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Newman’s Own at 35: Still keeping it fresh

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“I don’t think there’s anything exceptional or noble in being philanthropic. It’s the other attitude that confuses me.”

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A.E. Hotchner and Paul Newman.

So said Paul Newman in a 2002 interview with “Film Monthly”, responding to a question about Newman’s Own. Based in Westport, the food company, which Newman started with longtime friend and author A.E Hotchner, is observing its 35th anniversary this year. It remains a testament to the work that the legendary star of “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Sting” and countless other movies did offscreen.

Beginning with a simple olive oil-and-vinegar salad dressing — its first 500 cases shipped to Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk on Aug. 25, 1982 — Newman’s Own today offers over 300 products for sale, with 100 percent of its profits going to charities around the world. To date, more than $495 million has been donated to charitable organizations, with the Newman’s Own Foundation, created in 2005, now supporting about 600 grantees each year.

“The embarrassing thing is that my salad dressing is outgrossing my films,” Newman once quipped.

In recognition of the food company’s anniversary, the Newman’s Own Foundation last month announced it was awarding grants of $35,000 to 15 of its original nonprofit recipients, including Westport’s CLASP Homes, Homes with Hope, the Westport Historical Society, Westport Library and Westport Volunteer EMS; Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium, Carver Foundation, Norwalk Hospital and Fairfield’s Save the Children.

Since Newman’s death in 2008, more than $239.3 million has been given to charity, representing 48 percent of the foundation’s total donations, compared with $260.5 million given away in the previous 26 years. The fund’s compounded annual growth rate over the past nine years is 5 percent.

Impressive — or, as one of Newman’s Own’s pasta sauces would have it, “sockarooni” — numbers, which Newman himself would have been bowled over by, according to Newman’s Own President and CEO Robert H. Forrester.

Speaking from the company’s headquarters at 1 Morningside Drive North in Westport, Forrester said Newman’s attitude toward business was best encapsulated by a sign that now hangs in its boardroom: “If we had a plan, we’d be screwed.”

“It’s a part of our heritage,” Forrester said. “He didn’t want Newman’s Own to be overly corporate but to rely on good ideas coming from our people and conversations instead of memos or committee meetings. It was part of the ‘creative chaos’ he’d experienced as an actor — that when the curtain goes up, what you see is the result of opinions being offered not just by actors and directors but also from drivers, the guy who brings in the coffee, and so on.”

Forrester said that the 90 employees of Newman’s Own and the foundation are free to express their thoughts and opinions, including ideas as to potential grant recipients. Grants are awarded by invitation, meaning the foundation doesn’t seek solicitations, although it “respectfully” responds to all such queries.

“We do our own research and get recommendations from colleagues, peers and others — and we do quite a bit of due diligence,” said Jan Schaefer, the foundation’s communications director. “We support organizations within our focus areas that fit specific criteria, including the ability to leverage foundation resources to stimulate giving from other sources.”

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Robert Forrester

Forrester, a veteran consultant to nonprofit organizations — he was founder, chairman and CEO for some 25 years of Payne, Forrester & Associates, an international consulting firm for nonprofits — was introduced to Newman by a mutual acquaintance in 1993. “We instantly became friends. Paul was at a point in his life when he’d begun to reflect more on what was most important to him, which led to the whole issue of philanthropy and working with people.”

“He believed that everybody has the capacity to bring luck into people’s lives who were less fortunate,” said Forrester. “Paul always felt he’d been lucky to be born in America and to have a look that was right for movies, and that that was all luck of his circumstances, not of his own making.”

After helping to turn around Newman’s first international Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children in Barretstown, Ireland, Forrester, an Avon resident, continued to work for Newman and his organization without pay for several years. He donated a substantial amount of his Payne, Forrester salary — reportedly around $2.7 million — to the actor’s charities.

In 2005, Newman named Forrester as the first president and COO of the foundation and later as chairman and CEO of Newman’s Own Inc., as well as co-executor of the Hollywood star’s will.

“With my background, it was like going from playing in the minor leagues to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park,” Forrester said. “I looked at (running the foundation) as a privilege, and all these years later it’s still a privilege.”

Forrester may have won Newman’s trust, but most of the rest of the clan reportedly have not followed suit – most notably Nell Newman, who in 1993 had started the Newman’s Own Organics subsidiary. Originally featuring her and her father on those products’ labelling, those products have featured only Paul since Nell’s license expired on Dec. 31, 2014.

She now runs The Nell Newman Foundation in California, which awards grants in 10 core program areas, including the environment and education; she did not respond to requests for comment.

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Part of the product lineup.

Today, Newman’s widow Joanne Woodward serves as honorary chair of the Newman’s Own Foundation, while daughter Clea Newman Soderlund is its vice president. No other Newman family members are involved with Newman’s Own.

“It was Paul Newman’s wish to run the business independently, not as a family business,” Schaefer said. “The foundation was therefore set up by Paul as an independent, private foundation.”

Organic food products, once a niche line relegated to specialty stores or a single shelf in larger grocery stores, have since become such a staple that the Newman’s Own company expects to launch several new organic products in the first quarter of 2018, according to Schaefer. Organic products now make up “nearly half” of its product
line, she said.

Keeping the Newman’s Own name going represents some unique challenges, although the fact that many of today’s younger consumers might not be familiar with either Newman the actor or Newman the philanthropist is nothing new, Forrester said. “That was already happening towards the end of his life,” he said, noting that Newman’s last onscreen movie role was in 2002’s “Road to Perdition.”

“He actually enjoyed being known as ‘the guy on the salad dressing,’” Forrester chuckled. “I was with him and another guy at a function, and somebody came up thinking the other guy was Paul Newman. He liked that — it was never about himself. One of the great strengths of Newman’s Own was that it was never a personal thing for Paul.”

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Paul Newman pulling salad dressing bottle out of a magic hat. First bottles were shipped August 1982.

While his celebrity was undeniably instrumental in the brand’s initial success, “He knew that people wouldn’t buy his products a second time if they didn’t taste good,” said Forrester.

To that end, the company is continuing to experiment with new recipes to keep things fresh, and not just in terms of branding.

“We’ve always been a company interested in providing food that features ingredients you can grow in a garden, not in a laboratory,” Forrester said.
Producing food with an accent on nutrition is also of major importance, he added, though admitting that products like the company’s Alfredo sauce “probably wouldn’t be at the top of a dietician’s recommendations.”

In addition to such recent additions as mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, Newman’s Own in the near term plans to introduce new pasta sauce and frozen pizza varieties alongside its ever-growing list of salad dressings, salsa, lemonade, cookies, snacks and pet food.

Schaefer said the private company does not disclose revenue figures. D&B Hoovers, Dun & Bradstreet’s online data consultant for businesses, estimates Newman Own’s annual revenue at approximately $10.65 million.

The Westport company still faces the challenges of going up against the behemoths of the food industry, Forrester said. But as long as it maintains its collaborative and charitable course, he said, Newman’s Own remains well-positioned for continued success.

Not bad for a business that Newman himself once remarked “started as a joke and got out of control.”

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