Sometimes the Best Decision for Your Company Isn’t the Most Popular: An Interview with James Tonkin

Yitzi Weiner
Mar 28, 2019 · 26 min read
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“…reading his book gave me a lot of insight into making good decisions for the right reasons. Sometimes they may not be popular but they’re really important. Nobody told me that before I got in to becoming a leader myself. Understanding how you make good decisions and sharing that decision making process with others so they buy into the concept is really important.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing James S. Tonkin, President and Founder HealthyBrandBuilders

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I got into the industry kind of circuitously. I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1973 and immediately went into my father’s business, which was a manufacturing operation as well as a distributorship for 7UP, A&W Root Beer, the Crush line, Welch’s… We had about 60 different brands in the Bay area and Sacramento and up to the Nevada border. I worked for my dad from ’73 until ’82. I went through a massive training program until I became Vice President, General Manager of the business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the most fascinating opportunities I was able to participate in was when Mark Rampolla and I ended up trying to find our investment partners in the building process around ZICO coconut water. So we traveled all around the United States and even did some international travel to sit with potential investor partners that we thought we could bring to invest with us. At the end of our trip, after meeting with probably 15 or so investor partners, private equity firms, large family offices, companies like Nestle and Inventages and others, we ended up at the Coca-Cola company.

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Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I would say one of the funniest things that ever happened was when I was involved as a partner in a company called Napa Naturals. It was really one of the first of what we called in those days, in the early or mid ’80s, a new age beverage. And it was a white grape juice based or sweetened sparkling water and it had about 30% fruit juice in it. We put this product into cans and we got accepted at Safeway on the West Coast in Northern California, Portland and Seattle. So we started selling product there. And lo and behold after the product had been sitting on the store shelves for maybe 30–40 days, we started getting telephone calls from store managers that were saying there’s something going on with your product on the shelves.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

HealthyBrandBuilders has been called the go-to Beverage experts and I’ve been called a Beverage Guru. You don’t just get those titles out of the blue; they come to you usually because you earn them. One of the things that I’m incredibly proud of is that I learned from my father who was a quite a taskmaster in business and he taught me that there’s no easy way to get things done. You do things the right way or don’t do them.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m incredibly excited about the brand PATHWATER or is their website. This brand was started by the most unusual suspects, three 25-year-old college buddies who went to Georgetown University. They are transplants from the Middle East. They are hardworking, morally ethical individuals, who believe as many millennials do that they want to make a difference in everything that they do in their lives. They want to buy things that are meaningful; they want to do things that are meaningful. They want to be more mindful of the environment and ecology, and all of that as it relates to putting product on the market and bringing new food and beverage items as an example to consumers.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

I have tried to do this myself and am constantly amazed by either clients or other companies that I’ve seen where the brain trust, visionary or the visionary group really has a desire to want to lift up all the people that are helping to build the company and share the wealth. We have a terrible problem in the United States today where the wage disparagement, income platform and just plain wealth is at the top of the 1% chain. In order to work to try to change some of that, people starting or building companies can set up methods internally by which they can aggrandize and even financially incentivize everybody in the company through stock option pools or Employee Stock Option Plans, where downstream employees can even own a company when the visionaries or the founders decide to retire. Those kinds of things are wonderful.

How do you define “Leadership”?

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What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?

I gave up managing a large team in 1982; that’s the last time I managed over 200 employees. So I’m not one to give a lot of advice in that genre, but I would go back to the idea of disseminating responsibility. Make sure that you’re disseminating responsibility and that you’re not running the show from your desk. Give a license to succeed to lots of people in your organization. If you can’t level trust and empower your people to succeed, they won’t succeed. If they fail, you give them another chance. If they fail again, you replace them. That’s the world that we live in. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a big believer of disseminating responsibility. I also believe at the same time that you have a responsibility to perform. Therefore, have clear KPIs around deliverables individually and as a team. If you can’t meet those goals and deliver what you said you were going to do, you’ve got to move out of the way and let somebody else take the reins.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So I was very fortunate to be able to work for my great uncle and my father. They were business partners in the soft drink industry. My dad was a workaholic. He left very early in the morning in the days when I used to go to school in the morning. I left home at 12 and went to a private school and then onto college and I didn’t come home until I was 23 and that’s when I went to work for my dad. My uncle worked with the Finance and CEO side of the business so he worked with investors. He was very involved in civic activities and volunteerism. He was the outward face of the company, where my dad was more of the operator dealing with the role that a President would normally do, including production, managing marketing and sales on a day-to-day basis. My uncle was also an avid golfer. I played high school golf and a little bit of college golf. And I learned about golf and the wonders of the game from my great uncle, as I caddied for him on Saturday mornings at the country club he belonged to. I learned through the caddying process.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I took my uncle’s advice to heart so I’ve always tried to protect my name by doing things like being honest, forthright, doing what I say I’m going to do and being of good moral character. Those things I think are very important in the world today. There are people who don’t take that kind of advice. They’ve lost their religious center perhaps; they’ve lost their moral compass. There is a lot of crime and subversiveness around the world today and it’s a very sad commentary. But for those people that really care about others and making the world a better place, they continually give back. As you become fortunate in life, it’s very important for you to help those not as fortunate. My uncle is really the one who instilled all of that thought process in me as a youth. I’ve sat on many boards, from Muscular Dystrophy to Cerebral Palsy and now Vitamin Angels for the last 12 years and constantly been involved in raising money and giving back to those who are less fortunate than the Tonkin family. It makes me feel good to know that in my wake I have that. I was the President of a national service organization in 1984 called the Active 20–30 Club, and it was a group of young men in the Bay Area that got together and raised money mostly for kids’ charities. The watchword of that organization was, “A man never stands so tall as when he kneels to help a child.” That still today is such a beautiful saying. I hope people can find whatever it is within themselves that gives them a moral lift on a regular basis, that puts a smile on their face, whether it’s a kind word to somebody or helping a child or helping a friend, or just doing something that is out of the ordinary. I think those things are really important and the more you do them, the more they become a part of your life. Then you don’t even think about them, they just happen autonomically.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?

  1. How much time and energy it takes to be a good leader — to be a good CEO. It’s always going to take longer to get to the end zone than you think. It will cost more money and it will take twists and turns that you will not see coming. You can only prepare for certain things in life.
  2. Making good decision for the right reasons. Many people in life look at others as role models and they look to others with those starry eyes, if you will. As we all start out in our career, we always have role models and people that we look to and say I’d really like to be like them. One of my idols from a distance was Jack Welch. He’s been retired for many years. He was the former CEO of General Electric. And I think he did some amazing things in his career and reading his book gave me a lot of insight into making good decisions for the right reasons. Sometimes they may not be popular but they’re really important. Nobody told me that before I got in to becoming a leader myself. Understanding how you make good decisions and sharing that decision making process with others so they buy into the concept is really important. I never understood that in my youth.
  3. Be thankful for what’s around you. Count your blessings. There’s a lot of negativism in the world today. It’s very easy to get caught up in how to do things the wrong way and how bad everything is, to get very defeatist and depressed about things. At the end of the day you have to be thankful for the things you have around you and take time every day to count your blessings. And I don’t mean that in a religious way, I just mean we have 10 toes and 10 fingers. I’ve had eye surgery as an example in the least year and I have an upcoming cataract surgery. You don’t realize how important your eyes are until they become at risk. Nobody ever told me before I got into this sort of world that every day you have an obligation. And when you decide to slack off, you’re not only letting yourself down, you’re letting others down. Unless you are an island unto yourself and no one is counting on you, which typically is only a youthful situation, as we grow older, people are always counting on us, whether it’s family members or our parents or others. You have an obligation to continue to grow and growing means learning and changing and being mindful of others.
  4. Hiring and being around good people. I believe that good things happens when goodness abounds. Finding people that are meaningful to you, the same way that you would find brands to buy that would end up in your cupboard at home. You need to find what’s meaningful to you. I’m a big fan of being an individual and not being a part of the group. You may fall into a group inadvertently but try to develop your own thought processes.
  5. Be mindful of the outcomes of the decisions that you make and how they will affect others. Those are things that I think you don’t really know at the beginning of your life but you find as you move forward. George Herbert Walker Bush was recently buried and he’s had two funerals and a state service and he’s been aggrandized by many, many, many people from around the globe as one of the best presidents ever in the United States and he only served one term. But if you look at the reasons why he’s viewed that way, it isn’t because he got us in and out of the Kuwait war and things like that, it’s because of the person he was. Family was first to him. He always took time to be mindful of his family. He was incredibly warm and generous to all the people that worked around him in the White House and when he was in the CIA and other places. You don’t find out a lot of these stories until you start hearing people do these eulogies at your funeral. These grown men are not crying from the podium, as are his children and grandchildren, because they didn’t love him and didn’t respect him. Quite the opposite. I think we all want to leave the world a better place than when we found it. At the end of the day, that doesn’t happen by accident. It takes energy and thought and action to the positive in deference to the opposite.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It would be around providing sustenance; without drinking and eating you can’t live. There are millions and millions of people on this globe that are here but for the grace of their parents. They had no hand in being born. The fact that in America we have millions of people who are living on sidewalks, who are not able to get a hot meal, who have one set of clothes on their backs that they’re basically living in day in and day out, who are wearing old shoes, who are smoking cigarette butts out of trash cans, should cause us to be absolutely ashamed of ourselves as a nation, when we can give billions of dollars to other countries and we can help to support things around the world. We need to start taking stock of the people that are in America. We need to clean up our act before we can help clean up anybody else’s act. So one of the things I would love to do is work on this. And I am a part of this, I have given to the food banks in the Arizona marketplace since I’ve been here. I volunteer my time and energy when I can to do things that give back to the community. My energy and efforts on behalf of Vitamin Angels is a global effort. We touched 70 million women with prenatal vitamins and kids with vitamin packs in 48 countries around the world and the US to make sure we can prevent childhood blindness and give some additional nutritive value to women who are pregnant so their children are not born with birth defects, blindness or other diseases that inevitably will kill those children. I think it’s really important to continue leaning into those movements the same way that some people work around global warming and all those things. I do think we need to take responsibility as individuals to change our purchasing and our living behavior. I think we can give back and be charitable and try to help these people that are less fortunate have sustenance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is a real personal thing. I think my greatest life lesson came at the birth of my oldest son. 30 years ago, my son was born. We went through all the traditional processes of ultrasound and going to the doctor to make sure that the baby was fine, that the heartbeat was regular, that there weren’t any irregularities in the nine months of gestation. The anticipation that every single parent goes through… I delivered this little kid and he popped out into my arms and quickly we cut the umbilical cord and he was whisked away to the scales where they do the Apgar scores and everything. My son was born with two fingers on his left hand and what is traditionally known as a club foot, meaning his right foot was everted and bent 90 degrees towards the center of his body. That was something that we didn’t have any idea about before he came out. You go from the highest high you can absolutely imagine giving the blessing of life to this incredible devastating low, putting your arms around your child and saying he’s not perfection. It was a life lesson for me that took a long time to get through and to understand. My wife has always said the reason God gave us this child is because we had the power and the strength to get him through it. He has turned out to be the most wonderful child. He’s 30 years old now. He’s making his own way in the world. He has a great outlook and is a wonderful son. He’s living life in an imperfect environment. He can never play varsity sports but he’s excelled at so many other things in his life. He’s very bright and articulate. He’s running an office here with 30 employees in the Phoenix area for a company that’s opening 40 offices this year around the United States. And I couldn’t be any more proud of him in terms of what he’s doing with his life. I think the life lesson there is ‘When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.’ And that’s what we decided to do after we got our bearings and got over the shock of what happened. That in and of itself is a pretty amazing life lesson.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

It would be amazing to have breakfast or lunch with a couple different people. One is Warren Buffett. I’ve watched his career for many years and seen what he’s been able to do, his deftness around understanding how to buy and build companies and when to sell. When you look at a man like him, who is the salt of the earth, who didn’t have the sophistication of growing up of in a New York or LA marketplace, he has shown the world by working hard, paying attention, being judicious, helping others and giving back. His whole life he’s done all those things and he’s still now as vital a person in the marketplace as any person out there, from my perspective. The other I mentioned earlier is Jack Welch. I think he built one of the greatest companies in America. I think he was a great turnaround guy. He’s the perfect example of a man who was not big in stature but big in mind. He’s thoughtful and understands the economy; he understood the world dimensions of how to play together in the sandbox and built a gigantic company. He’s another man that I think it would be absolutely fabulous to spend some time with.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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