ColoradoBiz CEO of the Year 2015: Brian Coppom

He left corporate America to lead Boulder County Farmers Markets

Brian Coppom worked corporate jobs in product development, industrial design and telecom before planting roots in an entirely new industry in October 2013: local agriculture.

“It was 100 percent travel and I was not really happy,” he says of his previous endeavor. “I felt I had spent years and years chasing money.”

Around this time his wife, Nancy, signed up for Ollin Farms’ community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and Coppom heard a second calling. “I really liked going to the CSA pickups on the farm,” he says. “I felt peace on the farm.”

Coppom started working at the Longmont Farmers Market on Saturday mornings after his wife launched an organic bakery in 2012. “She’s not an early-morning person,” says Coppom, 51, so he started showing up at the crack of dawn to set up the bakery’s booth and immediately felt at home. “What really struck me was how friendly the vendors were,” he says. “It wasn’t dog-eat-dog like telecom. These people really have a lot of respect for each other.”

In fact, it was such a departure from the “compare-and-despair” corporate mentality, that he jumped at the opportunity to switch career paths and join the nonprofit Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM).

In mid-2013, the executive director position opened for the third time in less than three years amidst a tumultuous time for the legendary markets in Boulder and Longmont. When Nancy forwarded him an email hunting for a new director, asking, “Do you want to run the farmers market?” Coppom replied, “Hell yeah, I do.”

New Leadership

Coppom threw his unlikely hat in the ring in the midst of a national search, played up his experience in finance and governance, and landed the gig at a trying time. “I joined a month after the [2013] floods,” he says. “There was a lot of need.” The organization canceled only one market because of the deluge, but many farmers were hit hard.

The markets work with 150 vendors and require farmers to work at their own booths. Only about 20 percent of such local food and craft fairs in the country have a “growers-only” policy, Coppom says. “I feel strongly that is one of the biggest assets we have. It leads to customer trust. I would like to see every farmers market in the country be farmers-only.”

It’s all about making a connection with food that’s so often lost in the modern world. “I want everybody to have that experience,” he says. “It’s something I can’t really describe – that connection – but when you make it, it’s palpable.

“A lot of it is figuring out how to serve the vendor,” he says, adding that it differs from other jobs he’s held where the idea of service was secondary to the pursuit of money. “It changes the whole conversation.”

Planted roots

The farmers have been the key to the Boulder County Farmers Market since the city launched the event in 1987 and Longmont two years later. After all, farmers were the markets’ founders and have raised the local events to national prominence in the decades since. If Boulder is the epicenter of the natural-foods industry, as many see it, then the markets are the grassroots embodiment of that commercial acclaim.    

Established in 1983, Chet Anderson’s family-owned Fresh Herb Co. north of Longmont was one of the founding farms and still sells its products through both markets today. “We used to go to a number of other markets and now we just do Saturdays at both Boulder and Longmont,” Anderson says.

He says the farm pulled out of markets from Dillon to Denver and retrenched in Boulder County because, “We’ve just always been there. It’s a family thing for us.”

But it’s also the authenticity afforded by the growers-only policy, he adds. “It doesn’t degrade into a flea market.”

And the integrity begets popularity: More than 10,000 people visit the two markets on a given summer Saturday. “It’s good for the growers because it’s really well-attended,” Anderson says.

Another perk: “It’s kind of nice because I can have feedback directly from my customer, right there. It’s invaluable.”

National model

It’s probably no surprise that Boulder has long been on the short list of top farmers markets in the U.S. Just this year, USA Today called it the best farmers market in the country, not long after it was at the center of a 2010 Bon Appétit article that decreed Boulder “America’s Foodiest Town.”

But the markets were less impressive behind the curtains. Sales dipped by a few percentage points in both 2011 and 2012, and critics worried the organization’s leadership had lost its way.

It turns out that Coppom’s sharp, analytical approach and fresh perspective were exactly what the markets needed.

“In 2013, we stopped the backslide, even with the flood,” he says, crediting the staff.

Then, in Coppom’s first full year came a 12 percent bump. “In 2014, we had the highest produce sales in the history of the organization. And this year, we’re about 6 percent over 2014.”

“We definitely built a lot of structure around those pieces that didn’t have structure before,” Coppom says, referring to newly instituted monthly reporting and a more rigorous and accountable organization.

The staff’s work actually ramps up in the fall, with an offseason that includes the annual report, budgeting for the next year, and personnel and policy reviews before the big annual meeting with the growers in March.

Coppom didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, but he implemented tweaks like upping the maximum frontage from 30 feet to 40 feet, setting the booths back six inches to make the Boulder market more walkable, and implementing marketing and outreach efforts year-round, rather than shutting down with the markets for the winter. “Before, we had a big gap,” he says. “We have a much longer-term outlook now.”

He also pushed for more growers and fewer vendors of packaged and prepared foods, despite the fact that the market makes a much lower commission from farmers than the other vendors. About 60 percent of the frontage at the markets is now occupied by growers.

“We’re kind of in it with them. Our mission is to support local agriculture, to support local farmers, and connect the community with these farmers,” Coppom says. “I think what makes this one of the best markets in the country is simply integrity.”

Peter Volz, owner of Oxford Gardens, a small farm in Longmont, and vice president of the BCFM board, started selling produce through the markets in 2006. He says the board’s vision for the organization blurred over the years.

“Where’s the ship going? Are we going to this continent or that continent? That all got muddled. The board was running the show, and it clearly wasn’t the right architecture to run an organization.”

In contrast, says Volz, “Brian’s very organized and he understands the mechanisms he’s dealing with and how they work with the whole machine. The vendors are astonished. It’s become a really wonderful setup. They’ve all bought in big time.”

He says the governance structure is one of the best he’s seen in 35 years working with nonprofits. “Coppom knows how to navigate the staff and the board. He’s a great mediator. It’s a functional family, which is not something you hear very often.”

And, says Volz, “The numbers are great. The energy’s good there. The Boulder market is an institution. We do so much business there in the first hour and a half of the day, and it’s mostly regulars.” Longmont has more runway for growth, but it’s come a long way and “matured” under Coppom’s watch.

He’s been able to lead even the most curmudgeonly of the old guard, Volz adds, and the organization is rudderless no more. “He came into a difficult situation, and it’s night and day.”

“He and his team have really settled down the drama,” echoes the Fresh Herb Co.'s Anderson. “The farmers and growers can focus on what they do best: growing.”

Volz says Coppom exemplifies a favorite credo, “Take your work seriously, but not yourself seriously,” and adds, “He doesn’t have a big ego, but he’s got a lot of drive and he knows how to steer the ship.”

And the waters haven’t exactly been the easiest to navigate. Case in point: The floods of 2013 expanded the markets’ mission. “We asked, ‘What are we doing for the farmers who are affected?’” Coppom recalls. “We weren’t set up for that kind of thing. It led to this larger question. Our priority will always be the markets, but what else can we do to support local agriculture?”

Community support

BCFM has partnered with Colorado State University and the Bridge House, a homeless advocate, to create a work-force program for local farms, along with an initiative that doubles the buying power of low-income families at the markets. The outreach strategy has grown to include organizing neighborhood farm-to-table dinners, providing all-local luncheons for Boulder Community Health staffers and the Boulder meeting of the beekeeping members of the Western Apicultural Society, and running the new-for-2015 Seeds Library Cafe at the central library.

“The objective is to provide a year-round outlet for our local agriculture,” Coppom says of the cafe. “I felt it was important for us to walk the talk.” In winter, he adds, “We’ll have a lot of squash and potato dishes.”

But it’s not just about altering BCFM’s trajectory. There’s been another big change lately: Coppom’s family cooks at home on a near-nightly basis. “We used to eat out all the time,” he says. “I love cooking. It’s become part of our family.”

It all comes back to the food. Fresh, healthy, tasty food. “There’s a reason food is the center of the party and at the heart of the house,” Coppom says. “Food nurtures us, and when we’re nurtured, we feel safe, and when we feel safe, we’re more open to connecting with other people.”

He cites a study published in the Harvard Business Review that found business deals negotiated over meals to be 12 percent more profitable. “The same thing happens when you get anyone around a table.”

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