Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that means continuous improvement.
It’s a concept that Rebecca Brady applies to multiple facets – from how she treats employees to work efficiencies to the markets in which she does business – of Top Seedz, the $1 million grand prize winner of 43North’s 2021 pitch contest. Her seed-cracker company is based at 247 Cayuga Road, Cheektowaga, and will move to a downtown facility next year to ramp up production levels.
“Keep on your toes and keep thinking,” she said. “I like the challenge of a problem.”
Support and retain employees
As founder and CEO, she tries to put herself in her employees’ shoes by working alongside them, doing their daily tasks. Sometimes this happens out of necessity because someone is out sick or an order has to be pushed out.
The practice helps her tweak roles so that it’s easier on her about 30 workers, many of whom are refugees. For example, some staff can rotate jobs so that they’re not standing on their feet in the same spot all day.
Brady also offers incentives, like a $10 gift card, for employees to come to her with ideas on how to make their work lives easier.
She tries to foster a positive environment by doing team-building activities every couple months and being as flexible as possible with people’s work schedules.
“Even if it feels like it’s a lot of money to do those social activities, I think it pays off in the end because it’s so expensive if you have high turnover,” she said. “Morale gets low too when people leave.”
Operations and manufacturing
As the business has grown since it was founded in 2017, Brady looks to boost efficiencies.
This can be as simple as rethinking workflow. For example, as workers filled cracker containers, someone used to follow along with a set of scales. Now, the weigher sits stationary at a scale.
“You do it on one spot and use less real estate for the same job,” she said. “You become more efficient.”
When the company got large enough, Top Seedz started around 2019 offering online ordering. It has a higher profit margin and gives seasoned employees a less physical role to work up to.
About two years ago, she added a software system that digitized logistics and communications, which is a “game changer,” according to Brady. Before, there were a lot of hard copies in different places.
The company has a one-year roadmap to plan the direction of its existing products and new product extensions the business could launch.
“If we introduce another product line to that store, we can maybe increase the value of every store,” she said.
Breaking into new markets
Brady sees the strengths of local independent stores and leverages them in her business’ growth strategy.
The company packages broken crackers that are too small to sell in its regular-sized containers and gives them to food banks or sends them to smaller independent shops that order Top Seedz online.
Bigger stores don’t typically have the workers or space to store such samples, and independents generally have customers who are dedicated to their shops and have relationships with the store owners, managers and/or workers. They’re almost like “little influencers,” she said.
It’s a bit of a chain reaction. Local distributors need to see there’s area demand, and larger chains brands need retailers to have a distributor before they’ll stock their items, according to Brady.
“We create some demand locally first,” she said. “They’re flexible. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. That’s been an interesting work model.”
To enter a local market, she’s also gotten Top Seedz a booth at an area farmers’ market and once a month traveled there to demo the products herself. The business will also team up with events, such as a half marathon, that fit their customer base and will give the organizers Top Seedz products and a discount code to give out to participants.
No matter how much her business has grown, Brady said she continues to ask questions and help others when she can.
“I just talk to everyone,” she said. “If I have a problem, I’m not afraid to ask, because usually someone has had the same problem.”
As Mieko’s daughter who was pleased to help her order direct from your company with a monthly subscription, I am happy to see her enthusiasm in support of your company and your refugee workforce. Kaizen is a way of life for her, as she is a native of Japan who has been transplanted to the U.S. She has never ceased to improve as a wife, mother, caretaker, and former business owner. Thank you for your product and business model.