly building that business over the last five or 10 years. Then last year, we took on a much bigger piece of their business and started supplying nationally. To accomplish this, we prioritized customer service and building that relationship. We innovated with them on a variety of new products, launched those products, and maintained extremely high service levels throughout the pandemic supply chain issues. We also were able to reserve extra line time just in case they needed more Pie, which ensured we had extra inventory on hand to come to the rescue if needed. This preemptive planning and initiative put us in a position to really help them out last year, and we were awarded the Whole Foods Supplier of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards for 2021. So, it was a huge testimony and accomplishment for our team. And we’re really proud of the relationship we’ve built with Whole Foods.