Impossible Foods has seen significant growth in 2020, and for its CFO, David Lee, this comes as no surprise.
Lee, who joined the company as CFO-COO in 2015, pivoted to standalone finance chief last year. Since then, the brand known for meatless alternatives to such products as sausage, hamburgers and bacon, has squeezed in decades' worth of expansion accomplishments amid a pandemic that has fundamentally reshaped restaurants, dining and grocery industries.
For his measured approach to sustainable growth, his meticulous foresight and his prioritization of continuous research and development, David Lee is CFO Dive's Innovator of the Year.
Under Lee's financial leadership this year, Impossible launched Impossible Pork and Sausage; partnered with Disney parks and cruises, Kroger, Burger King, Starbucks, Walmart, Publix, and Sprouts; commenced Series G funding, and expanded into four international markets.
Additionally, the brand saw "no meaningful impact to our supply chain due to COVID, largely because our supply chain doesn't include animals and is therefore meaningfully more robust than the meat industry's," Lee told Forbes in July.
Last year, customers could only try Impossible Foods products by ordering them at a restaurant. But since making its grocery debut in September 2019, it has explosively expanded its reach. All told, Impossible has grown its grocery business from just under 150 locations in January to over 15,000 in November.
Parameters of innovation
In the pandemic's first month, grocery demand for fresh or frozen plant-based meats surged 300%, while grocery store sales of Impossible Burger have more than doubled each month since. Like ground beef, Lee says, the Impossible Burger is "versatile, convenient and unusually resilient even in the face of economic swings."
Additionally, the initial closure of meat processing plants helped sell the plant-based products, Food Dive reported in June, as customers grew wary of the meat processing business and distrustful of the corporations' slow actions.
Impossible's growth may stem from its versatility, and its products' seamless fit within the grocery space, Lee said. But it was the foresight to make the pivot that ultimately paid off biggest, he believes.
"We decided to double down on our mission by moving our business to where meat-eaters were buying meat: in grocery stores and shipped directly to people's homes," Lee says. "As a result, Impossible Burger is now sold in more than 15,000 grocery stores globally, including retail outlets in Canada."
This growth represents a more than 100-fold increase, in a matter of months, in Impossible's global retail footprint, Lee said. Additionally, the launch of its direct-to-consumer e-commerce site brought Impossible Burger products to every state in the contiguous U.S.
"We chose to invest in the face of adversity and bet on the consumer — the meat eater — to reward our dedication to providing a superior product," Lee said.
The company has long believed giving home chefs the chance to buy Impossible Burgers from the grocery store, and see how it can be transformed into anything they want, would provide the "biggest payoff of the technology we have been creating since our origins in 2011," Lee told Food Dive.
That payoff has migrated across the Atlantic. In 2020, in addition to launching in Canada, the company introduced its products to grocery stores in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. Expansion has always been part of the plan, he said, but the pace has been quicker than they originally projected.
Meanwhile, Impossible Foods' operations at their plant in Oakland, California have continued at "maximum capacity," while adhering to strict safety protocols, Lee said. He drew the comparison to the spate of meat plant workers who have fallen sick, and many who have died, from COVID-19.
The business interruptions have caused America's first meat shortages since World War II and has required major meat processors to close facilities and euthanize millions of animals, he said. But Impossible Foods largely managed to avoid these pitfalls, leaving them, in November, in a better place financially than they were before the pandemic.
Benefits of operational experience
Lee led the business functions as combined CFO-COO from 2015 to 2019, helping transform Impossible from pre-revenue to hyper-growth. Before shedding the operational leadership, CFO, he raised more than $650 million debt and equity to fund commercialization.
"Walking in the shoes of our colleagues in sales, marketing, and operations has helped me provide better advice on how to help their organizations perform better," Lee said of his tenure on the operations side.
Nevertheless, Lee didn't let Impossible Foods' recent growth distract him from pursuing a measured, sustainable future-focused management strategy. He values the company-owned manufacturing plant in Oakland, which he says provides Impossible Foods "a lot of control over [its] product."
"And because our production process is so simple, we can also partner with nearly any food co-manufacturer when we need to increase production," he said, explaining how it might be possible to turn the startup's period of "hypergrowth" into long-term sustainability.
Prioritizing R&D and fundraising
Another vital aspect of sustained growth: research and development. "We're a company with a skyrocketing growth path, and our investment in R&D has been a critical part of our success," he said. "We fund our investment in our growth by focusing on cost savings. We're in this for the long-haul, so our continued investment in R&D is critical."
As a case in point, in October, Impossible announced plans to double its R&D team as well as to hire "ten of the best scientists in the world," from fields including oncology, genetics and biochemistry. The scientist team, dubbed "Impossible Investigators," will continue research on plant-based alternatives to traditional meat and dairy, or as Lee puts it, the biggest problem the world faces.
Although Impossible Foods has yet to launch an IPO, Lee says it still chooses to operate with the same rigor as a public company by planning well ahead of its current cash needs.
"I think the pandemic is forcing all companies to adjust; in our case, it was about adjusting to the customer," Lee said. "We knew the vast majority of our customers were meat eaters, and we knew that they were sheltering in place. We wanted to make sure they could still have access to the Impossible Burger and Impossible Sausage. The pace of our growth in grocery stores certainly increased, because that's where meat eaters are buying meat."
The company also hasn't stopped fundraising. "We raised $700 of the $1.5 billion in equity in 2020," Lee said. "You know, the first event was a $500 million [raise] that we literally closed the Friday before having our employees shelter in place."
Keeping the customer
Lee's innovation comes from the company's core idea and guiding principle: once meat-eaters try Impossible, they'll be sold for good.
"We are at 30,000 global restaurants and other food service providers worldwide," he said. "We wanted a trial seeking meat eaters who go to restaurants to try something new, to taste the Impossible Burger, so that by the time they could buy it in the grocery store, they had an idea that we were unlike any other plant-based product on the market."
The company also adjusted its tactics with its food service partners, letting them create and ship meal kits from their restaurant locations to consumers' homes. "That was an adjustment we made early on," Lee recalled. "We really tried to change everything we could adjust to how meat eaters wanted to eat. And as a result, we quickly sped up those [direct-to-consumer] plans. We probably stood up a direct-to-consumer business faster than almost any other food company during 2020."
People naturally become more thoughtful about the food they consume when they're making it at home, themselves, Lee said. In this regard, the pandemic has boosted Impossible's profile, making it a more attractive and more attainable option across the board.
Delivering on the mission
Every Impossible Burger is a vehicle for the company's mission. By opting for plant-based products, meat eaters contribute to 96% less land and a fraction of the water and greenhouse gases usage, Lee said. It's also a better choice for their health. Increasing grocery presence, with true target customers (hardcore meat eaters), was gratifying, he added.
"We are very laser-focused on letting the consumer determine the future of this planet, and betting on consumer demand to be the market force that overwhelms all the negatives and impediments in place," Lee said. "90% of our customers are meat eaters. At least 70 cents per dollar of sales we get comes from people who are trading meat for an Impossible Burger. Those are the most important things for us."
Lee and his team expect the brand's growth to accelerate as it increases in scale. Food made entirely from plants is the future, he said, "so we actually expect accelerated growth beyond this year."
As Impossible's capacity strengthens, Lee said the cost to the consumer will shrink, and the product will become available in more places and in more ways.
"That's important [because] it's the highest returning investment we can make, because it shows up in all forms of growth," he said. "It shows up as Impossible Burgers 3.0, 4.0 or 5.0. It shows up as more products that you haven't yet heard of, but we will launch. It shows up having more relevance in international markets, because the core to our business is products that get better and better through innovation and technology."
The CFO lesson
Leading through change, as opposed to preserving success requires a different skill set, one that balances taking bold bets to replace dying businesses, evergreen growth, and staying true to company's core strengths, Lee said.
"Finance executives in 2021 can demonstrate their strategic planning better during turbulent times by operating with rigor, while, at the same time, not being afraid to fund major growth initiatives," Lee said.
"For us, that has meant staying laser focused on our core market, the meat eater, and supporting our foodservice business while at the same time dramatically scaling our retail business and our investment in long-term R&D," he said.