Most people tend to associate Hain Celestial Group with their eponymous Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea and its iconic sleeping bear mascot, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led the company’s innovation team down a new path: hand sanitizer.
The company has been producing and selling hand sanitizer in Canada under the brand name One Step for many years, but the increased demand for the product in the US inspired the R&D team to figure out how to bring it down to the states, says Jeff George, Senior Vice President of R&D at Hain Celestial Group.
“We had some experience as a company [producing hand sanitizer], and we had the capability…in Canada. So, when this incredible demand and need surfaced, it was all hands on deck,” he says.
Starting production of the new brand, called Live Clean, in the United States was a matter of leveraging existing resources and relationships. First, the company had to fast-track plans to upgrade a brand new manufacturing facility in Bell, California.
“[The facility] did not have the capability to produce hand sanitizer, but we knew how to make it, and we knew how to upgrade that facility to give us the capability to do it,” George says. “In addition, we have a really extensive and capable set of co-manufacturing partners in the US. So, we reached out to those partners and found one that also had capability and some available capacity to produce hand sanitizer.”
‘We Don’t Plan To Go Back To Business As Usual’
The biggest challenge for Hain Celestial has been, unsurprisingly, addressing gaps in the supply chain — especially when it comes to critical ingredients, like the alcohol, the gelling agents, and the packaging that is needed to produce and distribute hand sanitizer. Communication has been a key component of solving this problem, George says.
There are multiple meetings per day between the executive team, the supply chain team, and R&D to assess shortages and substitute ingredients when possible and necessary.
“We try to identify alternate sources for those ingredients… We have a rapid qualification process in place, so that if we have to make slight changes to products based on scarcity of materials, we’re able to quickly reformulate those, and to test them and qualify them. Normally, that’s a pretty lengthy process for us.” George says.
And while this isn’t “business as usual” for Hain Celestial, the process in some ways improves upon older practices at the company, according to George.
“We’ve been very scrappy, and reactive, and responsive to the situation to do rapid qualifications for these new materials and ingredients so that we can then transition where we need to and ensure supply,” he says. “[When] we think about our whole process, it was probably longer than it needed to be… We don’t plan to go back to business as usual.”
The innovation process has been turned on its head at Hain Celestial, but not without some positive outcomes. What once required scientists and engineers to travel across the country has morphed into a process that instead relies on extensive, detailed plans and communication.
One example is increased collaboration between the company’s United States and Canadian facilities, as a response to a lack of lab space. Hain Celestial’s headquarters in Long Island, New York usually houses the company’s main R&D lab. When New York became one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic and that lab was closed, the R&D team at an auxiliary lab in Canada “immediately raised their hands and said, ‘Hey, we’d be happy to help out and…help do formulation for the US business, even though we’ve never done that before. We know formulation, [and] we can do benchtop work.'”
“[When] we think about our whole process, it was probably longer than it needed to be…We don’t plan to go back to business as usual.”
The quality assurance department in the Bell facility has also proved instrumental in solving the space issue, as New York-based chemists have begun walking quality assurance technicians through creating and evaluating benchtop prototypes via video conference, George says. He calls this “tele-developing.”
“We’ve been as opportunistic and resilient as we possibly can be,” he says. “I’ll be honest with you, we’re not at 100 percent. We are at a diminished capacity, but we’re not at zero. We’re picking the things that are most critical to move forward with, and doing what we can with the facilities and the talent that we have available to progress them.”
Giving Executives a Chance to Taste New Foods, Remotely
The company takes a “Shark Tank style” approach to innovation. Teams of employees present ideas, progress updates, requests, and funding needs to a senior team on a weekly basis. While these weekly meetings typically occur in person, they have continued virtually.
George says, “We’ve been able to keep it going… We have all the executives, the growth board participating, the teams participating. They’re sharing results… They get instant feedback… We’re actually sending sample products to executives’ homes…so we can do tele-tasting.”
Those who are receiving products at their homes are key executives on the company’s Agile Innovation Growth Board. As projects are reviewed during the weekly meetings, the executives sample the prototype products and provide feedback.
Right now, it’s unclear how many of these new practices will be carried over into a post-coronavirus world. But George is impressed with his team’s agility throughout the course of the pandemic.
Of course, it helps that Hain Celestial had prior experience dealing with many of the challenges that the food industry is facing this year, like pivoting to ecommerce and online grocery shopping. The company’s Earth’s Best baby food brand and its UK-based sister company, Ella’s Kitchen, both “had pretty robust online ordering… So, we did have a foundation to build from.”
How Will New Products Get Launched in the Future?
The biggest unknown that Hain Celestial, and many others like it, are addressing right now is how it will communicate with consumers and retailers in the future.
“Many retailers…have certain windows when they will accept innovation and do a shelf reset on products. That’s normally a very defined schedule, and it’s the same year-to-year. There’s a certain slot where you would present your new offerings, the retailers would accept those new offerings, and then they would reset their shelves to fit those new offerings,” George says.
“The timing of all that is very much in flux,” he adds. “I think many retailers are saying, ‘We’re trying to keep our shelves full, and we’re trying to maintain our supply chain. We’re going to push pause on innovation [and] reset windows for right now.’ …[Consumer] sampling is a frequent vehicle we use for new products… But the timing of when we’re going to be able to launch those and get those on the shelf, much less have sampling events, for most retailers is questionable…So we’ve just learned to be very flexible with our plans at this point.”