Impossible founder steps down, outgoing Chobani president to be CEO

Dive Brief:

  • Pat Brown, who founded Impossible Foods a decade ago and transformed the company into a plant-based meat giant, is stepping down as CEO, according to a blog post. Brown will continue his role as director and become Impossible Foods’ chief visionary officer, responsible for research and technology innovation, strategic initiatives and public advocacy.
  • Peter McGuinness, who is leaving Chobani after serving as its president and COO, will become CEO and director of Impossible Foods on April 4. In choosing McGuinness, Brown cited his ability to push Chobani into new categories, and said he will help Impossible continue to expand and evolve its brand and business. The two will work together to lead Impossible and craft its long-term strategy.  
  • Beyond McGuinness’ corporate experience, Brown noted his commitment to Impossible’s mission of addressing the threat of climate change caused by animal agriculture. The change in leadership comes after a busy 2021 for the plant-based meat pioneer, filled with product introductions, an international expansion and a $500 million fundraising round. 

Dive Insight:

Pat Brown has provided the face, the scientific gravitas and the to-the-point snarky optimism for Impossible Foods since the company’s founding in 2011. But as the company reaches an inflection point and begins to reach a larger commercial audience, it needs a proven business leader in the food business to bring it through the next set of challenges.

In McGuinness, Impossible will now have a CEO who not only has deep experience in the food business, but who also has taken a niche brand and expanded it into many other areas of the grocery store. Chobani began in 2005 as a startup that brought Greek yogurt to the world. It is now a titan with net sales of more than $1.4 billion in FY 2020, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company has expanded to a plethora of categories, including plant-based yogurts, coffee, peanut butter and milk. 

“The industry needs a new playbook, and I feel like we have that playbook,” McGuinness told Food Dive in a 2019 interview about Chobani. “We have a bit of an ax to grind. It’s strange that there has been so much innovation in industries. There’s been so much competition and breaking apart of industries that’s fueling innovation and new frontiers, but [food has] been dominated by the big three food companies since World War II.”

That’s one place where McGuinness is in complete agreement with Brown — and the entire ethos of Impossible Foods. Brown, a medical doctor who had a storied career developing new ways to look at genes and revolutionizing scientific publishing, founded Impossible Foods as a way to use his training and knowledge to improve the food system, both for the environment and for consumers. Brown is well known for his straight talk on the food system, and repeatedly has said that his company’s goal is to eradicate animal agriculture by 2035.

In the past two years, the reach and breadth of Impossible Foods’ products has grown exponentially. As the pandemic started shutting down restaurants’ dining rooms — where Impossible Foods made its name and did the bulk of its business — the company kicked into overdrive and made a huge retail expansion. In 2020 alone, Impossible Foods went from having products in 150 stores in January to more than 11,000 stores in December. 

In 2021, Impossible added several new products. Impossible Sausage hit grocery store shelves in August. Impossible Chicken Nuggets — the company’s first chicken analog product — became available in foodservice and at grocery stores in September, while Impossible Pork hit foodservice. Impossible Meatballs, which are made from a blend of the company’s plant-based burgers and sausage, debuted in November.

The company has said it has many more products on the way. At a 2020 virtual media event, Impossible’s scientists showed off a prototype of Impossible Milk. The company has also mentioned it is working on areas including steak and seafood, and it set off on a 2020 drive to double its R&D team to bring more scientists of all disciplines aboard.

As chief visionary officer, Brown will be doing many of the things he is best known for at Impossible: leading innovation, strategic initiatives, public advocacy and the company’s mission.

It is not uncommon for a founding CEO to step back from the role as companies grow. In the cultured meat space, this has included the founders of both Future Meat Technologies and MeaTech 3D. Both companies were succeeded by experienced business professionals as their companies moved to a more commercial role.

Coming off of his success at Chobani, McGuinness is primed for this new role. His perspective and experience can help Impossible further diversify its offerings and find success. And McGuinness will have a lot to work with. Last year, which saw massive funding rounds for food companies, Impossible took the prize for the largest single investment round, bringing its lifetime funding to more than $2 billion.

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