Bob Moore was just shy of 50 when he started his first grain milling business. His only knowledge of the industry came from a book about an archeologist who rebuilt a flour mill and went into business with no prior experience. While Moore’s own background running filling stations and a tire store made the career pivot seem improbable at the time, the company today is one of the largest whole-grain food companies in the country. And Moore, who turned 93 on February 15, still shows up for work every day.
Moore was born in Portland in 1929, though the family relocated to San Bernardino, California, shortly afterward. His entire childhood was marked by the Great Depression and he became a teenager under the shadow of World War II. After graduating high school, he spent three years in the Army, then leveraged the money from the recently-passed G.I. Bill to go to school for electronics manufacturing, learning enough to land himself a job in a test lab with U.S. Electrical Motors.
In 1952, he had his first date with future wife Charlee, who also worked at U.S. Electrical. As Moore tells it, “They called her Chuck. I was fascinated by someone telling me about the girl named Chuck,” Moore said. “I wanted to know who she was…I asked her out for dinner, and the rest is history.”
Moore briefly owned a filling station in Los Angeles after the pair got married but the smog in the city influenced them to sell the station and move to Mammoth Lakes, a small mountain resort town in just north of Los Angeles. Moore opened a second gas station but it failed after a year, marking what he calls “the first time I went broke.” They family moved to Sacramento where they temporarily lived in a rental owned by their minister. Moore got a job working as a manager at a Firestone Tires store and got back on his feet.
The family next bought a five-acre goat farm where he and Charlee would raise their three boys. He and his sons sold milk and eggs locally. It was at this time Charlee began experimenting with baking whole grain bread. “My wife baked some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted in my life. So I was converted I guess into a different way of eating.” It was Charlee’s grandmother that instilled her own interest in living a healthy lifestyle. She apparently sent them books on health that Moore says people weren’t used to at the time, covering topics like whole grains, natural foods, organic, etc.
When he stumbled upon the book “John Goffe’s Mill,” the story of a man who, with no prior experience, resurrected his family’s ancestral flour mill, it gave him a new purpose and focus. He immersed himself in the ancient art of stone milling, researching historic mills and contacting dozens of people and companies trying to locate millstones and other flour-making equipment. He found his first traditional stone-grinding flour millstones from a company in North Carolina and in 1974 started his first mill business, Moore’s Flour Mill, with the help of Charlee and his now-grown sons. The business was an instant success and Bob and Charlee retired just a few years later, leaving their sons in charge of the mill.
As fate would have it, the now-retired Moore’s were on a walk one day when they came upon an old feed mill that was for sale. After a lot of conversation and prayer, in 1978, he and Charlee opened the doors of Bob’s Red Mill. The business began producing stone ground flours and cereals for the local area, selling direct through their attached store. Moore recalls that the business wasn’t very big but he was very happy and was making money. Then Mr. Fed G. Meyer entered the picture.
Meyer, who owned the Northwest grocery chain Fred Meyer. When Meyer first asked Moore about putting Red Mill products in his grocery stores, Moore told hime no. But he came back, “and then next thing you know I had to have more space, rented a warehouse, and it’s just never stopped. It’s really been incredible.”
The company did have one major setback – a devastating fire destroyed the mill in 1988, marking the second time Moore went broke. The couple borrowed $2.5M to rebuild the factory and warehouse in Milwaukie, Oregon, which was up and running less than a year later. The company continued expanding into small markets and taking on new wholesale customers. They were one of the first gluten-free mills in 1991, and one of the first to offer specialty grains and cereals in retail-sized packaging. They were also one of the first flour mills to build labs that tested their products to certify organic and gluten-free compliance. By 1995, it was estimated that Bob’s Red Mill’s annual revenue was between $30 million and $50 million.
Moore calls Bob’s Red Mill a “series of efforts, energies [and] fascinations, both on my part and on my wife’s part.” He also says that his biggest challenge throughout it all was his own success. “At the end of the months, the end of the quarter, the end of the year, I had money left over — profit.” Moore says this “problems” pointed him toward his favorite quote from the Bible, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” to help form a transition plan.
It’s a statement Moore says has guided how he runs both his life and his business. In the early 80s, when the company was starting to really take off, he devised a profit-sharing plan based on how long each employee had been with the company and their wage level. As Moore explains, “People are everything. I think you have to put people above money, even though money’s very important and you have to have money to keep your people. The love of money and the pursuit of it can get people in trouble.” Later, instead of taking one of the many offers he had to sell the business for a well-financed retirement, he opted instead to form an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, giving his employees one-third of the company in 2010.
Today, Bob’s Red Mill is 100% employee owned and still expanding into new product categories and markets. Moore told Fortune in a recent interview, “It seems like when I did these things that I believed in, the better the business did. So I guess for whatever it’s worth, I tried it and it worked.” While Bob has stepped down as CEO, he still serves as President and says he has no plans of slowing down. (Sources: NPR, PSU Vanguard, Oregon Business, Fortune)