The “Us” in Business

15 06 2007

 Kopali Bus

By Jill Ettinger

How do you measure things? In dried mangoes of course. At least Norman Brooks does. Dinner for four? Seventy bags of mangoes. A year long veggie-oil bus tour around the country? Two hundred thousand bags. Brooks and son Stephen, along with an exceptional crew, comprise Kopali Organics. Born out of the interest from Whole Foods to carry unique products (like banana vinegar), Kopali started to source the finest tasting foods with a mission: promoting dried mulberries and heirloom tahini from a women’s cooperatives in Turkey, and sustainable farmed bananas in Costa Rica (where they also have an educational farm called Punta Mona), and of course delicious dried mangoes from Mexico. Before long, Kopali had dedicated sections in Whole Foods around the country, and the veggie bus traveling to every one to offer demos and interactive education on sustainability.

Passion is quite common in the natural foods industry. It’s a fairly young and ambitious movement, but with big plans. Triple bottom line is becoming standard practice for many companies, from manufacturers to distributors to retailers. While many veterans of this industry still lead the way in pioneering new products and projects, every day more and more converts come aboard with visions, talent and enthusiasm – like Brooks. A dentist by trade, he raised his family in South Florida’s Miami Shores neighborhood. Son Stephen went off to college, and came home with ideas most fathers would shrug off. But Brooks knows a good idea when he hears it, even if coming from an incredibly determined son. Both father and son are effective businessman, yes, but both compassionate men before anything.

I spent the better part of this last week in company with Norman and members of the Kopali crew.  A set of unusual circumstances sent me to ask his help, but I had no idea just how much he would effect me. Similar to Kopali, Sunfood Nutrition is experiencing rapid growth. If I worked around the clock without sleep, there’d still be work. It’s not a complaint; quite the contrary. I love what I do, but I also recognize the limitations of my abilities. It takes discipline and sometimes even force to tear myself away (and write blogs!). In the midst of our growing pains, a tradeshow paperwork mix up left Sunfood without a booth. Plane tickets and hotel reservations paid in advance and just a week before the show, the phone call comes about the error. My mind scrambled for solutions.

Having been in this industry as long as I have, I am fortunate enough to know many people. A list ran around in my head of who I could call to see about splitting a booth. Surprisingly, I did not think first of my old colleagues, but rather of Kopali. We are one of the sponsors on the Conscious Goods Alliance veggie bus tour, so perhaps it would make sense for us to share a table and talk about our partnership as we sampled products. Of course we would pay Kopali for use of their table and help out in every way we could. Norman, however, insisted he would take no money. “The table’s already paid for,” he said “just come, we’ll make room for you!”

As the hours inside the uncomfortably cold ballroom seemed to slow to a still, I found myself marveled by him. We signed on to the bus tour in March, and prior to that I had only met Norman briefly once before. Here I stood in utter amazement watching this dentist, who a few short years ago probably never thought he would be doing what he’s now doing. He makes you feel instantly comfortable. There are no fronts with this guy, he loves everyone so obviously, so enthusiastically and beautifully, it’s simply wonderful to witness.

This industry is growing fast. There is a lot of money, and like other industries, there are some people whose focus is extremely myopic. But then, there are people that define what sets things apart. Money does matter. But so do mangoes. And mango farmers. And everyone and everything in between.  Brooks sees things from a perspective focused on the inherent good in each of us, the communities we are striving to create. This year Norman will make his fourth trip  to Burning Man with Stephen and the crew. This is a man who stands for something, but flows with everything.

So back to the trade show. Sharing the table with Norman’s team was not only a humble reminder of the things I value tremendously, but a plethora of connections, learning experiences and ideas for ways we can continue to work together as companies, as individuals and as partners. I realized the money I offered to pay him for the experience was something I couldn’t measure, even in mangoes. The least I could do was treat him to dinner. Norman snatched the check out of my hand with Muhammad Ali like quickness.

During one of our intense conversations over the week, Norman told me a story he heard from his Rabbi. “What gives you a good name?” he asked me. I knew I would stumble over answers and miss the point, but I obliged, “good actions.” He smiled and said that was what most people would say, but the real answer is “when you become goodness. When you become integrity and honesty so much that you are inseparable from it.” As I looked up into his gentle eyes I smiled, as the proof was standing right in front of me.




One response

17 06 2007

I have had the pleasure of spending time with the remarkable Brooks men myself, and I think you got it spot on.
They’re generous in every way and so smart.
Thanks very much for your great article about Stephen and Norm.
I highly recommend a trip to Punta Mona!

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