Nell Newman’s Own
As president and co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics, Nell Newman has grown her business from a single line
of pretzels in 1993 to more than 150 products made from certified-organic ingredients. You can walk into McDonald’s
and buy her coffee. Or visit a grocery store and pick up her espresso-flavored chocolate bar, or an olive oil with this brilliant
line of copy: In case of anything, use this product.
On each package, her image stands next to a very familiar guy. They grin with confidence, blue eyes shining. Their success
is proof of an adage: Stay in the business long enough to find out what business you should stay in, and once you do, proliferate.
Elinor Teresa Newman is the eldest of three daughters born to actors Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. Now married to artist
and filmmaker Gary Irving, Newman grew up in an old colonial farmhouse in Connecticut. Her mother, an early environmentalist
and recycler, taught her to cook with produce from the family garden, eggs from the backyard chickens and apples from the
surrounding trees. Her father taught her to fish. She spent many hours on the Aspetuck River or running through the woods,
a pack of dogs with her.
She traces her interest in organics to a fascination for birds and the impact of DDT on their numbers. The concept of “extinction”
through pesticide use made a big impact on a young Newman, whose hobbies included falconry. After graduating from the College
of the Atlantic in Maine with a degree in human ecology, she did stints with the Environmental Defense Fund in New York and
a wilderness sanctuary and predatory bird research group in California. Newman saw how the nonprofits struggled for funding.
That’s when she had a thunderbolt: Why not approach funding differently? Why not support a cause by investing in it,
participating in it, sustaining it with profits from a startup company? For guidance, she could just ask dad.
Paul Newman had made a salad dressing into a blockbuster marketing lesson on how to take risks, make money, and give it all
away. If a hustler like “Pa” could whip up the Newman’s Own private label with no previous experience in
the food industry, there was hope.
“I actually said to him that I wanted to do a line of organic products for Newman’s Own that would become a separate
company once we got our feet under us,” Newman tells SUCCESS from her home office in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Her dad had a good eye for produce but a healthy suspicion of so-called “health foods,” she says. She had to
sell him on the vision. “I wanted to make sure the organic products were things he would like.” But she won her
father over when she served him a traditional Thanksgiving meal—entirely organic.
Meantime, Newman contacted Peter Meehan, an acquaintance from Connecticut who coincidentally had ended up in Santa Cruz,
had sold his business, and was looking to build or buy a new one in the late 1980s. Meehan understood Newman’s passion
for supporting organics.
He had long ago helped Newman when she needed a job; her adolescence, although idyllic, was not spent idly. Meehan, who owned
a pool service, remembers her saying, “ ‘My dad has this rule that nobody gets to hang out by the pool.’
” So he helped her find work landscaping at homes where his company serviced pools.
Paul Newman, a risk taker with films and race cars, agreed to let Meehan come on board to help create an organics division
of Newman’s Own.
“Paul believed in land preservation and taking care of the environment,” Meehan says. “A project like this,
where you would be making products that represent those thoughts, was very appealing to him, because he didn’t like
talking about things; he preferred to do something.”
The newly minted entrepreneurs had no knowledge of the food business, so Newman and Meehan talked with the existing producers
of Newman’s Own products. That led to an ever-widening pool of resources.
“I suddenly found this unbelievable wealth of information from people who had never been asked, ‘Hey, what would
you do?’ They went nuts helping me make sure I didn’t make any mistakes,” Meehan says. “So many people
think they have to be lone entrepreneurs or that they can only have one or two people that they go to. You need to let people
Paul’s favorite snack food was a pretzel, so they started there. For organics to go mainstream, they knew they needed
to make snack foods that were familiar, like pretzels, cookies and chocolate. Once they got the flavors right, the demand
In 2001, the Newman’s Own Organics division became independent from Newman’s Own. Meehan, now CEO of Newman’s
Own Organics, says her father loved to talk about the success of his daughter’s company. She’s the face of Newman’s
Own Organics, the chief taste tester, the storyteller on the packaging.
“Paul did so many incredibly timely and thoughtful mentions of us or brought Nell with him on Oprah, which we would
never have gotten otherwise,” Meehan says. “That helped us a great deal.”
Although Newman’s famous name helped in the beginning, and it took about eight years for the media to stop asking what
it’s like to be Paul Newman’s daughter, Newman’s Own Organics ultimately prevailed on its own merits. Now,
reporters ask about her next move in the increasingly competitive organics field.
Every time a Newman’s Own Organics product is sold, it generates money for the Newman’s Own Foundation to give
away. That’s because Newman’s Own Organics paid a royalty to Paul Newman, and now to the Newman’s Own Foundation,
for the use of the words “Newman’s Own” and his likeness. The secret to a good life is giving, she wrote
in her 2003 book The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life. Like her parents, the early role models who
taught her to care, Newman wants to make a difference, to give something back. Since 1982, Paul Newman and the Newman’s
Own Foundation have given away over $250 million dollars to thousands of charities worldwide.
From her home office, Newman can look out the window and see a good life: the tree that produces the figs she sends via FedEx
to her mother in Connecticut, the grape arbor and, if she stands up, her two chickens, “Betty Poop” and “Winnie.”
When the daily fires and the e-mails pile up, she can brew a cup of tea, go for a bike ride, or hit the farmer’s market
to connect with what’s going on in the local organic agricultural scene.
“I want our company to leave a legacy of learning to find the balance between what’s good and what’s good
for you,” Newman says. What’s good? Supporting local farmers, making purchases based on need versus want, voting
with your dollars. These are big ideas—starting companies, charitable giving, organic farming, helping communities—but
big ideas begin small, Newman believes. They start with an individual with a generous spirit and a willingness to care, something
that anyone can cultivate.
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