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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 22, 2018 4 months ago

Naples company finding sweet success in sugar substitute market

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Self-described 'chaotic entrepreneur' disrupts industry, and sometimes his own office to drive innovation.
by: Andrew Warfield Lee-Collier Editor

Benjamin Fleischer has an affinity for entrepreneurs, particularly those who, like himself, seek to innovate rather than replicate.

And to celebrate a decade since founding Pyure Brands — a company that has disrupted the sugar substitute market — the health, wellness and fitness enthusiast recently pledged $50,000 to Florida Gulf Coast University’s Entrepreneurship Scholarship Program. 

For good reason: Nearly all his 14 employees are FGCU graduates. Together, Fleischer and his team, in their mission to disrupt, have learned some valuable lessons, including when to take risks (often) and how to scale quickly (own the knowledge, not the factory.)  

Benjamin Fleischer's Pyure Brands has developed several stevia products from granular sweetener to maple-flavor syrup.

Competing for shelf space and commercial food clients against billion-dollar corporations, Pyure Organic Stevia products are now available in more than 15,000 supermarkets — up from 2,000 stores in 2013. The organic, non-GMO all-natural sweetener is also an ingredient in more than 400 products.

That’s a long way from a one-man shop that started in a home kitchen. “We're the clear underdog,” says Fleischer.

That’s how he likes it. Inside a nondescript commercial building, Fleischer has crafted a millennial magnet — a casual, industrial-style workplace designed to inspire innovation. The 39-year-old built a career by not duplicating the breakthroughs of others, but rather by leading change in the food industry.

All for the cause of better health and removing sugar from diets.

“The reality is diabetes is an epidemic,” says Fleischer. “You walk into a store and you think you are buying products that have all these health benefits, then you look on the back and find there are 25 or 30 grams of sugar in there.”

Fleischer grew up in the food manufacturing industry, helping his father, Marc Fleischer, build Fleischer's Bagels into the largest private-label bagel maker in the U.S. He later turned his bold venturing spirit toward developing a natural, organic sugar substitute that tastes good. An avid snowboarder, he liked Red Bull, but not the aftertaste.

“Really, I just wanted to create a product for myself,” he says.

Fleischer left the bagel business and moved to Naples, where his family had a second home. He started experimenting with stevia, a member of the sunflower family, in his home kitchen. The goal was to separate the sweet elements of the plant from the bitter. Next was how to cut the intensity of the extracted product, which is 350 times sweeter than sugar.

Since then, Fleischer grew Pyure into what he says is a mid-eight-figure business “and growing,” declining to be more specific. The company does report a 39% increase in revenue in 2017 over 2016. Last year, new products it debuted include maple-flavored syrup, honey alternative and vanilla-flavored liquid stevia. It also introduced a new ingredient for commercial customers, Pyure Trio. A baking mix is next, he says.

He and his youthful team control all aspects of the supply chain, from the thousands of acres in Asia — where the plant is grown, harvested, dried and stored — to the retail shelf. In between are manufacturing, packaging, marketing and logistics. The company has moved more than 50 metric tons of raw stevia, and holds many times more in dried leaves.

The business is easily scaleable, Fleischer says, because it contracts, rather than owns, the entire infrastructure from seed to store. That scaling began in 2010, when Fleischer secured his first big national deal with Whole Foods Markets. 

“Considering the sales we do here and the number of employees we have, it's really good management,” he says. “We don't own anything. We don't own factories. We own formulations. We own intellectual property. We have a brokerage network of about 200 people. There are a lot of third-party people. We're lean. I didn't spend a dime on marketing until we could afford it. Now we have a seven-figure marketing budget.”

Fleischer hires entrepreneurial-minded employee disrupters and allows them to innovate. That strategy was tested by his 2013 deal to put Pyure Organic Stevia products in 1,000 Walmart stores. Scale-up and supply chain logistics in part fell on his first employee, former intern Holly Ashmore, now vice president of operations.

“As the chaotic entrepreneur, I’m the crazy guy who just says we can do it,” says Fleischer. “I said, ‘Holly, figure out how to do it,’ and her head explodes. But that's what we do. We rally, we figure it out. We learn.”

Always the disrupter, Fleischer provides a clue to Pyure Brands’ next frontier. “We've figured out a way to help diabetics create metabolic change utilizing food over pharma,” he says.

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