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roller coaster

CPG strategist, nutrition clients ride pandemic roller coaster

From early pangs of fear to a full-blown crisis, the ups and downs of guiding business through the past few months is a ride mixed with challenges and opportunities.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of first-person accounts describing the effects of the coronavirus on individuals and their businesses in the natural products industry.

Outside of it being three days before my birthday, January 27th has never had any meaningful connection to my life ... until now.

Halfway through a seemingly normal weekly Monday client call, I was asked my thoughts surrounding “if this coronavirus situation had enough legs to create problems?” At that exact moment, I knew COVID-19 had jumped from a looming threat to a clear and present danger in my professional life. Not unlike the network effects multiplying the viral pandemic, it only took a few days for more coronavirus questions to come my way.

While in San Diego, California, speaking at a sports nutrition conference, I was tangled in deep conversations with raw material suppliers, contract manufacturers and consumer businesses owners considering what level of supply-chain disruptions would be seen in the industry.  I remember hearing a prominent supply-side leader say, “There won’t be much for interruptions because everything is closed for Chinese New Year anyway.” That statement gave me hope that the hours of strategic game theories running through my head was a simple overreaction.

As I left the conference and headed to Denver for a short client visit, I should’ve taken the next day’s non-forecasted heavy snowstorm as an omen for what was about to come my way.

By mid-February the inquiries surrounding coronavirus precautionary contingency planning and stress testing were no longer just from my largest clients but still hadn’t reached my whole client portfolio. With important trade shows (Expo West and Arnold Sports Festival) right around the corner, most of the startups were “head down” and focused on making the biggest impact they could at these key events. It wasn’t that these entrepreneurs weren’t fixated on the impeding COVID-19 pandemic like the rest of the world, they just didn’t have the same luxury of larger companies. Fact is, a meaningful proportion of these startups yearly operating budget was on the line and, at that moment, it provided a bigger risk to business continuity than COVID-19.

As Expo West fast approached, it seemed an outcry for cancellation was building within the natural product community, but the show was said to be going on and due to some last-minute shuffling of projects, I needed to fly into Los Angeles a day earlier. I used those three hours of flight time to plot out my plan to dedicate all of my networking, content creation, and strategic thinking bandwidth to any exhibitor that was in a position of attendance because “they had to” for business continuity reasons.

The reimagined trade show game plan was set, but I first had to focus on an integral client meeting. I could hear my phone vibrating more than usual, but I initially resisted grabbing it to check the notifications until I was done with the presentation. As most of you can guess, those notifications were from worried startup clients that had just been told that Expo West was now canceled, and they were instructed to tear everything down and pack up.

Sleeping was hard that night…really hard! I couldn’t turn my brain off and would wake up just about every hour with half-brained ideas that I scribbled on the small hotel notepad next to my bed. Among those scribbles was one that said, “Turn dials to zero,” which was a shorthand reminder for me to apply worst-case scenarios of zero. In the almost eight years of strategic consulting within the CPG industry, I can remember very few instances where I even considered applying that level of business interruption.

It’s now the first few days of April, which probably makes you wonder where the rest of March went in my story.

Considering the abundance of emails, phone calls, text messages, social media DMs and sticky notes on my desk, I can only place the puzzle pieces together to reveal a picture of a roller coaster. If you’ve ever visited an amusement park like Cedar Point, you know that even the steepest drops quickly turn back into an upward trajectory from momentum you’ve built earlier in the ride. This is a defining moment: either everyone is going to close their eyes or they’re going to put their hands up in the air and love everything that happens because they know every challenge is an opportunity to get better.

Joshua Schall, MBA, is a digital-first consumer packaged goods (CPG) strategist and entrepreneur that focuses on the emerging and intersecting categories of value-added (or functional) food, beverage, beauty, and nutritional supplements. He currently is the owner of J. Schall Consulting, an Austin, TX-based boutique management consulting company that focuses on digital growth strategies for CPG brands that range from pre-launch to portfolio companies with more than $500M in yearly revenue. His dynamic fascination of CPG has allowed him to become an expert at the full entrepreneurial ideation to consumerization cycle.

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