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Management Ratana Stephens: ‘People are my strength and my weakness’

Ratana Stephens, Chief Operating Officer and co-owner/founder of Nature's Path Foods Inc., is photographed at her offices in Richmond, British Columbia.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Ratana Stephens is the co-chief executive officer, co-owner and co-founder of Richmond, B.C.-based Nature's Path Foods.

I grew up in Northern India. I studied English literature and psychology and Sanskrit at university in Agra.

I am to some extent an emotional and artistic person. I love literature because it's a reflection of society at the time it was written. Sanskrit is also a language that really touched me. For a few years, I was a lecturer at a girls' college in India.

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I married Arran [Stephens] in 1969 and we came here to Canada. He was born and raised on a family farm on Vancouver Island. In 1971, we opened LifeStream Natural Foods, a retailer and distributor of organic foods. We sold that company in 1981 [to a group of investors, who then sold it to Kraft Foods; 14 years later, they bought LifeStream back].

In 1985, we started Nature's Path [an organic food company]. Healthy foods were in our DNA. We wanted to make a difference. We wanted to make sure people had a good, healthy breakfast. It also met with our passion, our vision and our purpose … which is to leave the Earth better than we found it.

Nature's Path has a triple bottom line: to be socially responsible, environmentally sustainable and financially viable. We can be socially responsible and do all of the things we need to do to improve society, the community and the environment, but we have to be financially viable to do it. Our business, I feel, has been a vehicle, in a very small way, to do good.

We've had financial challenges, but we worked through them. I didn't come from business school, I don't have a manufacturing background or quality-control background – just heart, a passion and a purpose. At times we've had to mortgage our home and get loans. We've had help from our suppliers, from our team members, even from our children. That's not necessarily all financial help either. When you start something … with a purpose and a goal … the whole world comes to help you.

You need to look after your team. At least 40 per cent of their time is spent in your business. Unfortunately, or fortunately, our business has become a lot bigger. We have more than 700 employees today. Individually, you can't go and connect with everybody, but if there is anything that we can do to help, we do.

We hire people who have the same values we do. We use the acronym PATHS. 'P' for performance-driven, 'A' for always improving, 'T' for team-focused, 'H' for honourable, and 'S' for sustainable. We try to find people who have these kinds of values. That makes our life much easier, because there is less conflict. We are looking in the same direction. Our relationship with our team members shouldn't be completely business-related. If it is business, it should be business with heart.

People are my strength and my weakness. It's hard for me to let people go. I feel they have their own families and they have to be looked after. But when it's not working out we are compassionate. We also feel like, if it's not working out here, they will be happier somewhere else. It's better for them and us.

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I am more democratic now [as a leader]. I love it. Have in your business family-committed, goal-oriented, purpose-oriented people and give them a chance. Don't interfere and mettle all of the time. Yes, they have to be accountable, but not every minute, every hour of every day. Nurture them, listen to them, care for them and they will shine through.

I would like to see more future leaders who are sustainability conscious, who believe in values – not just money. It [money] is important, mind you, but if you follow your values, your purpose, you will be successful.

Success isn't an elevator, where you just push the button and you're there fast. Maybe for some people it is, but for most people it's a stepladder. It takes patience, perseverance and hard work, looking up and taking one step at a time. If you think it's an elevator, you may be very frustrated.

As told to Brenda Bouw. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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