Turning your hobby into a full time job would be a dream for many people. And turning that dream into a multi-million dollar business would be like winning the lottery. You could argue that is what happened to Nathan Sheets, the CEO of Nature Nate’s Honey Co., a US-based company that produces raw and unfiltered honey. Now, Sheets is making a foray into the Australian market.
“When I got married in 1996, my wife Patty said we needed a hobby,” said Sheets. “She was thinking gardening or antiques, but I was thinking bees. We started keeping one hive in my parents’ backyard because we lived in an apartment. I would also go and help the guy who I got the hive from with his 100 beehives on the weekends. He had started a honey company in 1972 – the North Dallas Honey Company – which would eventually become Nature Nate’s. I then started getting up at 4am to help distribute his honey because he had cancer and needed help delivering to the 20 stores that stocked his product.
“Then I started going down to his house and helped bottle the honey. In 1997, I took over the business.”
However, Sheets wasn’t ready to go full time just yet. He decided to take up an offer to become a missionary and spent the next 12 years visiting 88 countries doing this work. He sees this time as formative in terms of how he wanted to run the company he now owns. In 2010, he went full time so that now, nine years later, he has more than 85 full-time staff at the company’s headquarters based just north of Dallas, Texas. Like any business, in order to grow, the company needed to expand. Australia was always going to be on Sheets’ radar.
“I chose Australia because we had some relationships with people down here,” he said. “That opened up the door for us. Personally, I’ve always loved Australia. I’ve always been fascinated with Australia and I love to fish, and you guys have great fishing.”
Nature Nate’s has teamed up with Woolworths to launch the product in Australia. How did he find the local market compared to the US?
“Australian standards and regulations are pretty similar to what we have in the US,” he said. “I have found that the actual honey in Australia to be cleaner than what we have in the US, which is awesome.”
As with any foray into a new market, there are teething issues however, the overall experience has been good. Sheets noticed there is an issue with traceability. In order to deal with any suspicions or any negative impact that might occur with regard to his products, he has been proactive in letting consumers know the provenance of Nature Nate’s honey.
“There was an issue about 12 years ago in the US. I’m talking about food fraud and honey adulteration. People bringing in honey saying it is from one country but might be from another and things like that. Food fraaud is so prevalent everywhere. It is in olive oil and seafood. It has been pretty significant in the honey industry,” he said.
“When I started doing the honey company full time, we created a robust and uncommon food testing programme where we test 100 per cent of the honey,” he said. “We test for pollen, antibiotics, pesticides – and we do that with gold standard testing via a German lab called Intertek. We created that testing protocol, which we have brought to Australia. I think the beekeepers that we partner with in Australia have clean operations and our testing has not found the same pesticide issues that we have found in some American honeys. Again, it’s not that the beekeepers are doing anything on purpose, you just don’t know if the bees are flying three to five miles away from the hive – beekeepers don’t know what the bees are going to encounter.”
Sheets isn’t satisfied with manufacturing honey on its own, he also wants to work on other products that, naturally, will have honey in them. He said the company is developing an array of products that usually rely on processed sugars and Nature Nate’s is trying to engineer honey into them. For example, it has developed energy shots that it’s bringing to market in the US. It is also looking at barbecue sauces, ketchups, condiments, syrups, nut butters and range of other products.
“We are just trying to figure out now what is a viable product,” he said. “The hardest thing is that the properties of honey themselves are different than other sweeteners. Corn syrup is dirt cheap and available. Honey is expensive, but it is hydroscopic, so it absorbs moisture – you have to think through that and how honey is going to interact with other parts of food products.”
Getting the team onboard
And how do you brand a product when you enter a new market? There are plenty of established, well-known, popular honey brands on the market in Australia. Sheets’ background before beekeeping was marketing, and that, tied with his time as a missionary, gave him some insights into how peoples’ minds tick and he believes his strategy will be a winner.
“The way I approach the business is this; people spend most of their waking hours at work,” he said. “My dad gave me this principle growing up – if you ever borrow something from someone, give it back to them in a better condition than you got it. If I borrowed your car, I’d bring it back to you washed and full of gas. I view people like that. I am a steward of their time and abilities so at the end of their time with Nature Nate’s, whether that’s a month or 15 years, I want them to be better people – emotionally, spiritually, financially, intellectually and vocationally. We invest a lot into our people and try to make their work experience to be something they are passionate about. We have a bunch of people that are passionate about what they do.”
Along with his staff, it’s not just the amount of time and money he puts into the manufacturing process, but making sure the product is as perfect as can be that is its best-selling point, plus he is a big believer in philanthropy.
“We didn’t see it as a marketing strategy, we see it as an extension of what we are passionate about,” he said. “That’s one of the branding strengths of Nature Nate’s. There is a commitment to the quality and the tasting perspective and also a food safety perspective. I tell our staff all the time that we shouldn’t put honey on someone’s table if we are not willing to put it on our own table. And it’s not just about money. I spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year testing honey to make sure it is a high-quality product.”
And the philanthropy? Sheets launched the product in September, and already the company is laying out plans with Woolworths and its Foodbank initiatives, as well as helping out farmers.
“When it comes to the Foodbank, we wanted to find a way we could invest immediately that involved the community,” said Sheets. “This is to do with Woolworths, which is a cause near and dear to their heart. Next, we’re going to ask communities, ‘hey, where can we best help?’
“We’ve already talked to some people who help with the plight of farmers, especially in relation to the drought. We’ll see where that is. I’m already on board with investing into kids and their development, which is important. We have a program we developed for kids. It’s called ‘The Adventures of Nature Nate’ and it is a cartoon about me when I was a little kid. It educates kids on the impact of beekeeping and the environment.”
His overall philosophy is why he believes Nature Nate’s is not only successful now, but will continue to be so into the future, especially as it expands into other regions.
“If you maintain people, service them and try and make them successful, ultimately we are going to be successful at what we do,” he said. “I live out the brand of Nature Nate’s. It’s not a marketing strategy, it’s an extension of who we are.”