Brian Kocher has had his share of "learnings" — corporate speak for mistakes — in a decadeslong career in the food business. They've shaped him as a leader and given him a confident patience when it comes to connecting with employees and bringing out their best, even when the learnings pile up.

"You don't step into the CEO chair and become infallible," he said. "Those are the lessons I remember the most."

Kocher became CEO of Eden Prairie-based SunOpta in January following a transformative stint by his predecessor, Joe Ennen.

SunOpta manufactures a majority of the shelf-stable plant-based milk on the market, including oat milk for Starbucks. The company spent the past several years shedding its legacy businesses and investing big in new manufacturing capabilities and product lines.

With the heavy lifting done, Kocher finds the plant-based milk maker is in need of fine-tuning rather than wholesale change.

"It's not like I walked into a dumpster fire," he joked. "It's a community of hardworking, really genuine Midwesterners who come to work every day and care about what they do. And it's infectious."

Kocher now steps up to the podium as the conductor of an orchestra of 1,200 employees, ready to call out any sour notes he hears across the nationwide supply chain.

"The ongoing challenge for the team is to keep finding efficiencies," he said. "We're keeping our foot on the gas."

Kocher honed his management and supply chain chops leading avocado distributor Calavo Growers, produce distributor Castellini Group and as interim CEO of banana giant Chiquita.

He was drawn to SunOpta by its consistent growth in plant-based milk, nutrition shakes and fruit snacks and its dedication to sustainability.

"We've been doing ESG since before it was cool," Kocher said of the 51-year-old company founded in Canada that still trades as SOY on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Six of the company's seven manufacturing plants are now zero-waste, he pointed out.

"That's done at the plant level, that's not done by me going around and saying, 'Get to zero waste,' " Kocher said. "It's a really special team."

Plant-based milk remains the best-performing part of the plant-based industry. Nearly 15% of all milk sales went to plant-based alternatives last year — a $2.9 billion haul — and about half of American households buy it at least once a year, according to a report by the Good Food Institute.

Still, last year's industry growth was driven by price increases. As with many food categories, the number of units sold dropped as consumers tightened spending in response to inflation.

"Consumers continue to see higher prices at the shelf, making the price gap between plant-based and their conventional counterparts a relevant challenge to plant-based brands hoping to reach a broader swath of consumers," the report said.

That's where Kocher's emphasis on supply chain efficiency comes in: drive down costs, drive down prices for consumers and keep growing the category.

Besides manufacturing for other companies and store brands, SunOpta's own Sown brand has seen sales grow 40% at natural food stores over the past year and nearly 60% on Amazon. A Sown oat creamer will soon be on Lunds & Byerlys' shelves.

Talking at the relatively new Eden Prairie headquarters topped with solar panels and dotted with trees growing under skylights indoors, Kocher also made sure to emphasize the company's role in fruit snacks, a small part of SunOpta's portfolio. The segment has grown by double digits for nearly four straight years.

Add to that a new role making nutrition shakes for Premier Protein, and "we have a really diverse revenue stream," Kocher told investors last month, even after the company sold off its commodity businesses in recent years.

Last year, SunOpta had $630 million in sales and a $175 million loss largely due to the divestiture of its frozen fruit business — profit was $9 million, or $0.08 per share on an adjusted basis. The company started 2024 with 18% revenue growth in the first quarter and nearly doubled profits from continuing operations to $2.4 million.

Good, but not good enough, was Kocher's response. Beneath his personable approach to leadership, Kocher is still a hard-driving agent of change and won't let the company's momentum go to waste.

"We increased output over 20% to satisfy the demand we had on the sales side. That's good. I think simultaneously, I'm not satisfied," he told analysts in May. " 'Pleased, but not satisfied,' is a phrase I would keep in your mind because it's certainly one in mine."