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Continued: Owatonna company's CEO has boundless appetite for learning

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 15, 2012 - 7:01 PM

Educator-turned-entrepreneur Melanie Nelson has left the classroom but continues her teaching efforts as founder and CEO of Learning ZoneXpress, a leading national producer of health and nutrition education materials in Owatonna.

Nelson also has learned a few lessons about keeping a business going through unexpected challenges by relying on a never-give-up attitude. Setbacks have included a gas-leak fire and explosion that blew up one office, floods that destroyed $140,000 in inventory and resulted $100,000 in repairs to another office and a technology meltdown that wiped out the company's records.

Now, at 61, she's headed back to the classroom as a student at Harvard Business School's Owner/President Management Program, a three-week executive leadership program that she will take part in each spring for the next three years.

"I'll graduate in 2014 with a very large receipt, also known as a diploma," Nelson joked. "The program has always been on my bucket list. The hope is to transform your company by being able to see what could be different, what are some new opportunities."

Finding those opportunities has been a quest for Nelson, who tirelessly seeks to develop or find sources of posters, DVDs, games, lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations and other materials that offer creative, engaging ways to teach youngsters about health and nutrition, among other topics.

The company's output of some 150 new products a year helped Learning ZoneXpress, which has 17 employees, grow despite the recession, Nelson said. Sales rose to $5.2 million last year, up from $2.9 million in 2007. While mail-order catalog sales have been its mainstay, these days a quarter of sales come from the Internet.

The company has invested in search-engine optimization for its three websites, produces blogs and takes part in Twitter, Pinterest and other social media, Nelson said. It does business in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and other Asian countries. Customers include schools and public health and corporate wellness programs. 

MyPlate program

One of the newest hits is the company's line of MyPlate educational posters and products produced in a public-private partnership recently formed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The materials highlight the USDA's new MyPlate nutrition guidelines that have replaced the previous "food pyramid" standards. Seven of the top 10 best-selling products at Learning ZoneXpress are MyPlate items.

The Spanish-language version, MiPlato, got a boost from First Lady Michelle Obama when she addressed the need for such resources to help parents help their children lead healthier lives. Learning ZoneXpress had MyPlate posters and materials available 24 hours after USDA announced the new guidelines last year and was the first company to make those materials available in Spanish.

New this year is a series of posters addressing the seven key nutrition themes that are the USDA's focus for the next two years. The posters include such messages as "Make half your plate fruits and vegetables" and "Enjoy your food, but eat less."

Learning ZoneXpress is looking for growth among early childhood education programs in part by distributing materials from the LANA (Learning about Nutrition through Activities) Preschool Program developed by the Minnesota Department of Education, Nelson said. The program, which features a mascot known as Lana the Iguana, encourages young kids to eat fruits and vegetables. 

Nelson first went into business in 1982, after losing her position as a family and consumer science teacher in what she said was a larger cutback that did away with more than 60 jobs. Her business partner moved on with that company while Nelson formed what would become Learning ZoneXpress with her then husband. A divorce, she said, left her to build the company while raising three children.

"I just love Melanie's products," said longtime customer Karen Smith, an eighth-grade family and consumer science teacher in Monticello. "She always has innovative, creative product that students really like. When something new comes out, like MyPlate, she's just right on it. She tries to make things really kid-friendly."

The expert says: Michael Porter, director of the master of business communication program at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said Nelson's experience with Learning ZoneXpress offers several lessons for entrepreneurs to consider.

A critical point, for those like Nelson who go into business after losing a job, is to make a long-term commitment. "If you're going to be in this for the long haul, it can't be a wayside rest on the way back to the corporate fast lane," Porter said.

That commitment shows in Nelson's drive to continue finding new products, Porter said. "It's deciding what new opportunities you're going to create because no one is going to create them for you," he said. "You never have enough customers."

Overcoming disasters, as Nelson has, also reflects on her commitment to the venture. "If you're only loosely committed to it because this is just a sidebar in your life, it's hard to regroup," Porter said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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