Pamela Netzky, Amplify Food Snacks, Woman Entrepreneur

1847c16I have been very remiss in the Monday Woman Entrepreneur posts.  I am going to get back into the game here.

I was introduced to Pamela this summer through her brother.  I have known her brother for awhile and he said that I should talk to his sister, she was a woman entrepreneur and a bad ass.  How could I not take that introduction?

What I loved about Pamela is she figured out life in her own way.  She knew what she liked and what she didn’t like.  She is smart, creative and driven and was just hunting for the right space to unleash her might on.  Ends up popcorn was in her future.

Pamela grew up in Chicago, Lincoln Park.  Her parents were divorced when she was young, her Mom remarried and everyone stayed in Chicago.  Her father was in real estate but moved into a boutique investment bank after she graduated college.  Her Mom stayed at home but was big in the arts and now working with MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago).  Her step-Dad is a sport attorney.

Pamela spent many of her summers at camp, summer school or playing golf at the country club.  Pamela says that she wasn’t the greatest student and after graduating high school she went to Menlo College for a year before transferring to DePaul where she completed her education.  She left Menlo because it just didn’t do it for her.  She missed the fast pace of a city.  She spent her summers working a variety of jobs from a law firm to a trading floor runner to cannonball delivery messenger out of her car.

After she graduated she went to work for her father at the boutique investment bank.  It was a weird time.  She did not love what she was doing and really felt like she wasn’t adding much value.  She was doing bridge loans, and investments and it just did not rock her boat.  She kept thinking about pursuing something else but she just wasn’t sure what that else was.

Her golf game was getting significantly better and she wanted to see if she could give that a chance.  She did not play golf competitively in high school or college so this would be her time.  She moved down to South Florida to the Jim McCann school to make a go at the amateur circuit.   They want you to practice for 6 hours a day and play for 2.  She wanted to play for 6 hours a day and practice for 2.  She was also playing against 18 year old girls and she was 25.  Eventually she got it out her system and returned to Chicago.

When she has returned someone approached her about putting spas in residential and commercial properties.  This was before every hotel had a spa.  The partner had taken 1000 square feet at the Park Hyatt and built a salon and spa.  Pamela said to the partner she’d jump in.  An opportunity came up to take over the salon lease next door to the Four Seasons which would be perfect for their flagship store.   They took over the lease and then the space changed.  Healthclub out of UK, Crunch and W Hotel came to them and started to run the spa by themselves.  All of a sudden Pamela found herself just running a salon and she had zero interest in running a salon.  She was done with this.  It was time to move on.

She started to have coffee with anyone who would talk to her to figure out her next thing.  A friend of hers said she should talk to Andrew Friedman.  He said his Dad’s dream was to take Garretts Popcorn and create a chain across the country.  They were looking for someone to run it.  Pamela had negotiated real estate deals, build out the properties, hired and fired employees, etc.  She said she’d run it.  Her friend she had coffee with was Andy’s brother-in-law.  She was getting into business with a family.  They were obsessed with Garretts and so they created a brand called Wells Street Popcorn to expand into a wholesale and retail popcorn business across the country.

They took the shop to NYC, it was 2008 and the world blew apart.  It did not work out in NYC so they took another approach. They started working with theaters in Chicago.  It was a success.  Next thought was how do we take this success and penetrate a market while increasing revenue.  People loved their popcorn but it wasn’t something that they would want to eat every day.  It was more of a special treat.

They had a meeting to talk about the need to create something that was healthier and not so loaded with calories.  They refer to that meeting as the great pivot.  They came up with the concept SkinnyPop.  It was early 2010.  They began to experiment with the product, figure out what the bags would look like, hire graphic designers, think about how the bag would close, how would it sit on the shelf, etc.  That took six months.  They had been talking to distributors all along and they all said the same thing, “call us when you have the product.”

In August 2010, the bags arrived.  They took the first products in their cars and drove it around to retailers.  They put it on the shelf and the product started blowing out.  They began to quickly call back for more product.  They were starting to hit the holiday season.  They were running Wells and SkinnyPop out of the same place.They are popping and packaging out of Wells Street.  They had little kids packaging and someone sealing it.  They were literally making the product themselves and they knew they could only make 50 cases a day.  Their one distributor would come every day and pick up 50 cases in Chicago.  They could not make anymore because they had nowhere to store it.  Made 50 during the day and 50 went out the door.  When she was not in the field position they were popping popcorn. They had only been in the business for a few months and were desperately seeking a co-packer who could keep the product gluten free, no nuts, so that it was good for people with allergies. They decided to franchise Wells and sold it to Pamela’s cousin and take over that end of the business while they focused on SkinnyPop.  It was the right move.

They found a great co-packer and have blown through their own machines and growth predictions fifteen times.  Pamela talks about how they knew nothing about growing a food business or finding a co-packer and each time she needed to figure it out she’d go to Google.  Her endless research and common sense was the key to figuring out growth.  Brand managers would even tell them that they were doing wrong but keep it up because that is what made them so successful.  They spent no money on advertising but in-store promotions.  They didn’t follow the rules.

Fast forward they are in over 25,000 stores.  TA (a leading private-equity company in the food space) bought a majority position in the business.  Pamela and Andy hired at CEO that allowed them to move into board positions and think about the company’s growth in a different way.  The company went public in August.

I asked Pam what her next trick was.  She was going to enjoy the rest of the summer when we spoke and spent time with her three kids.  I would be surprised to see Pamela take it easy for long.  The excitement of how she ended up in a family business after a cup of coffee that ended up exploding into a huge game changer leaves adrenaline running through your veins.