Arran and Ratana Stephens – cofounders of Nature’s Path –– are the honorees of the 2022 ‘Distinguished Entrepreneurs of the Year’ award from UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business. This award recognizes those who’ve demonstrated entrepreneurial leadership, innovation and community contribution.
As the largest independent, certified-organic breakfast and snack food company in North America, Nature’s Path is most known for giving back to society. Every year, the organization donates over $2 million in food to those in need and contributes one per cent of its sales to support endangered species, habitat restoration, and environmental education for kids worldwide.
Douglas Magazine sat down with Arran Stephens to learn more about his early life growing up on Vancouver Island, the power of philanthropy in business, and how Nature’s Path became what it is today.
How did your early years on Vancouver Island impact your career?
Arran Stephens: My dad inherited a berry farm in Duncan before I was born in 1944, called Mountain Valley Farm. In 1951, we moved just south of the Malahat to Goldstream. where we established another farm called Goldstream Berry Paradise.
I had an idyllic childhood, and from age six to 13, I roamed the nearby mountains, caves, rivers, streams, and lakes. My dad always told me to leave the soil better than I found it, which became the mantra for Nature’s Path.
How did you begin Nature’s Path?
Arran Stephens: I traveled all over India for seven months in 1967, when I was 23 years old. I came back to Vancouver with less than ten dollars and a $1,500 loan to start Canada’s first vegetarian restaurant, called the Golden Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant.
It paved the way for the next business I started with my wife, Ratana, called LifeStream Natural Foods. Our next restaurant, Mother Nature’s Inn, started in the back of Lifestream. Then, we started Woodlands restaurant in 1981. Nature’s Path was born out of Woodlands in 1985, and in 1990, we opened North America’s first organic cereal plant in Delta, B.C.
What’s it like having a family-run company?
Arran Stephens: Having a family business is both a great joy and a huge challenge. My wife brings heart, common sense, empathy, and compassion to the business. She’s also a supermom.
I don’t know how we did it, but we managed to bring up four healthy, committed, socially aware children, and they’ve been integrated into the business as much as possible, with two of them now in leadership roles. Together, we built this business to be of benefit to society.
What’s been the key to Nature’s Path’s growth?
Arran Stephens: It’s not like you just water a seed and suddenly it sprouts into a gigantic tree. It grows slowly and incrementally. Our growth wasn’t an overnight success. It took over 25 years to get to where we are now. We wanted to build something together as a family and pass on a truly living, breathing entity that can be a benefit to thousands of people.
Our family understands that the business is built on three legs: people, planet, and last but not least, profit. We’re not in the food business. We’re in the people business. If we ever forget that, then we pay for it.
Why is philanthropy important in business?
Arran Stephens: If a business becomes successful, it has an obligation to give back to society. We’re in this world temporarily. While we’re here, we should do the most good that we can.
What are you most proud of?
Arran Stephens: The team I’ve built. It’s remarkable what you can achieve with a group of people where everyone is aligned. Seeing that we’re helping to reduce pollution, contribute to healthy diets, and give back to the community makes me feel like all this work we’ve done hasn’t been in vain.
What advice do you have for Vancouver Island businesses?
Arran Stephens: There’s a Japanese proverb which is applicable to all businesses: grow a small garden well. It’s better to expand slowly than rapidly; most businesses fail due to rapid expansion. You have to be extremely cost-conscious, no matter what you do.
What would you say to those who are afraid of failure?
Arran Stephens: A success is a failure that never gave up. Sooner or later, every business will come close to failure. I think sometimes the difference between a success and a failure is that successes were made by those really stubborn people that refused to fail, even though there were huge odds against them.
There’s no substitute for hard work. You can’t become a successful business person without a lot of sweat equity. The way forward is only for the brave of heart.