Big risk, sweet rewards: John Lowe ’98 left GC post within General Electric to lead Jeni’s enterprise
In the office of John Lowe ’98, a stack of framed artwork is carefully bound in bubble wrap and leaning against a chalkboard wall filled with whimsical doodles of flowers and vines. The former is indicative of the fact that Lowe, CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, has found little time to unpack and redecorate since recently shifting offices within the company’s Grandview, Ohio headquarters. The doodles are remnants of the creative genius who used to inhabit the space: Jeni Britton Bauer.
“Jeni and I are so different that it’s difficult to overstate,” said Lowe, sitting in the office that bears Britton Bauer’s creative spirit and tchotchkes of Lowe’s suit-and-tie past. “Jeni and I are the perfect yin and yang. There is almost nothing she does that overlaps with what I do, and vice versa.”
Lowe’s energies since 2009 have focused on building upon the foundation Britton Bauer and her husband, Charly Bauer, created since opening a stall in The North Market in Columbus in 2002. In his first three years, the company has morphed into a brand recognized by shoppers in tony grocery stores on both coasts, by children slurping up scoops of Wildberry Lavender at one of its shops in Tennessee, and, perhaps most exciting to Lowe, at a retailer in Dubai.
“We had to spend time getting the company’s finances in order and building a team that was capable of significant growth,” said Lowe. “During my first year, we got our feet wet trying to build the wholesale business.”
The privately owned company that boasted $2.1 million in sales in 2008 is projected to hit $13 million this year – a growth rate increase of more than 500 percent. Retail stores have increased from four to 10, including a 2011 expansion to East Nashville, Tenn. Thanks to the wholesale business, which was Lowe’s highest priority upon joining the company, pints of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams grace the shelves in 672 grocery stores across the lower-48 today. “We are still tiny,” said Lowe. “There is a lot we could be doing better. But yes, we are having success. People are responding to Jeni and the ice creams.”
Accolades for the company’s ice cream have rolled in from Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Bon Appetit, the Food Network, and countless foodie bloggers. The company’s Lemon Frozen Yogurt was named recently named “Best Dessert” by the Specialty Food Retailers Association, and Britton Bauer received the James Beard Foundation Award for her New York Times bestseller, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Among the pages of glowing product reviews the sales team keeps at their fingertips are links to the General Mills’ “The Munchies,” a people’s choice awards competition in which Jeni’s was named Best Ice Cream in America, a video Google made about Jeni’s as America’s Best Ice Cream, and a TIME article with a headline that dares to wonder: “Can the Best Ice Cream in America Be the Biggest?”
It may just yet.
“Jeni and I are incredibly different people, but we share one overriding characteristic: We are both ferociously competitive,” Lowe said.
Lowe was a young attorney at Kegler, Brown, Hill, & Ritter who was trying to pay off his law school loans from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law when he met Charly Bauer by chance at a Columbus pub one night. The two became close friends, with Bauer eventually storing his version of an engagement ring – an Italian tabletop ice-cream-maker – at Lowe’s apartment in the Short North. The couple later used the piece to make ice cream for Lowe’s rehearsal dinner the night before he wed a lawyer at a competing law firm, Catherine Strauss.
“I set up the company for them in exchange for a pint of salty caramel ice cream and a beer,” Lowe said. “They were in no position to pay the law firm rates at the time. I was helping out my two drinking buddies who had a dream.”
As his dear friends worked toward starting up an ice cream stand in The North Market, Lowe was steadily building upon his successes as a labor and employment attorney at Kegler Brown. He loved working at the Columbus firm, but when GE called, it was too good to pass up.
At the time, GE consistently ranked as America’s Most Admired Company by Fortune Magazine, and its renowned law department was ranked as the World’s Best by Corporate Counsel magazine. “During the recruiting, they showed me the list of former company GCs who went on to run Fortune 500 companies. That seemed pretty far-fetched, until I was inside the company and got to be around the amazing brains and training GE provided. It was as fast-paced and competitive as any environment in the world,” Lowe recalled. “Looking back, I got to do amazing things because of GE.”
After a year and a half at GE, he was named the general counsel for Unison Industries, a $500 million GE subsidiary based in Florida that makes high-tech electronics for jet engines. Lowe then went on to be counsel for global operations, a $14 billion P&L within GE Aviation, and then became general counsel for GE Aviation’s business and general aviation business.
“GE does compliance and legal better than anybody, and they empower their general counsels. At Unison, I was parachuted into a sophisticated executive team. I was learning so much. It was like drinking from a fire hose. Over time, I found myself morphing almost entirely into business leadership and was simply acting as an interpreter between environmental lawyers and business lawyers and the business team. I loved the role,” Lowe said. “There was a high-performance mentality at the core of GE, and it was fun and thrilling. We got to do big things. … I learned so much at GE about leadership and running teams and being around great CEOs that it enabled me to think about roles outside of law.”
While he considered that his trajectory might be like that of other GE general counsels who went on to head those Fortune 500 companies, Lowe was equally comfortable thinking that he could spend the next 30 years at GE. It was a career connected to a very sturdy trunk, and he was climbing near the top at a very young age. There were very few people with whom Lowe would have considered venturing out on the thinnest of limbs. “A handful of college buddies,” Lowe said, “and my old drinking buddies who happen to make the world’s finest ice cream.”
“It was a bigger risk than I wanted to admit at the time because I wanted to do it so bad,” Lowe said of the couple inviting him to join the Jeni’s team in January 2009. “I loved GE. I loved everything I was able to do there and the opportunities. But these were two people I totally believed in and a product I truly thought was world-class.”
He added: “I was able to take that risk because my wife was an accomplished lawyer. If Jeni’s didn’t work out, we could still pay the bills because my wife could go back to practicing law. My wife’s brains and abilities freed me up to give this a try.”
He and Britton Bauer made a 20-year commitment to running the business together. In addition to growing the wholesale and retail business at Jeni’s, Lowe has allowed his creative side to come through in the development of Eat Well Distribution, an affiliate he created that buys dried goods and marshals the ice cream company’s distribution and marketing prowess to help other small food companies get on the shelves of specialty retailers.
For the man who has had little time to decorate his office, there is one sign hanging up that gives a nod to the instincts that brought him here. It reads: “A ship in harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships are built for!”