When he was growing up, Giuseppe Taibi liked the country and sea days the best. His parents would wake 10-year-old Giuseppe up at their home in beautiful Agrigento, Italy, on the southeast coast of Sicily, and the family would stroll around the ancient ruins of the Valley of the Temples, come back for lunch, play in their olive orchard and spend the rest of the day at the beach. That tranquility went on for years on this fourth-generation farm until it was broken when Giuseppe’s father asked to have a conversation with him one fall day. Giuseppe, now in his early 30s, listened intently as his father, a psychiatrist, told him that while the farm meant everything to them, it was just not sustainable any longer—they were going to have to sell their family company, Olio Taibi. “It was like being told that your best friend since birth had a terminal disease—I was devastated,” Giuseppe recalls.
Giuseppe immediately began creating lists and strategizing. I have known Giuseppe for almost a decade, and it is an understatement to say he is ultra-organized—a proud geek and holder of a PhD in artificial intelligence from Boston University. When my partners and I started our company, Burst, and found ourselves lacking in the subtleties of iOS mobile and product vision and refinement, we hired Giuseppe as a consultant. That move remains some of the best money we have ever spent. His insights are now part of our company DNA, and they have helped us provide mobile video products that are delivered daily to the majority of U.S. households with televisions. Giuseppe has that rare gift of making those he works with better. That said, every list he made and approach he took led to the same conclusion: It was time to close the olive orchard that had been in his family for over 150 years. Closing it would rest heavy on his head forever, he thought. “When I thought about shutting it down and selling it, my chest would tighten and I could not breathe,” he says. “I decided I had to rethink everything—all while living in Massachusetts. It was daunting and frankly crazy.”
What Giuseppe quickly learned was that his family’s olive orchard was never really a business. It was a family avocation that delighted everyone who was fortunate to sample the Taibi family’s olive oil. Some even paid for it, just not enough. The Taibi family land had grown many crops over the decades, but the mix of the cool nights and seaside climate, the robust, hearty trees and magical soil made for amazing olives. The neighbors (and naysayers) claimed:
“Nobody makes money in the olive oil business.”
“The economies are not in your favor—it is for passion, not profit.”
“The olive oil business was a fraud—the Extra Virgin Olive Oil labels were usually a lie. You know that…”
Regardless, he dug into the details of the business and asked a lot of questions: “Why do we use the same planting, growing, harvesting, distribution and selling methods that we did 50 years ago? We were paying a lot of bills to make the olive oil. Who was getting paid and how much? Why were we fixated on the quantity of oil we made and not the quality? What were these new subsidies from the European Union that were coming out soon?” And a thousand more…
Meanwhile, Giuseppe was CTO of WEGO Health, the leading network of healthcare experts, influencers and advocates, which was a demanding role. At night, on weekends, on trips as frequently as he could manage, he chased down the answers. Giuseppe is someone who can “see” across disciplines—a skill that Steve Jobs helped make famous by modeling the ability to marry design and tech. Giuseppe borrowed a page out of Apple’s playbook and decided that if he was going to pursue this, his product had to be the best—something that stood out from the rest. He also dove into Amazon’s playbook: He studied the supply chain and took control “from the tree to the plate,” he says. “The commercial internet was just gathering steam when we were looking to reinvent the business. The approaches and solutions were there for the taking. I just needed to figure out which ones were applicable.”
Giuseppe quickly realized that vertical integration was the answer. He decided that four roles were vital:
- Grower / Producer
Thoughtful experimentation, distribution through the internet, measurement and control became his mantra across every part of his business. Instead of selling the business, Giuseppe became determined to save it. Here are the major steps he took to do just that.
Giuseppe decided to stop growing for quantity and to harvest his olives earlier than most others in the quest for quality. He also decided to fully embrace organic and sustainable agriculture techniques, forever banning pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and the like. Unlike his neighbors, Giuseppe opened the gates of his family estate to the officers from the organic certification agency that assigns the precious logo that has become synonymous with “peace of mind,” sustainability and quality. Only full transparency would do. He went all-in on the bet that olive oil would follow other food groups in the quest to be 100 percent organic as a differentiator. This undid 150 years of practice and led to upheaval with his father and his growing team.
Perhaps the most difficult thing he did was change the team, from leadership, to press technicians, to designers—everything and everyone. These were lifelong relationships and friendships. It was hell for a while, but the company’s survival depended on it.
THE BUSINESS MODEL
He reexamined every relationship—from vendors, to partners, to consumers—and thought through each one with an eye toward making the business grow and thrive.
PATIENCE AND COMMUNICATION
Giuseppe was deliberate and methodical. He wanted to go fast, but his barometer was his dad. They had big disagreements, but Giuseppe put their relationship first and walked his dad through what he was thinking constantly. Their combined openness to each other’s ideas was key—tradition and innovation working together for the greater good.
Giuseppe decided that the way consumers bought his olive oil had to change. He wanted to tap into already learned consumer behavior for ease. Consumers were used to buying wine according to the food they wanted to pair with it. He thought that olive oil should be explained in the same way, so he packaged their olive oil to go with foods like wine did. Hence Biancolilla (goes with fish, poultry, fresh cheeses and white wine) and Nocellara (goes with red meat, tomato sauces, pastas and red wine) were born.
The supply chain was filled with friction and riddled with inefficiency. Giuseppe did everything he could to make it friction-free. A friend, Michael Rozyne, was key at this juncture because he was a “fair trade evangelist.” He taught Giuseppe that if you were a visionary producer, you could change the rules. He had to lead by taking chances.
“The fastest way to change minds is not by talking, but by doing, by setting the example, by demonstrating that your ‘crazy, untested’ methods work way better than the conventional wisdom,” Giuseppe says. “Yet while I changed so much about the business, the heart needed to stay strong. The heart of the business of course was the love that my family poured into it for over 150 years. I stayed true to that by letting those who buy our olive oil in on something amazing—the bonds, labor and love that my family has put into it for over a century.”
In April 2018, 12 years after that father-son chat, Olio Taibi was awarded the Gold and Silver Awards at the World Olive Oil Competition in New York, the largest and most important on the planet, the pinnacle for olive oil. They were officially “the best.” In looking back on his tech career and reinvention, saving and growth of his family business, Taibi notes, “All of the tech we have created does not give me the same sensorial satisfaction as walking into my olive orchard. Interacting with farmers, olive press technicians, branding and design thought leaders, logistics teams, customs brokers, retailers and consumers is where joy is found. Having a customer say, ‘Your olive oil is amazing’—that is heaven. That is the best.”