Scott Mandell followed his father’s advice — and Oprah Winfrey’s — in starting allergen-free snack food company Enjoy Life Foods
Editor's Note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold entrepreneurial visions to life.
Scott Mandell ’01 was in his penultimate Kellogg class, “Entrepreneurship and New Venture Formulation,” when he wrote the business plan for what became known as Enjoy Life Foods
, a company that produces a line of gluten- and allergen-free foods like cookies, bars and cereals.
But it was his final class at Kellogg, when Mandell was just 29, that really pushed him to try his hand at a business in which he had no prior experience. His teacher: talk show legend Oprah Winfrey.
“It was a leadership course. And she’s very big on the whole thought of living without regrets,” says Mandell, now 44. “I was in a crux of my career and was thinking: ‘Do I want to stay in the field I’m in, which was banking, or do I want to do a start up?’”
The rest, as they say, is history. Mandell launched Enjoy Life Foods, and 14 years later — last February, to be exact — the company he had built was acquired by Mondelez International, a global snack company with products in more than 160 countries and revenues of $35 billion. In June, Enjoy Life Foods hit another milestone, this time as CEO Mandell won the Retail and Consumer Products category in the Midwest region of this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
“Did I feel like I had a good opportunity to win? I wouldn’t admit to this before because I’d never want to jinx anything, but I felt good about it,” he says.
Roots in Kellogg
As many startups do, Enjoy Life Foods weathered its share of setbacks on the way to last February’s acquisition. Mandell remembers when he had two private equity groups on the cusp of investing in his business in 2008 right around the time the credit crisis hit. The investment money didn’t come through, Enjoy Life employees took pay cuts, and Mandell laid off some of his people. “It was a time when I was really very concerned about the company’s survival,” he says.
But the idea for the company Mandell now helms, an idea that took shape more than a decade ago, was originally much more limited in scope.
“One of the guys in my group, his mother had given us the idea,” he says. “She has multiple sclerosis and is on a restricted diet as a result. I went back and looked at the plan we wrote for class and, while there are a lot of elements that are still very similar to the plan today, the business definitely evolved. We became fixated on being free of all common allergens; that was not contemplated in the original plan.”
Mandell spent the next two years creating the business, raising capital, developing the products and building a dedicated facility to produce its products. But the hard work quickly paid off once Enjoy Life hit retailers, Mandell says. “Seeing our product on the store shelves was an enormous high.”
Like Father, Like Son
It wasn’t, however, a foregone conclusion that Mandell would take the business plan he helped assemble and use it as the blueprint for a new business. By the time he was enrolled in Oprah Winfrey’s leadership course, he expected to follow his father, Ralph Mandell, into banking. The elder Mandell founded his own bank in Chicago, PrivateBancorp, Inc., and had won his own regional EY Entrepreneur of the Year award back in 2007.
But Mandell remembered Winfrey’s mantra of living without regrets, and turned to his father seeking advice. “He really got behind me and said, ‘This is the right opportunity for you; you should go for it,'” the younger Mandell says. “I always felt that I had that entrepreneurial side to me, and seeing that in my father — there’s no question that helped spur me along.”
Today, the Schiller Park, Illinois-based Enjoy Life Foods makes products free of the eight most common allergens including soy, dairy and peanuts, and employs nearly 180 people.
In November, Mandell heads to Palm Springs, California, in the hopes of winning the national Entrepreneur of the Year title in the Retail and Consumer Products category. But, win or lose, Mandell says he has the best of both worlds at Enjoy Life Foods following the Mondelez acquisition.
“I get to run this business in a very entrepreneurial way, but at the same time tap into the resources of a $35 billion, multinational food company that can help us grow distribution domestically and internationally,” he says.
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