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Leader is nuts about the job and the product

Rochester Business Journal
August 12, 2011

When it came time for a new leader to take the reins at Once Again Nut Butter Collective Inc. in 2006, Robert Gelser was happy to interview potential candidates as a company director but did not envision himself as the ideal candidate.
 
An engineer, Gelser thought he lacked the management experience necessary to run the business.
 
Company officials initially accepted his reasoning, but when the position opened again shortly after the initial search, even the firm's soft-spoken founder stepped in to encourage Gelser to take the job.
 
The board's urging-coupled with Gelser's realization that the candidates being interviewed did not have much more experience than he did-led Gelser to accept the position. He also knew the workers there had his back.
 
"We have such a strong core group of people here, and I knew my shortcomings would be made up by the experience of the workforce," Gelser says.
 
It also helped that Gelser had business ambitions he wanted to realize.
 
"I didn't want to look back and have any regrets," he says.
 
Gelser, 46, has served as Once Again's general manager since 2007. The employee-owned company has 31 workers and is in Nunda, Livingston County, south of Rochester.
 
The business was founded by Jeremy Thaler and Constance Potter in 1976 as a worker cooperative, and its name was chosen by the founders, who were once again creating a business.
 
At its inception, the business was a three-person operation making a few thousand pounds of peanut butter a year in an 800-square-foot basement. Today, Once Again-which is celebrating its 35th year-produces 5.5 million pounds of nut butters and honey annually and is expected to have sales this year of $18 million, up from $16 million last year.
 
Gelser, who has 20-plus years of experience in production management and engineering, says the processes and principles used to make nut butter are not fundamentally different from those used to manufacture machinery.
 
"Either way you are still out there buying raw materials, producing a product and marketing it," he says.
 
As a high school athlete who played soccer, basketball and baseball at Keshequa High School in Nunda, Gelser had aspirations to be a high school or college coach or athletics director. But a meeting with his guidance counselor and a conversation with his friend William Donovan changed his mind. It was the early 1980s then, Gelser says, and jobs in physical education were sparse.
 
The counselor and the friend both suggested that Gelser, who was strong in math and physics, pursue a degree in engineering.
 
"I knew it was the right decision for me," he says.
 
That day during high school was a turning point, Gelser says, and he was particularly grateful for the advice from Donovan, whom he respected. Donovan was bound for the U.S. Naval Academy after high school, and he went on to become a Navy commander. He was killed at the Pentagon during the attacks of Sept. 11.
 
Following the advice Donovan had given, Gelser earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering from the State University College of Technology at Alfred in 1985. While attending school, he also worked at screw machine shops in Rochester.
 
After graduation he took a job at the former Foster Wheeler Corp. in Dansville, and while working there he earned a bachelor's degree in manufacturing engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1996. Gelser also completed some graduate studies at RIT and plans to obtain a graduate degree eventually.
 
Shortly after graduating from RIT, Gelser landed a manufacturing engineering job at Stone Construction Equipment Inc. in Honeoye. He worked there for a decade and speaks highly of the job. Some of the people he worked for there became mentors, he says.
 
Dick Nisbet, Stone's vice president of manufacturing, worked with Gelser during Gelser's entire time at the equipment manufacturer. He describes Gelser as hardworking and dedicated with a lot of common sense.
 
"He absolutely knew his business and did a thorough job," Nisbet says. "If he was committed, you would get 150 percent of Bob."
 
Gelser was responsible and respectful of others, he says: "He's a man of integrity, an Eagle Scout type. If Bob says he is going to do something, he will. His word is golden."
 
While Nisbet is happy for Gelser in his new job, he says Gelser is missed by "his Stone family."
 
 Another Stone colleague was Frank Wenzel, who was vice president of engineering and hired Gelser. Wenzel, who now works for Gleason Corp., says Gelser had all the qualities he was looking for to fill a manufacturing engineering position at Stone.
 
"I needed someone who was persistent and tenacious and could work well with others and be diplomatic," Wenzel says. "That was Bob. He's first-rate and the best guy I ever hired."
 
Those qualities are serving Gelser well in his new executive role, Wenzel says.
 
"He's very good-natured and has an easy way about him," he says. "Sometimes people may view that as having a lack of intensity, but that is not Bob. With Bob, there was never a lack of resolve."
 
It was another high school acquaintance who introduced Gelser to Once Again. The buddy, with whom he had played high school basketball, worked for Once Again and told Gelser the company was looking for outside board members. Gelser was interested and became a board member in 2002.
 
Since taking the job as general manager, Gelser has seen demand for Once Again's products increase as the trend toward organic foods has grown. To keep growing, the company has invested in marketing and increased its sales force.
 
Despite its sales growth, Once Again remains a small company and Gelser continues to be hands-on in many areas of the business.
 
He is generally at work by 7 a.m. At times, when there has been an employee shortage on the production line, Gelser is there to fill in. He has also been known to use his engineering background to tackle maintenance problems.
 
"Many people wear many hats," he says. "Our expectations are that everyone pulls together."
 
The employees work side by side, literally. Gelser's desk is among the others in the front office. His work area has few personal items, but there is a "Grin and Bear It" award that co-workers gave him last year when he completed a company race.
 
Some of Gelser's time is spent traveling, to meet with suppliers in Nicaragua and Panama and to attend trade shows.
 
While he is hands-on when he's at work, Gelser says his leadership style is more laid-back.
 
"I like to stand back and let people make their own decisions," he says. "It allows them to learn, sometimes fail and then learn again."
 
Gael Orr, communications manager at Once Again, says Gelser has a personality that meshes well with others.
 
"He fits with people, all different types of people," Orr says.
 
His adaptability extends to handling a variety of tasks as well, she says, from dealing with production line matters to tackling political issues that may arise in countries where Once Again has business dealings.
 
The firm is committed to environmental and social responsibility, Gelser says. For example, Once Again is certified as a domestic fair-trade company and supports 11 cooperatives in Nicaragua. Locally, Once Again works with honey farms and hopes to work with farmers to grow sunflower seeds, since they are a commodity that can be grown in New York.
 
While harvesting sunflower seeds in the region is not common, Gelser says it is not the first time Once Again would take the lead on a new endeavor.
 
Once Again was instrumental in developing the organic peanut growing standards in the United States and subsidized the organic peanut crop for its first five years. The company was also the first in the nation to introduce Organic Valencia Peanut Butter in 1989.
 
A challenge for the business is competing with some of the larger, more mainstream companies that have more recently jumped on the organic bandwagon. But despite the competition, Once Again continues to grow. It has seen the biggest sales bumps recently in its private-label and industrial businesses, Gelser says.
 
The business sells some 60 branded products. In addition, Once Again sells to 25 private-label customers that choose from its products, which include organic and natural nut butters, seed butters, roasted nuts and organic honey.
 
Once Again's products can be found in natural and organic health food stores and cooperatives. Locally, those retailers include Abundance Cooperative Market, Lori's Natural Foods Center, the Market at Global Village at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Max Market on Monroe.
 
Once Again strives to introduce two new products each year, Gelser says.
 
Its peanut butter is its biggest seller. The product recently was named the world's greatest peanut butter and was featured on the cable television show "World's Greatest."
 
The organic almond butter-Gelser's personal favorite-has become a customer favorite, as well as the sunflower butter, which is a good alternative for people with peanut allergies.
 
The safety of customers with peanut allergies is one reason the company wants to acquire land this year near its 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, to build a plant that is strictly for peanut butter and separate it from the manufacture of its other products.
 
Once Again is one of Nunda's largest employers, Gelser says, and is committed to the region.
 
Gelser lives in Nunda with his wife, Mary, and their family. Gelser has one daughter, two sons and three stepsons.
 
The former high school athlete says he has slowed down on his athletic endeavors some over the years but recently took up long-distance running.
 
He also is interested in home construction. Gelser owns 21 acres in the neighboring town of Portage, near the south end of Letchworth State Park, and plans to build a home there.
 
As for Once Again, Gelser said the company may look into investing more money in research and development. A snack line featuring organic bars and other products that incorporate the nut butters is also a possibility, as is investing in equipment that allows the company to make and jar its products faster.
 
Whatever is done, Gelser has no plans to leave the business any time soon.
 
"This is a great opportunity for myself, and I'm content to grow with the company," Gelser says.
 
He also will remain a fan of the company's products.
 
"There's never a shortage of nut butter in the Gelser house," he says.

Robert Gelser
Position: General manager, Once Again Nut Butter Collective Inc.
Age: 46
Education: A.A.S. in mechanical engineering, State University College of Technology at Alfred, 1985; B.S. in manufacturing engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1996
Family: Wife Mary; daughter Charise; sons Robert and Nolan; stepsons Travis, Terry and Tyler
Residence: Nunda, Livingston County
Activities: Long-distance running, home construction
Quote (on taking the top job at Once Again): "I didn't want to look back and have any regrets."
 

8/12/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail service@rbj.net.


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