By Kelly Nottermann, Communications Director, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
Francie Caccavo was a female founder before the term became trendy. Back in 1991 when she started Olivia’s Croutons, she was simply a young mother looking for a creative way to work from home and be present for her children, then two and three years old.
A self-described foodie who loves to cook, Caccavo noticed that there were very few croutons available commercially, and nothing that was particularly good. She started playing with recipes in her home kitchen, settling on a classic butter and garlic crouton, which she sold in paper bags hand stamped with her daughter’s name—Olivia’s.
Word spread. She contracted with a little bakery to provide bread and began selling her croutons in a few local stores. In those early days, she made all the deliveries herself and then rushed home to meet her son, David, getting off the bus. Eventually, she hired a neighbor to help out. And then another.
Four locations and 30 years later, Olivia’s Croutons now operates from a 36,000 square-foot facility in Brandon and employs between 14 and 20 employees depending on the season. She makes five different varieties of croutons—including a gluten free option—and three bread stuffings which are sold across the country. Her grandchildren are about the same age her own children were when she started the company.
It’s a Vermont success story by many measures, but Caccavo has traveled a long and often challenging road from entrepreneur to business owner. “It took a while for me to understand that a business can struggle and still succeed,” she said.
The company’s 2017 move from a 5,000 square-foot facility to their current 36,000 square-foot building in Brandon was a struggle, and a big one. “The building allowed us capacity to grow tenfold,” said Caccavo, “but that doesn’t happen overnight.” Despite running a lean ship, the company was facing financial trouble. Sales were under projections and fixed expenses were holding fast. Caccavo and her husband were putting their own money into the business and “hoping more would come in than go out” each month. Other than the bank and each other, they felt they had no one to turn to—no partners, no CFO, no board of directors—for guidance.
“I was feeling pretty down,” said Caccavo. “I felt alone and like I was going to fail, and like I was the only person to ever fail in this way.”
Simplifying to see the big picture.
Caccavo had considered business coaching before, but had dismissed it as too expensive. However, when Lawrence Miller—a business consultant and the former Vermont Secretary of Commerce and Community Development—reintroduced her to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s (VSJF) business management coaching program, she decided to make the call. The program provides professional support to Vermont companies navigating critical transitions through a network of entrepreneurial coaches.
After Geoff Robertson, VSJF’s director of business assistance at the time, met with Caccavo and toured the facility, she was paired with not one coach, but two VSJF business coaches—Steve Voigt, the former president and CEO of King Arthur Flour, and Victor Morrison, a business coach and former CEO/President Financial Operations Manager for companies including IBM, Dr. Hauschka Skincare, and American Flatbread.
“I just felt better after I got off the phone,” said Caccavo. “I didn’t feel quite so deficient. I felt like there was hope and I was going to get through this.”
She began meeting monthly with Voigt and Morrison, who helped her understand and improve her financial position and work through the challenges of managing a growing team in a new space.
“Francie intimately knew everything about the crouton business,” said Voigt. “She has great instinct around new products and was ahead of her time with a gluten free line, but personnel and financial literacy issues were pulling her backwards.”
Morrison agreed. “She was growing 20 percent a year, which is unheard of, but she couldn’t see how good that was because her bottom line was being driven down by increased fixed costs.”
The pair helped Caccavo realign sales projections, determine pricing for her product, forecast three- to four-months out, and create a financial narrative that was simple to explain to lenders. “The ability to understand and communicate your finances in clear and simple terms is important for running a business and conveys a professionalism that is important to banks,” said Morrison.
“The moral support was as important as the financial guidance,” said Caccavo. “They had all these experiences to draw on that they shared with me. It helped me realize that it’s not always perfect—there are lots of other companies that have struggled with these same issues.”
Creating a culture of accountability.
As the relationship evolved, Voigt and Morrison realized how much Caccavo relied on that moral support and invited her to lead the monthly conversations. “We had a plan and a scope of work,” said Morrison, “but we were flexible. We started each call with ‘What is most pressing for you today?’ and were able to use those conversations to get to the core of some management issues.”
On one of those calls, Caccavo expressed her frustration with an employee who was consistently underperforming and becoming toxic to the organization. Uncomfortable with the idea of letting someone go, Voigt and Morrison coached her on the idea that she wasn’t doing anyone any favors keeping an employee who was unhappy and not doing their job well. “Showing someone the door is not always unkind. Sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for the company and the person,” said Morrison.
In another conversation, Caccavo revealed she was literally walking miles within the building every day to check in on employees, relying on a management approach that worked in a smaller facility but was wasting time and energy in the bigger space. In addition to setting up a radio system for communication, Morrison and Voigt helped Caccavo set up metrics for employee evaluation that led to greater accountability and move from minimum wage to a livable wage to attract higher caliber employees.
“It’s a big challenge for managers to move into the role of visionary and feel comfortable with guiding and supporting employees,” said Voigt. “We talked with Francie about making time to work on the business instead of in the business.”
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to solve problems all day,” added Morrison, “especially when you want something done your way, but it’s a giant distraction. With time, leaders realize there are 100 different ways to solve a problem, and theirs is not always the best.”
Freedom to think about ‘what’s next.’
With more control over her finances, improved company culture, and new systems for accountability, Caccavo and her husband have begun to think about what’s next. Last winter, Francie spent six weeks working remotely-—an experiment she could not have imagined a few years back. She has started spending more time with her grandchildren and can see a future for the company where she’s not there every day.
“Founders have a strong personal connection to their business. It’s hard to walk away,” said Voigt. “The work she’s done on her finances and entrusting employees with some of the roles she and her husband have assumed for decades were the first steps in allowing them to think about stepping back.”
“The things we talked about exist in every business on the planet in some shape or form,” said Morrison. “We can draw on stories from our past and say, ‘this is what happened to me, this is what I did, and this is how it resolved.’ The greatest benefit of the VSJF coaching program is that the coaches have seen and done it all. We’re not making this stuff up. We’ve been there and can relate.”
Voigt agreed. “Three people will generate more and better ideas than one in year four or year 30 of business,” he said.
In hindsight, Caccavo says the cost of coaching was worth every penny, and then some. “When you’re in the struggle,” she said, “it’s hard to see a path to success, but someone else who has been in a similar spot can see it for you. It pulls you up.”
About VSJF Business Management Coaching Program
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provides tailored, high-touch planning, coaching, and advising for business owners and their management teams to advance profitability, job creation, and sustainable job development. For more information about business management coaching, visit www.vsjf.org.