Happy Family co-founder has reason to smile

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2011 - 3:48 PM
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shazi visram (left, with son Zane) and jessica rolph

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Jessica Rolph, a Minneapolis native and co-founder of organic baby-and-toddler food company Happy Family Brands, is a happy woman this holiday season.

Happy Family, which produces most of its "HappyBaby" and "HappyTot" lines of fruit, vegetable, dairy and grain blends at plants in Foley and Blue Earth, Minn., will double sales in 2011 to about $35 million, thanks partly to sales through more than 1,700 Target stores.

Rolph and co-founder Shazi Visram quit their day jobs in 2005, capitalized the fledgling company with $20,000 of their own plus about a half-million from family and friends.

"It took us eight or nine months, with minimum investments of $2,500," Rolph recalled.

And she'll never forget countless hours her family and friends spent giving away samples during a 24-store Target test run in 2006.

"Our success is rooted in parents craving an alternative to processed foods," Rolph said last week during a Twin Cities family visit. "We offer convenient, super-nutritious organic food. Our biggest sellers are pouched, organic baby food with a screw cap. It's an innovative format. Less processed and better for the environment compared to glass jars.''

The fledgling entrepreneurs endured typical growing pains. "We didn't pull a salary for several years. Sometimes we would take a salary one month and not the next,'' Rolph said. "Our salaries are a lot less than what we would make in a corporate environment, but we're excited about what we're doing. We're investing in the growth of the company."

Rolph 37, the chief operating officer, expects the company to at least double in size to $70 million in sales in 2012.

CEO Visram, 35, was recognized as an entrepreneur of the year by Ernst & Young this year. And Happy Family was ranked the 68th-fastest-growing private company in America on the Inc. 500.

Rolph, an Edina High grad and MBA out of Cornell University, was with Whole Foods in Austin, Texas, when she connected with Visram in New York in 2005. Visram was working with small businesses and had a similar idea about a better baby food. They launched on Mother's Day 2006.

The board and investors in subsequent capital rounds includes celebrities or culinary luminaries Demi Moore, Tom Colicchio, Sara Blakely, Jim Gold and Guy Oseary, as well as Dr. Robert Sears, the pediatrician and author.

Visram works out of the New York headquarters; Rolph is based in Boise, Idaho, where she lives with her husband and 18-month-old son.

The company has more than 70 employees including a few dozen moms who bring their kids to work.

Rolph is the daughter of Sue Crolick, one of the Twin Cities' first female ad agency art directors, and who for 15 years has operated nonprofit Creatives for Causes and Art Buddies, which links creative professionals as mentors to needy kids.

PROTO LABS HOPES FOR IPO

Proto Labs, the quick-turn manufacturer of custom parts for product designers and short-run production, continues to respond to SEC inquiries in anticipation of what could be a first-quarter initial public offering and the largest one in Minnesota since the Great Recession.

The company filed an amended registration statement last week. Interested parties are awaiting the traveling "road show" for brokers, institutional investors and analysts. The Maple Plain-based company, which seeks to raise more than $100 million, employs about 425 and distributes product globally. Proto Labs also has purchased an office-and-manufacturing facility in Rosemount, in addition to its bursting-at-the-seams campus in Maple Plain.

The company reported earnings that rose 175 percent to $7.8 million during the first nine months of 2011 on revenue that rose 57 percent to $73.3 million. Proto Labs was founded in 1999 by veteran technologist Larry Lukis. CEO Brad Cleveland, an engineer and marketing exec, joined in 2001.

BioAmber Inc., a next-generation "green chemistry" company, also is on track for a 2012 IPO. The Plymouth-based company, which attracted $45 million in venture capital in 2011, makes a "bio-succinic" acid from crops that are an alternative to petroleum-based additives.

STANOCH TAKES NEW POST

John Stanoch, the former assistant state attorney general, judge and regional president of Qwest Communications, has a new gig this week.

Stanoch, 54, takes over for the retiring Meg Katzman as CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities Upper Midwest, which serves more than 4,000 sick kids and their families annually through several locations on or near hospital campuses.

"I was looking for a leadership position in the private sector or a nonprofit," said Stanoch who filled in as an interim Hennepin County District Court judge for several months after Century Link's acquisition of Qwest last spring. "I liked the opportunity of doing something that's not about beating your competitor or dealing with regulators, but helping families through a difficult time. I've enjoyed everything I've done. I think I can contribute with this and learn a lot."

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