Austin Kelly

CEO of Willamette Valley Pie Company

Austin Kelly serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Willamette Valley Pie Company. Since March 2021, he has led a team of over 200 to continue to produce world-famous pies, hand pies, frozen fruit and delicious cobblers. With the goal of growing the brand and redefining the dessert category, Kelly brings his experience working for contract manufacturers and high-growth brands that will assist WV Pie Co. to adapt and scale rapidly. As such, within his first year, Willamette Valley Pie Company completely rebranded and launched a new line of all butter crust fruit pies, hand pies and the only Non-GMO verified cream pies on the market, ultimately earning Whole Foods’ Rookie of the Year and Supplier of the Year awards – the company’s most prestigious award given to suppliers who rise to the top in overall excellence.

Kelly has a great deal of background in the natural foods space that makes him fit to expand the local-farm-turned-pie-company. Prior to his current position, he was the VP of Operations at Mason Dixie Foods, where he covered end-to-end supply chain helping the frozen bakery brand to scale nationally. Other previous roles include Director of Supply Chain at Bridgetown Natural Foods, Director of Quality at Dave’s Killer Bread and Director of Operations/Plant Manager at Fruithill Inc. where he began his career in 2011. Kelly attributes his success to the variety of roles and responsibilities learned at each company where he was able to immerse himself in all aspects of the CPG industry.

Kelly looks forward to bringing his experience to the vertically-integrated pie company that started as a local family farm. Part of the draw to join WV Pie Co. was the company’s insistence of only using local sustainably-sourced and non-GMO ingredients and its commitment to supporting small businesses and the local community. He plans on staying true to the origin story and the brand’s core identity while also aiming to modernize and update the brand to be able to share clean-label (and delicious) pie with consumers nationwide.

Where did the idea for Willamette Valley Pie Company come from?

Willamette Valley Pie Company is one of the original all-natural pie companies. We’ve enjoyed the privilege of growing berries in the bountiful Willamette Valley of Oregon for three generations. With nearly 100 years of family farming history, vertically integrating in 2001 to make delicious pies and desserts was an obvious next step for the company. So, what began in 1999 as a small cannery-style operation in a backyard warehouse quickly grew into Willamette Valley Pie Company – a family-owned and operated business – producing the best pies around!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I would love to meet the CEO that has a typical day. Very frequently, I wake up early to mainly just prioritize the day and make sure that I have time to get my head around everything that I have to accomplish. I also block out time on my calendar everyday to simply think, which is a hard thing to prioritize sometimes. But I found when I don’t carve out intentional time to be strategic and think about the activities of the business, I wind up letting my day run me instead of me running my day.

And then I spend most of my day checking in with leaders, especially in a high growth environment, and making sure that I have a touch point with key leaders, not just my direct reports. I dedicate time to go out and chat with other folks in the business and walk the production floor and the warehouse. Being seen and visible to folks is a big piece of it. And then I try to make time to sit down with folks during the bulk of the day. I do individual work when other people aren’t in the office. So, if I have to hammer out a spreadsheet or similar work, I’m doing that after hours, whether that’s on the weekends or in the evening after I put my son down to bed. My goal is to be available for people during the bulk of the day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

My mind is always going, which my wife would attest to. And so I frequently have a long list of ideas, always thinking them through. But then I’m really an external processor. So people find me talking to myself in my office frequently. I also love to hop on the phone with my R&D team or the operations team to discuss a new product or productivity idea, having people challenge the idea. This allows us to talk through ways something may not work or what we need to do to overcome it. As soon as I have somebody challenge the idea and get to a point where I can convince them it’s worthwhile, then it’s all about getting buy-in from the rest of the team. If it’s a new product, for example, then I’ll chat with R&D, Marketing and Sales to ensure there is buy-in from all sides and those that will be bringing the idea to life. You can have all the ideas in the world, and if you can’t get people to buy into them, nothing will ever happen.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m encouraged by the amount of time people are spending with their families. I think COVID had an impact on this, bringing people closer together in a variety of ways with their own kind of personal family unit. And you found out the people who you were really, really connected with.

For the American family, I think we’ve over-emphasized being on the go for the last couple of decades. And everything’s been fast. We’ve developed drive-throughs and microwave foods and everything you can eat on the go. It’s sitting down at home for family meals that helps us slow down and recenter.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am constantly trying to figure out the most efficient way to do things. And so very frequently, somebody else has already been thinking about how to do that. I like to take ideas and make them work for us. You’ll often find me walking down grocery store aisles looking at other products and their packaging. A lot of times when I’m developing packaging or working on a new product, I’ll be pulling information from competitors because they’ve already spent a whole bunch of time working out logistics. And so, I like to keep an eye on what other people are doing, and then take those ideas and challenge them to work more efficiently for our business.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self to make sure to pause every once in a while along the way and reflect on what’s happening. I put my nose to the grindstone for a long time – working long hours for many years. And life is a journey; it’s not it’s not about a final destination. So, making sure that you enjoy, pause and take some time to reflect on what’s happening and enjoy each of those kinds of moments is necessary.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

People frequently tell me they don’t have enough time to do something. And we all have the same amount of hours in a week. So when someone says they only have so many hours, I respond that we all have 168. There are people who will make time for things that are important to them. As such, it’s a matter of priorities rather than not having enough time.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Talking through ideas is huge. Sitting down with folks and talking through ideas helps me work out potential problems before getting too far into a project. This immediate feedback ensures I am viewing multiple angles, rather than getting stuck in a vacuum.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

One of the things that I believe we’ve really done really well is our fundraising program. We’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of groups raise money for their organizations. Whether that’s programs like choirs, or sports teams or church groups, we’ve donated profits and helped them sell our products. Not only does it have the benefit of getting our products into people’s homes and getting them familiar with the brand – driving trial – it has also connected us with various communities. This program has created long lasting relationships that are more than just transactional, customer relationships, but rather, emotional connections.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

We launched an idea for a new product line just earlier this year and ran into some quality issues really quickly. Then, we were challenged in the distribution system, creating a snowball effect. There were some variables that we did not perceive from a product perspective, and so, we had to rectify that situation with customers – making sure to credit and make whole on our transactions. We then had to walk back the entire program (after we had just spent all this time watching it to the end) and replace it with a revised program. And so it was certainly a humbling experience, By pushing too hard, too fast, without doing enough due diligence, we also took a financial hit. All that said, making sure we put consumers first was of utmost importance. It is imperative that our customers felt like we were taking ownership of those mistakes, owning them upfront. Ultimately, I think that helps help salvage the situation.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

If someone could develop a distribution system for food brands that had some shared ownership structure with the brands that they were distributing, I think they would be incredibly successful in competing with the big distributors. I think there’s some white space in the distribution system for CPG brands right now.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I took a friend and mentor out to lunch recently. And even though it probably cost me $40-$50, an hour and a half of his time was so much more than whatever I spent on lunch. And I just gained a tremendous amount from that. Buying people lunch and asking them questions can be invaluable. Very few people turn down a free meal and you can often get a lot of good insight.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

We’re a big Microsoft company. So, Microsoft Teams is just at the core of everything we do. Whether it’s chats, or scheduling meetings or keeping tasks lists and project plans, it’s assists with productivity and organization across the board.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

There’s a book called Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia. Bob is the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, and talks about a business model that really prioritizes family and people first, removing the excuse that it can’t be done for entrepreneurs and business owners.

What is your favorite quote?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

I want folks to look back on their time working for Willamette Valley Pie Company as the highlight of their career because they felt cared for. And regardless of whether they’re here in 10 years, or working for some other company, they look back on their time spent here and feel like they were valued.

Key Learnings:

  • I would encourage entrepreneurs and leaders to stay humble and hungry. Make sure that you’re always wanting to ask questions and learn new things, and be willing to do the stuff that other people aren’t.
  • Put in the extra hours to learn or grow. Not a lot of growth happens between eight and five. That’s when a lot of the normal everyday work happens. But it’s the long nights and weekends where you really build a bench of experience and expertise that will propel you forward later.
  • Don’t be afraid to put in the time, stay hungry and make sure that you’re going after opportunities and learning everything you possibly can.