Our Member Diversity Spotlights are meant to highlight diverse businesses and members in our industry, but we also want to highlight stories of those who support and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive industry. We will be sharing these stories in our Member Diversity Ally Spotlights. The first feature is on Michael Theodor, the President of MT Consulting Services, who is greatly inspired by his father’s story as a Jewish Holocaust survivor.
Can you tell us about your story and what inspired you to be an ally?
We speak a lot in Canada about human rights, but for me as a child, the impact of hearing holocaust stories from living survivors in my family was especially influential. Those powerful family stories shaped my views of fairness, balance and respect for human life, especially while founding and operating Michael Theodor Brokerage for 33 years, Canada's first organic and natural food brokerage.
My story shares the influence from my father, Henry A. Theodor, who as a young man in Vienna, Austria, narrowly escaped the Nazi’s brutal attempt to annihilate an entire race of people. In 1938, shortly after the historic “Kristallnacht” (crystal night), when Jewish businesses had their windows smashed and contents burned, Henry Theodor's parents arranged to help him escape Vienna for the U.K., where he would have the sponsorship of a second cousin.
Henry boarded a train out of Vienna, and it was the last time he would see his parents. The steel bearings factory they owned would soon be confiscated by the Nazis and Henry's parents would be murdered. On the train, by sheer happenstance, he sat next to an English gentleman who had witnessed the Nazi SS jump on board to remove suspected Jews. The Englishman, thinking my dad might be Jewish, engaged him in conversation (my dad only knew a few English words) and somehow convinced him to speak English when the Nazi’s boarded at various stops—helping him avoid getting caught. My dad was very lucky that day. The kindness and wisdom of a stranger saved him from being taken to a concentration camp, and perhaps death.
In the U.K., he brushed up on his English skills and he eventually immigrated to the U.S., where he had a series of jobs, such as working in a steel mill and driving a lumber truck. Through strong determination, good character, being recognized for his skills, as well as having some higher education, Henry excelled. Those traits for success have had a strong influence on me.
Over time, Henry rose in the business world. By the mid 1940’s he became VP of a large peanut supplier in Pittsburgh. By the early 50’s he opened his own competing business that became very successful.
My dad then became a distributor of outdoor amusement supplies, which meant taking trucks to carnivals, fairgrounds and amusement parks. To educate me in spotting anti-Semitism, he would point out the customers on the fairgrounds who repeatedly peppered him with anti-Semitic comments.
Despite facing the prejudice for being born Jewish, my dad was never discredited for his ethics, fairness and reliability, because these were his real virtues, which he maintained throughout his life, and which I feel I inherited and use in our valued industry.
Being the child of someone who escaped the Nazi’s and having had to assimilate the deep suffering of that experience, helped me lay the groundwork of extending empathy to all in marginalized experiences. For that I am grateful.
Tell us about your business and what inspired you to create it.
I came to Canada in 1973 from Laguna Beach, California, where I became very interested in the up-and-coming organic movement in Southern California. After a couple of years of working in northern BC in the saw mill, tree planting, teaching yoga and then in Vancouver working at the original NAAM natural food store on 4th Ave, I bumped into an organic fruit grower in the Okanagan Valley (BC) in 1976. We became the first small company to sell BC grown organic fruit to natural food stores in BC and AB, as well as the new Granville Island Market, where we were the only sellers at the time of organic BC fruits. It became a big hit and we were interviewed on major television networks like CBC and CTV.
When the BC organic fruit business got so big, the farmers couldn’t keep up with the demand. So, I reached out to a brand in Southern California named Natural Nectar that had some very good natural products like honey sweetened ice cream, almond butter cups, and delicious bars which were very cutting-edge items. The owner knew me from my time in Laguna Beach and he asked, “Do you want to be our broker in Canada?” At the time, I didn’t even know what a broker was, but I took the offer, and that is when I started Michael Theodor Brokerage before it became MT Consulting.
My vision and mission was, and has always been, to create a better, less toxic world, by giving Canadian consumers the option of having organic products. That was in 1980 when I started, a time where organic wasn’t even a known category. Over the first 10 years into the 90’s I had the chance of introducing many organic products into the Canadian marketplace (mostly from the U.S.), like Rice Dream, Jason, Blue Sky, Lightlife, KIND Bar, Silk, Annie’s, Blue Diamond, Yogi Tea and many more. I was the only organic and natural products broker during that decade. I felt like an industry pioneer—the industry was still very small. Brands I worked with won over 30 Alive Awards.
What does diversity mean to you and how does it influence you as a business owner?
Canada is a multi-cultural country thriving in part because of diversity. Nonetheless, many of us in the organic/natural products industry have seen struggles (and successes) of many of our co-workers and industry partners.
Looking back to my starting date of 1980, diversity wasn’t even a word or idea being used. Even “multi-culturalism” wasn’t that well known. I quickly learned though, that hiring women and diverse people based on their skills was a smart idea. I had no computer skills, wasn’t a good office organizer, and had a lot to learn about running a business in Canada. High tech then was the continuous paper roll fax machine.
My first few employees were women and they were excellent, I have a lot of gratitude for them. Besides office management, I learned to listen to their suggestions and comments about the actual sales aspect of the business, which at the time I thought I knew everything when I didn’t. Also, back then, I hired by what skills the applicant had, and as it turned out, that helped to create a diverse work force at MTB (Michael Theodor Brokerage). I employed women, Asian-Canadians, Punjabi-Canadians, First Nations and more. So, by sheer happenstance and practical applications I learned how diversity influenced the success of my business, which was very rewarding.
What advice would you have for those who want to pursue a career or start a business in our industry?
Great opportunities still exist in our industry and new products are appearing at a high frequency.
Here's a few points to consider for starting a business:
- Research the product category you’d like to launch into carefully. Do an audit of the bigger stores and online sellers to see what’s out there and at what suggested retail prices.
- Make sure the raw materials you need are readily available.
- Look carefully at what competition exists for the product category you’re interested in and do a serious financial assessment to make sure your project is viable.
- Try not to launch a “me too” product. Create a point(s) of differentiation.
- Invest in dynamic, impactful packaging and digital imaging by hiring a top-notch graphic design company.
- Build a smart, diverse team that shares your vision and mission.
- Research in advance the best channels of distribution for your products.
- Have the financial resources to get through the initial launch period of about a year. You may spend more than what you sell in the first year, so be prepared.
- Join the CHFA to partner with the voice of our industry.