Business

4th generation business leader on the challenge of running a company in New England

For four generations, Blake’s All Natural Foods has made a variety of organic and all natural meals from its headquarters in Concord, N.H. The company began when Charlie Blake baked his first made-from-scratch pot pie in 1970 and it continues today under the leadership of Blake’s son-in-law, Chris Licata, the current company president.

Blake’s employs around 40 people and its meals, which include chicken pot pie and shepherd’s pie as well as many others, can be found all across the United States, including in Whole Foods and Hannaford stores. Having married into a family with a long history of running a New England based business, Licata has a unique perspective on the challenges of running national company based here. He answered some questions on those challenges via e-mail for Boston.com.

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Boston.com: Is it hard to be nationally competitive operating out of New England?

Chris Licata: New England is a great place from which to run Blake’s. We ship our meals all over the US—the associated freight can be expensive but the majority of our business is still done in the Eastern United States. We’ve been fortunate to establish longstanding relationships with an incredible group of suppliers, financial institutions and business advisers and they are all based in New England.

Boston.com: Do you think there is anything that can be done to make the region more business friendly?

Licata: According to a report I recently read, New Hampshire is home to approximately 30,000 small businesses. Many of these small businesses are growing but are not fully bankable. There are several lending institutions that are ideally suited to help New Hampshire small business owners, such as Vested for Growth (a division of the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund) and Capital Regional Development Council (CRDC).

It would be great if these and other similar lending resources were more widely known throughout the state so more small businesses could take advantage of their services.

Boston.com: Will consumers pay more for what they see as a high quality product?

Licata: I think that, for many consumers, price is only one component of choosing an item or brand when they go to their local store. The idea of “high quality” has expanded over the past several years to include where food is produced, how it’s produced, by whom it’s produced and the ingredients that are used.

I believe that consumers who are concerned about these factors will pay more at the store because they understand meals produced by companies committed to better ingredients, better processes and a great work environment for their employees usually cost more to produce.

Boston.com: What has been the biggest challenge of keeping a family-run business going?

Licata: It’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t look at our challenges as a family business as being much different from a regular business.The only real difference is that I am thankful to face the challenges, whatever they may be, with my family by my side, instead of working with a board of directors that isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations. Many family businesses can divide and destroy a family. For us the process of working together has actually brought us closer.

Boston.com: If you could change one law, what would it be?

Licata: The one national program (not a law) I would change would be the nutritional requirements set forth in the national school lunch program. Despite the awareness of childhood obesity, early onset diabetes, and other health issues for our kids, the quality of the food in most schools has not improved and is simply unacceptable.

If the national school lunch program guidelines were established by the CDC and not the USDA I have a feeling the food choices in our kids’ schools would be much better. Blaming the required costs and funding challenges to make wholesale change is always a convenient excuse, but frankly, I believe few things are more important than the long-term investment in our kids’ health.

Boston.com: How are you planning for the fifth generation of your family to ultimately take over the business?

Licata: The fifth generation of Blake’s All Natural would be my 9-year-old daughters, Lucy and Blake. This past summer they started their own business called Blake & Lucy’s Lunchbox which was their idea of marrying their lemonade stand with the Blake’s promise of providing healthy, nutritious meal options to as many people as possible.

The girls went to the town of Newbury, N.H., and presented their business plan to the Board of Selectmen in order to receive a permit to set up their business at the southern tip of Lake Sunapee. After they were approved, the girls started selling healthy lunches in June 2012 to Lake Sunapee visitors. At the end of the summer, the girls donated approximately half of all of their sales to The Molly Fund, a charity close to our family’s heart.

When the school year started, several moms from our town asked if they could purchase Blake & Lucy’s Lunchbox meals as a healthy alternative during “away” games for their sons and daughters who played fall sports. Blake &Lucy’s Lunchbox has been filling this need ever since and is achieving a company objective of improving the quality of food in our local school district.

So, to answer the original question, Blake and Lucy are already involved in the Blake’s business through their own business.

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