Kurt Paine, founder of Abbott Blackstone, has been in the food business his entire life. At the age of 18, he started out unloading watermelon trucks in San Francisco for his father-in-law. He also worked as a truck driver delivering produce throughout the South San Francisco Bay. In 1970, he went to work for one of the first natural foods distributors in the U.S. before moving to Santa Cruz where he worked for an herb company as sales manager. After several years of developing new customers from Seattle to San Diego, Kurt left the company and with a partner, started an importing and distribution business selling Ginseng and Chinese herbs.
Kurt eventually sold his half of the business and moved to the Sierra Nevada foothills, Northeast of Sacramento. After working for a second natural food distributor, he worked as a food broker, selling natural foods to supermarket chains and other distributors throughout Northern California. He eventually made his way back to the Bay Area and went to work for a Chinese food import company. Kurt shared what came next.
“Working for the Chinese importing company was a great experience,” he said. “I learned a lot about Asian foods and I got to travel, but I knew there was no future for me to move up, as it was a family-owned company. That’s when I decided to start my own company.”
In 1989, Kurt launched Abbott Blackstone. The original focus of the company was on selling canned fruits, vegetables and seafood from overseas suppliers to importers here in the United States. However, as Kurt shared, the initial strategy proved to be one of the early challenges.
“I had no income,” he said. “It would take months for me to receive commission payments. Fortunately, I had a girlfriend who made a good income and I had a very good customer who helped me out. After a few months, the commission checks started coming in and it was fine from that point on. I then built up the business to a point where I was maxed out and hiring a sales person was necessary. Not long after I hired my first employee, who didn’t work out, I moved to Clearwater. That was around 1993. California was getting so expensive and over-crowded I just had to get out. Once in Clearwater, I hired an administrative person and then another sales person and together, we built the business up nicely. We went through a couple more salespeople before my step son came to work for me about eight years ago, and not long after that, we got into superfoods and started importing. Goji berries was the first superfood that we started importing and that’s when things really took off. My step daughter, who had been working for me in an administrative position, switched to sales and that has also helped fuel the growth of the company.
I also have another stepson, Emanuel, who lives in Germany. A couple of years ago, he was looking for a new game and so we set him up in a branch office of Abbott Blackstone, selling superfoods to EU customers. That office is up to 6 employees and is growing nicely. The good news is that consumers all over the planet are looking for healthy and nutrient dense foods. We see lots of growth in the coming years!”
Today, the majority of the business at Abbott Blackstone is focused on importing and distributing bulk organic super foods. These include products like Goji Berries, their number one seller, Maca Powder, Cacao Power, Acai, Quinoa and more. Other products include organic nuts, coconut products, organic grains and seeds and dried fruits.
Looking ahead, Kurt would like to see the business continue to grow. He envisions an expanded product line and customer base. Up to this point, regarding the super foods, they’ve only been selling in bulk to manufactures and online retailers that do their own packaging. Going forward, Abbott Blackstone will now offer private label retail packaging and will push those services. Beyond the immediate future, Paine eventually wants to be able to turn things over to his step-kids.
What advice does Paine have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “As Tom Cruise said in Risky Business, ‘Sometimes you just have to say what the f*ck”, and go for it'," he said. “The mistake I see with startups is that they don’t survey the market. They have what they think is a brilliant idea, but you have to make sure that it's a product or service that is needed and wanted. Take the time to do the proper research, set aside some money and take the plunge. Also, remember that persistence pays off. Just keep at it and stick with it through the good and the bad.”
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