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Greyston CEO on hiring process, recipe for success & diversity

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Greyston Bakery CEO and President Joe Kenner joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi to discuss how the small business has maintained success amid COVID-19.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Our current economic environment-- small businesses have really been feeling the pinch. But it's not just the economy that is weighing on them. It's also social unrest in the communities where they function. Joining us now is Joe Kenner. He is the president and CEO of Greyston Bakery. The company has found a way to be successful in business, while also giving a diverse group of people equal opportunities to work. Let's dive into it now.

Joe, good to have you here. Good morning. I want to talk about the business first because it's pretty fascinating. Greyston Bakery, based in New York City, makes brownies that go into the Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavors. It makes up a huge portion of your business. I'm just wondering what demand has been like, especially during this time when so many of us are staying at home. Are you seeing an increased demand for your product?

JOE KENNER: Yes we are. Thank you for having me, Alexis. So demand has been up on both sides, both in terms of the product itself-- the pandemic has been quite a headwind for us as a business. But also, given these times that we're in, people and companies looking for inclusive hiring and equal access to job and opportunities are also looking to talk about our model-- how we hire our bakers.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Let's talk about that--


ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: --because it's pretty fascinating what you're doing. And you've been doing it-- I think-- for decades. You hire folks without an interview process or a background check. Tell us how that works. And how has that been going for the company? I'd love to know what, you know, your turnover rate is like.

JOE KENNER: Yeah. It's been an amazing model that we've had in place for the last 38 years, to be exact-- since 1982. But the model is called "open hiring". And it's very simple, yet very profound at the same time. What it means is, basically, if someone wants to be a baker at the bakery, all they have to do is put their name on a list. It's not an application because that assumes approval and denial.

But they just put their name on a list, and when the next job becomes available, you get it. No questions asked, no background checks, we don't do interviews. We don't even know what you look like, your gender, or your race until you show up that first day for orientation. And that's your first day on the job.

BRIAN SOZZI: Joe, just in terms of managing and leading a small business during a pandemic-- in many respects, none of us have seen this before. What has been your message to the team? How do you keep them motivated?

JOE KENNER: Of this, I would say, as trying as the situation has been these last three months, whether it's the pandemic, whether it is the social unrest, the great thing about Greyston is we are speaking to all of the things that the country is going through right now-- the uncertainty, the fear, the frustration, racial justice.

These are things we've been doing for the last 38 years. I don't have to issue a statement on how I'm going to change my diversity and inclusion practices. I don't need to talk about how we need to reach out to the community because we've been doing it. If you look at my board, if you look at my executive team that I'll be announcing in the next week, if you look at all of our staff, we're walking the walk. If you look at how we hire, clearly, equal access to opportunity employment-- we're doing it and we've been doing it very well these last 38 years.

So the team is motivated because this is how we've been addressing the issue. This is how we've been addressing-- what I always say is, we're not just treating the symptom. We're treating the disease. And the disease is opportunity and access to employment.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Joe, you just mentioned your board. And just this morning, there was news that the "New York Times" bestselling author, Chef Jeff Henderson is going to be joining your board. He's also been very candid about the fact that he is a former felon, having spent over a decade in prison for drug possession. Why is he an important add to your company?

JOE KENNER: And why this entire board-- and we could talk about that. It's an amazing board that we've put together, and I give kudos to both my chairmen of the Foundation, as well as for the Greyston Bakery, and the nominating committee that brought these folks into the organization.

Chef Jeff is an amazing friend to Greyston. He is 300% behind our mission. His story-- he embodies everything that is Greyston. We could say he is our workforce development client. We can say he is our open hiring employee. And his story speaks for itself, coming from what he was, which was an ex-offender, to who he is today-- bestselling author, celebrity chef, broke barriers in Las Vegas, Nevada.

This is the kind of story that we want to tell. And this is the kind of transformation that we've been seeing at Greyston, both on our foundation side, as well as on the bakery side. This is what social enterprise is all about. This is the kind of opportunities we've been providing for these three decades-- soon to be four.

BRIAN SOZZI: Joe, based on what you've seen on the diversity front-- I'm sure you've seen the press releases come out from a lot of big companies. Are you-- do you think big companies can change?

JOE KENNER: As a former employee of a big company, we want you to change. And my challenge to all of the business leaders out there-- please reach out to me. We want to help you see how you can have a mindshift in terms of how you look at your hiring practices.

And I say this all the time. This is not a touchy-feely, feel good program. It's not a program at all. It's not a human services program. This is a human capital strategy. It is a talent management strategy. This is a way you can take care of your employees, which is just simple business economics 101, as well as take care of your customers at the same time.

As you've mentioned it before, our major customer is Ben and Jerry's Unilever. You can imagine the standards that they hold us to. But guess who's meeting the needs of that major customer every day? It's our open hiring employees. It's the team that we have at the bakery. And they've been doing an amazing job, p.s. throughout a pandemic.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Certainly it's a novel idea. More companies can take from your playbook-- doesn't work for everybody. There are certain jobs where you need a certain skillset and an interview process and what have you. But what has the turnover rate been like? I mean, how-- what's the risk you take in hiring this way? I would imagine that there have been some bad apples along the way, as there are when there is traditional hiring going on. So how often does that happen at the company?

JOE KENNER: Yeah, so you just mentioned it. You take a risk when we go through the traditional hiring practices of interviewing. And I can say that hasn't worked out for me. But for the last 38 years, we have been doing this.

And look, it's a manufacturing company. So you're going to have the traditional issues that any manufacturer has, whether it's attendants, people showing up on time, or people just not wanting to work a 12-hour shift or lifting 50 pound bags of flour and sugar. You're going to have that all the time. But I'll tell you, our core group of open hires-- you know, you're talking 67% of those folks-- they stick with us. And that remaining, 25% or so, they turn over.

But let's talk about that turnover piece. That is actually a good thing when those jobs turn over, because what that means is, I can offer new opportunities and access to employment to other folks right here in southwest Yonkers. So we have to rethink how we think about turnover, particularly when you look at open hiring. Because if we start with the premise that the folks that are getting these jobs would not have gotten it if not for a Greyston bakery, if not for a body shop, those folks would not be employed. So as we turn over, we're actually providing opportunity and access to folks who probably would not have gotten it otherwise.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Just give us a feel for what sales demand for your products has been like during this time, and have you had any issues getting supply? Because I know, even at my local supermarket, some of the my baking needs still not being met because it's hard to get these items on store shelves. What has it been like for you?

JOE KENNER: Well, if you order from-- if you order online our brownies, I'm sure we will get them to you. Well, we haven't had the issues. And thankfully, and again-- the kudos goes to the bakery team. It goes to our open hirees who are meeting these demands.

And again, Ben and Jerry's Unilever, Whole Foods, and all the online sales that we have, the corporate gifting programs that we have-- the pandemic has been a tailwind for us. But again, I cannot stress enough that this is what getting good talent is all about. You bring in good people that want to work. You give them the support that they need to be successful, and they will be. And that's what we've seen. So we've been able to meet the demand. We've been able to provide product to our major customers, and to those who order online, those who buy our products in the stores.

We actually have a new brownie coming out. It's actually a vegan birthday cake brown blondie that just came out in the Whole Foods. You've got to try it. It's amazing. But the product has been amazing for us to get it out to our customers. And again, I give the kudos to the team.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Brownies always make things better. Joe Kenner, President and CEO of Greyston Bakery. While you were talking, a bunch of folks I work with are slacking, "we want brownies."


ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Joe, thanks a lot for being with us.

BRIAN SOZZI: Thank you. And shoot me your address. We'll get you a box.