How I Coped With My Co-Founder’s Death and Built an $85 Million Company

When Nicole Bernard Dawes's co-founder father died, their company almost went down with him.
When Nicole Bernard Dawes's co-founder father died, their company almost went down with him. Anastasiia Sapon.

Nicole Bernard Dawes started Late July Snacks in 2001, when she was pregnant and couldn’t find organic saltine crackers. Along with her father and mentor, Steve Bernard, who had previously founded Cape Cod Potato Chips, they built Late July into a national organic snack brand. Then tragedy and the recession threatened to pull it apart. Dawes explains how she and Late July made it through.

–As told to Lindsay Blakely

My dad was probably the greatest snack salesperson in history. In 2003, he came on board as the CEO and I was president. Very quickly, we went national in stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats. From 2003 to 2008, we were chugging along with solid 20 to 30 percent revenue growth each year.

Then, in late 2008, my father was told he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. The recession began to hit organic foods. A packaging problem cost us money we didn’t have. A peanut butter recall, which didn’t involve our products, devas­tated sales of our peanut butter sandwich crackers–our No. 1 SKU at the time. Then, in March 2009, my 60-year-old father died.

We had never discussed what would happen with the company after he passed. I didn’t even have key-man insurance. Three weeks after he died, our bank called our $3 million loan as a result of a “death of a member” clause. We had never had any issues paying, but this was 2009 and our rate was only 1 percent–the bank was looking for reasons to call loans. We couldn’t pay the debt. I could’ve gone to my investors to raise money, but I would have lost control of the company.

I told our story to anyone who would listen, including the audience at a natural food products show. Afterward, this woman approached me from an alternative, ethical lender called RSF Social Finance, which works with nonprofits and social good companies. It wound up giving us a loan at about 7 percent and a revolving line of credit tied to our receivables.

Still, we needed to do more to come out of this as a company. I had always pitched my dad on making tortilla chips–both at Cape Cod and then at Late July–but he had always said no. He thought they were too risky, because salty snacks are so competitive and he thought it would take too much money to elbow our way into that market. But at this point, I had little to lose. So we discontinued our cookies line, which made up several million dollars of our revenue, and decided tortilla chips would be our future.

The problem was I knew almost nothing about our sales. My dad had handled this part of the business. When I started going on these sales calls with companies that had dealt with my father and introduced myself as the founder, a lot of these people didn’t even know I was involved.

I’ll never forget my first sales call for the tortilla chips in 2010. I was sick, but I desperately needed to land this retailer to also secure a distributor. At the end of the meeting, the buyer asked if there was anything else I wanted to talk about. Everything was on the line, so I just said what I needed most: “It would be fantastic if you could tell me right now your answer.” He was quiet for a minute, but then he looked at me and said yes. I knew better than to push it any further, so I got out of there as quickly as I could. By the time I got home, I had a 104-degree fever.

Learning how to sell was definitely a process, but it became so much easier when I learned to trust that I already knew everything I needed to know–from the recipe and where it came from down to why we price and size our snacks the way we do. The first full year our chips were on the market, in 2011, our revenue grew almost 70 percent. This year we’re on track for more than $85 million in revenue. We were an overnight success–seven years in the making.