Five years ago, when Carol Head decided she wanted to leave the corporate world and become her own boss, the Stanford M.B.A. looked at nearly 100 businesses to buy in every imaginable industry, but couldn't find one that met her criteria.
After all, she not only wanted to sell a product of "high, high quality" but one she could afford, among other qualities.
"I had only so much money," she said. "I also wanted something that was scalable that I could really grow."
Head, who over the prior 25 years had held executive marketing and operations positions with the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee, Times Mirror Co. and Bizrate.com, finally found the perfect fit in 2002: Oliver's Backerei, which makes and supplies gourmet artisan breads to restaurants and retailers.
She bought Oliver's from an actor, who had been running the business in L.A. since 1994. The actor had worked with company founder and German baker Oliver Zaenglein, and took over when Oliver died the next year. Head changed the name to Oliver's Artisan Breads.
Head funded the purchase with all of her savings, a second mortgage on her home, and a small business loan. While she didn't have much baking experience she appreciated good food and was impressed with the product and the business's heavyweight customers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. She also knew the company needed some business direction and an infrastructure overhaul.
"I was buying a customer list and a set of recipes," said Head. "I've been able to really build on it."
Indeed, since then, the bakery moved out of its 2,000-square-foot plant into a leased 6,000-foot facility in San Fernando where the company remains today. Along the way, the original staff of 17 she inherited has grown to 37 and annual revenues have tripled to $2 million.
She also ramped up product development, working with her bakers to double the number of doughs Oliver's offers. On any given night Oliver's mixes 60 different doughs from basic whole wheat to Santa Fe chili cheese and produces 3,000 to 4,000 items.
She said she grants nearly any feasible request she gets from both existing and potential customers, a service she believes helps differentiate Oliver's from giant competitors like La Brea Bakery and Il Fornaio.
For a local restaurant recently seeking a "signature table bread," Oliver's created a tiny, delicate loaf made with ramps, a type of wild onion. For another eatery, the company developed a Belgian chocolate bread to be used for French toast, which was especially challenging since chocolate is highly acidic and can kill yeast.
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