If Mark Craft is Cinderella, then his pumpkin is definitely organic.
Craft is the co-founder of Planet Organic Health Inc. (POH), an Edmonton-based natural foods chain that has grown dramatically in the last fifteen years from a single store in Alberta to encompass over 60 stores across five provinces. These stores operate under the Planet Organic banner as well as under Sangster’s Health Centres and Trophic Canada.
An environmentalist who promoted sustainability long before it was fashionable, Craft has proven that money can be made by going green. His company began to list on the TSX Venture Exchange in 2001 (TSX:POH-X) and has since grown from sales of just under $4 million in 2002 to $55.3 million in 2007. In the last quarter alone, it saw 99 per cent sales growth.
But Craft, a Detroit native who is at the helm of a multi-million-dollar firm, is not your typical belle of the ball.
Beginning in 1974, Craft spent several years living off-grid in self-built house made of recycled lumber in the woods of Fairview, Alberta before he went into the business of building energy-efficient homes. In 1995, Craft co-founded what is now Planet Organic with Diane Shaskin, to whom he is now married.
A far cry from Craft’s more rustic youth, Planet Organic’s stores are well organized and visually appealing, designed to be a haven from Edmonton winters.
“When you come in you have warm inviting colours, nice lighting, good music – we aim to control every part of the experience the customer has. We wanted to give people a different experience from what the typical health food store would have been fifteen, twenty years ago,” Craft explains.
Perhaps it was this understanding of what appeals to the mainstream that has allowed Planet Organic to be so successful. For example, the political messages typical of many ‘alternative’ businesses are noticeably absent from Planet Organic, despite Craft’s involvement with the Green Party during his first ten years in Canada.
“You do your politics in a different place in your life,” he says.
Instead, Planet Organic strives to integrate sustainability into every aspect of its business model.
“We support worthwhile causes locally and we’ve aligned [nationally] with Sierra Club in sponsoring events for them,” Craft explains.
“In-house, we have the Eco-Karmic committee, which is a committee of employees whose job it is to search out the most environmentally friendly procedures we could use.”
Much of Planet Organic’s growth has come from acquisitions, and the company’s practice has been to acquire companies that share its values.
“One of the companies we have – Trophic Canada (a vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplement store) – is so careful with their ingredients and what they’re producing. It’s great to be a part of that,” Craft says.
In recent years, the natural product industry has seen the emergence of about 1,500 small, independent natural product retailers in Canada, which often cannot sustain themselves due to a lack of capital, expertise, or efficiencies.
“It’s a tough world out there. The corporate world can be pretty overwhelming and can overrun the little bit of good work that might be going on,” says Craft.
Craft discovered that the best way for him to enact social change was to create a business that, although large and growing, still treats everyone as if they work in a co-operative and maintains a strong social conscience.
“At some point I realized I’m not influencing anybody [living off-grid],” explained Craft.
He advises, “Try to do it on a larger scale, don’t just try to do little things – try to do something more ‘impactful.’”
With promises of further growth dancing on the horizon, will Cinderella ever leave a life of relative riches for his former life of rags?
“My wife doesn’t like to hear me say this, but I miss an outhouse,” Craft jokes.