Executive Q&A: The Brand Manager

Rob Harris, founder and CEO of Pacific Market International.
The founder and CEO of Pacific Market International has transformed PMI from a trading company into a product development and manufacturing business with more than 150 corporate employees in offices around the globe.
Rob Harris has always been entrepreneurial. In grade school, he set up a retail store in his parents’ garage. In high school, he was the kid selling “adult beverages” from the trunk of his car. In college, he ran a thrift store. Harris started Pacific Market International — PMI — in 1983 with roughly a thousand dollars and an abiding curiosity about international trade. With its recent acquisition of San Francisco-based Formation Brands, PMI has added another element to its growing line of food- and beverage-related products. 
EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Summit, New Jersey, with two sisters and a devoted stay-at-home mom. My father was a sales-and-marketing guy with Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s Lamp Division, so I grew up walking stores with my dad, looking at retail displays, and talking to store managers and consumers about product, price, promotional opportunities and displays. My father was forever talking at dinner about management, leadership and people development. I learned a lot from him about being a good listener — to employees and customers. In college, I spent summers leading outdoor trips for boys in New England — teaching them to climb mountains, canoe, kayak and sail. After an extended road trip across the country, I landed in Seattle and have called it home since 1980.
BEFORE PMI: I have a master’s degree in counseling psychology and worked as a therapist in a short-term crisis psychiatric hospital right out of graduate school. When I settled in Seattle, my first job combined my love of social work and inclination toward business as the business development guy for Northwest Center. In this role, I saw containers of goods coming in and out of the Seattle port and thought to myself, “There’s big opportunity in buying and selling. And I can figure out how to do it better.” With $1,000 in my bank account, I bought my first container of goods. They were ceiling fans that had been abandoned by the company that imported them. I found a buyer and began the initial formulation of what would later become PMI.
CREATING PMI: I had three principles on founding PMI: growing the company from profit rather than debt; not having any partners (to keep decision making fast and efficient); and buying only what my customers had already ordered, that is, no inventory, tooling or product development risk. When I started PMI, China was just beginning to open to the rest of the world. In Seattle, a lot of people were talking about international business but, aside from Boeing and Weyerhaeuser, very few were actually doing it. I worked my way around the city, securing sourcing contracts with companies like Nintendo and set off for my first visit to China to forge partnerships with factories, some of which we still do business with today. 
PMI’S MISSION: We want to revolutionize the way people enjoy food and beverages everywhere they go. We create high-quality drinking and eating experiences, through Stanley’s iconic hot beverage bottle and Aladdin’s water bottles, the best ones in their categories on the market today; and through Migo’s lunch containers, which are available in China, a key strategic market for PMI. 
ELEVATOR PITCH: We are a consumer brand marketing and product innovation company focused in the food and beverage container market. We own five brands — Stanley, Aladdin, Migo, Slant and Flair — and have operations in Brazil, China, Europe, Malaysia and the USA.
EMBRACING CHANGE: When I started PMI, we were focused on trading — buying and selling goods from Asia. After the first 10 years, I began adding designers, engineers and graphic artists, and shifted the mission to only offering products that we developed, on which we owned intellectual property and around which we could create strict quality parameters. PMI evolved from sourcing for other brands to a brand house itself, starting with our acquisition of Stanley and Aladdin in 2001.
PRODUCING IN CHINA: It’s naive to think that a product that comes from a particular region of the world is either good or bad. There are good and bad factories all over the world. What matters is either owning or working with only good factories that treat their workers well and are environmentally friendly. It’s a huge source of pride and accomplishment for me that PMI has changed the lives of tens of thousands of workers in China by the way we run our factories or insist that our partners run theirs. 
SUSTAINABILITY: We own an injection molding operation in China that is a clean and green factory. We have water recycling throughout the plant and solar panels on the roof. This is one of the better factories — from an environmental standpoint — in the world. We contract only with factories that can pass one of our environmental audits and we have determined that they conform to our standards around carbon footprint. All of our products are a commitment to sustainability, simply because they replace disposable food and beverage containers with beautiful reusable ones. Many of our specific products are made from recycled materials. It is a priority in our product design process to look for ways to incorporate sustainable materials, implement sustainable processes and minimize our impact on the environment.
LOOKING AHEAD: We will double the size of the company in the next five to seven years. But, more important than growing, we are getting faster, smarter and better in all areas of our business. 
CHALLENGES: Managing growth globally is one of our biggest challenges. We have employees in China, Brazil, the Philippines, Netherlands and the USA. As a sub-$500 million enterprise, there are challenging complexities to manage in terms of systems, financing and operations. All of it is manageable because we have really good people tackling the issues and solving the challenges. 

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