She Lost Her Brand When Investors Didn't Share Her Vision. Here's What She Did Next.

It's a story with a happy ending.
She Lost Her Brand When Investors Didn't Share Her Vision. Here's What She Did Next.
Image credit: Douglas Young
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This story appears in the January 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Denise Mari lost her younger sister (and, later, her mother) to leukemia, and it changed her perspective on everything. “My lifestyle moved to plant-based organic eating, meditation, yoga and mindfulness,” she says. She wanted to create a business centered on those qualities, and in 2002 she launched Organic Avenue with her then boyfriend. They sold healthy but yummy bottled juices -- a somewhat new thing at the time.

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In 2006, Organic Avenue opened its first storefront in Manhattan. It became a cult favorite among the city’s health-conscious, who loved blends like Resilience (carrot, apple, turmeric, ginger) and Determination (celery, cucumber, romaine, kale, spinach, lemon). By 2009, the company was doubling its growth every year -- but the market was becoming crowded with competitors. A full-on juice craze had started, and Mari worried about staying ahead of it. So she started looking for capital.

The Mistake

Finding investors wasn’t hard. After all, she had a trendy, fast-growing company, and big-money outfits such as private equity firms were eager to buy in. But Mari didn’t realize how difficult it was to find the right investors -- ones that shared her vision not just for the company but for how to grow it. At the time, she says, she just expected to learn from her new partners’ “deep business experience.”

Conflict arose quickly. Mari put authenticity first: She didn’t want to make any changes that could compromise Organic Avenue’s fresh ingredients. But her new investors were eager to grow faster than she was prepared to. She worried that the changes would alienate loyal customers.

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With two competing visions, investors became more active in the company. And the end came in 2012, only three years after Mari took their money: The private equity firm Weld North, which was a larger partner, gained a controlling stake and bought Mari out. Over the next two and a half years, she watched from the sidelines as the new owners tried and failed to make Organic Avenue a national brand. In August 2015, after shuttering multiple stores, Weld North announced the sale of the company for nearly nothing. In October 2015, the new owners declared bankruptcy.

The Solution

Mari was eager to reclaim Organic Avenue, but she didn’t have the money. That meant she’d need investors yet again. But this time, she was up front about how she wanted to run the company, and sought investors who shared that vision. As she held firm, two deals fell apart. Finally the right partners came along: Arrow Equity Fund and Fisher Capital Investment bought Organic Avenue at auction for $1.7 million and installed her at the helm in December 2015.

At its peak, the brand had 12 stores and 200 employees. For her second chance, Mari isn’t on a “rocket-fueled growth trajectory.” Her company has reopened six storefronts in top-performing New York markets and has 55 employees. She now has short-, medium-, and long-term goals, all of which have been jointly developed with the investment team, and she’s working diligently to communicate openly with them.

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We wanted to apply what we had learned from the brand’s past and make the stores more contemporary, bring back the best products, build a great team and rehire the best of the former employees,” she says. Sure, she wants to open stores across the country -- but for now, she’s developing a wholesale line of store-ready juices and snacks, and will use those to take the brand national first. “You have to determine what your ultimate goal is: Grow fast and sell, or grow slow and keep your brand,” she says. “I couldn’t have written this story better myself.”

Edition: May 2017

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