People before profit: Bob’s Red Mill

Bob's Red Mill founder Bob Moore

Bob Moore (CCL cheeseslave)

On his 81st birthday, employees at Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods in Milwaukie, Oregon, threw a party for their boss, company founder and president Bob Moore. But it was the employees who got the present.

Moore surprised his 209 employees two years ago by announcing that he was giving them the company. He signed papers that day turning over almost a third of the company to them, and laid out plans to gradually hand over the rest through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).

Moore had received a steady stream of buy-out offers for the privately held company. And he and his wife Charlee have three sons to whom they could have left the business. But Moore said the choice was obvious. He told ABC’s Diane Sawyer:

It’s the only business decision that I could make. I don’t think there’s anybody worthy to run this company but the people who built it. I have employees with me right now that have been with me for 30 years. They just were committed to staying with me and now they’re going to own the company.

Moore owned a gas station in L.A. in the ’50s. He sold it and moved to Mammoth Springs, California, to escape the smog. There he bought another gas station. It failed, and Moore and his wife lost everything they owned. They lived for a while in a vacant rental house lent them by their pastor while they tried to get on their feet again.

In 1974, Moore started Moore’s Flour Mill in Redding. He eventually sold it and moved to Portland, Oregon, to go to seminary. But, out for a walk  one day in Oregon City–Koine Greek flashcards in hand–he saw an old mill for sale. He ended up buying it, and Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods was born.

Then, in 1988, arsonists burned the mill to the ground. Says Moore:

I lost everything. I lost our entire investment. I know what it feels like in my stomach when you can’t pay the bills.

So, at 59–an age when most people are starting to count the days till retirement–Moore relocated to Milwaukie, and started over.

Bob’s Red Mill brought in over $110 million last year. Moore has declined to value the company, but the ESOP means at least hundreds of thousands of dollars for each employee.

Moore told Diane Sawyer:

It’s a good old basic Bible lesson, and that is that the love of money is the root of all evil. And unfortunately our entire philosophy today is just to get all the money you can in any way you can. It’s caused many corporations to bite off more than they can chew. And it causes people to do a lot of things just for money that they feel in their hearts is not the right thing to do. I just truly truly truly tried to set some of that aside and do what I thought was the best thing for the group of people who made this all possible.

There’s a biography of Moore out, written by former Portland journalist Ken Koopman. It’s entitled People Before Profit: The Inspiring Story of the Founder of Bob’s Red Mill.

I mean, really, what else would you call it?

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