Who’s Who 2023: Ratana Stephens, co-founder, Nature’s Path
By Jack KazmierskiFood In Canada Bake & Snack Food British Columbia Editor pick Nature's Path organic
Getting organic food into every household is the goal of Nature’s Path co-founder Ratana Stephens
Growing up in India, Ratana Stephens, ex-CEO and co-founder of Nature’s Path remembers her father running a very successful food manufacturing business. Little did she know at the time that the food industry was in her DNA, and that her passion for excellence would lead her to starting one of Canada’s most successful food companies.
Her husband and business partner, Arran Stephens, also has roots in the food business. “Arran’s father, Rupert Stephens, was an organic berry farmer, and my father was in [the food manufacturing] business. So, it really is in our DNA,” she says.
In 1968, Stephens’ husband started what was likely the first organic vegetarian restaurant in British Columbia, if not all of Canada. “We both worked very hard, but something in the restaurant business did not satisfy us,” she recalls.
Three years later, Stephens and her husband launched a natural food store and grew their business to include two locations, a manufacturing facility, a bakery and two warehouses. They ended up selling this business in 1981.
In 1990, Nature’s Path was born, and soon Stephens and her husband were in the cereal business. They initially worked with a contract manufacturer to make the cereal, and Stephens says that things were going well for a year or so.
“Then, one day, Arran came to me and said, ‘I have doubts about whether [the contract manufacturer] is really using organic ingredients,’” she explains. “When my husband confronted him, he said, ‘Arran, what is organic? What does it even mean?’ That’s when we realized we needed our own factory.”
Their new factory was supposed to be a turnkey operation, but Stephens and her husband soon realized that making cereal isn’t as easy as it might seem.
“Our goal was to make good cereal, but things didn’t work out as planned,” she recalls. “The machines didn’t work, and we did not have the knowledge we needed.”
Much of the food Stephens and her husband produced during what might be called their trial-and-error phase went to waste. “We threw out tons and tons of ingredients and we made many pigs and farm animals very healthy,” she laughs.
Eventually, with the right equipment and the right people in place, they found themselves on the path to success. In 1992, they decided to sell the restaurant business and focus their attention on Nature’s Path.
Leaving a legacy
Although the challenges have been overwhelming and the difficulties plentiful, Stephens says that building this business with her husband has left her feeling fulfilled and satisfied.
Now, both she and her husband are ready for the next generation to take over the family enterprise.
“Two of our four children are working with us,” she says. “We are not for sale. We want this to be a legacy Canadian company. We’ve worked in the food industry for some 50 years. It’s time to hand things over to our future leaders.”
Stephens says that currently, 70 per cent of the company’s total sales come from the United States, 27 per cent from Canada, and the balance from over 40 other countries.
“Our vision is to get quality organic food into every home,” she says. “We’re not there yet, but it’s a goal we are inching toward.”
This article was originally published in the April/May 2023 issue of Food in Canada.
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