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CEO of Amy's Kitchen reveals recipe for business success: Why do you and your company exist?

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Many corporate leaders live and breathe business 24/7, believing that’s the only path to success.

That’s not how Xavier Unkovic rolls.

The staff at Amy’s Kitchen found that out in May 2017, when he became president of the Petaluma-based family business, founded in 1987.

Unkovic’s top concern is people, and that was evident during the recent Kincade Fire, which burned nearly 78,000 acres of northeast Sonoma County before it was extinguished Nov. 6.

“You wake up one day and 600 of your people (have) been displaced, and that is a big stress on the organization,” Unkovic said at the Business Journal’s CEO Roundtable event, held Nov. 5 at the DoubleTree Hotel in Rohnert Park. He said it didn’t take long to learn all of Amy’s employees were safe. The next order of business, he said, was to reassure them they would still be paid. “That’s very important because most of the time the people that get the most affected are the ones that have the least. ... When times are most difficult, this is how you stay true to who you are. So taking care of our people was the No. 1 objective.”

Unkovic is a big believer in understanding your life’s purpose, having self-awareness, and being grounded in helping others, along with the planet. And that, he notes, makes Amy’s a good match for him.

“It’s quite an amazing business to be part of,” said Unkovic, a native of France. “And every day we have this beautiful journey of taking great care of consumers by providing them beautiful meals cooked in our kitchen, with a great selection of organic ingredients.”

Years ago, while traveling in Japan, Unkovic had a life-changing experience when he learned about a philosophy that says there are two critical moments in life: the day you were born and the day you understand why.

“And this is very much an invitation I have for every leader in this room, is really to understand why you were born and understand deeply why your company exists,” Unkovic said to the event’s audience. “Because let’s imagine that you work in a company where your own reason to exist fits very much with the company’s reason to exist, and how much this drives your engagement level, and the people that work for you.”

Unkovic joined Amy’s after serving for nearly 16 years at Mars, Inc., most recently as global president for the company’s drinks division in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Before joining Mars, Unkovic worked for 17 years at Royal Canin, the last 10 of which he served as CEO of the pet food company’s U.S. and Canadian divisions.

Bobby Chacko, president and CEO of Boston-based Ocean Spray Inc., worked for Unkovic for three years while serving as global chief marketing officer at Mars. He described Unkovic as inspirational.

“My style is very analytical: Let’s go; let’s execute; let’s get it done,” Chacko said. “Xavier was more about, ‘What are you trying to accomplish and, by the way, how are people feeling with your leadership? Xavier has a knack for helping people achieve their bigger objectives.”

Chacko said Unkovic helped him reframe what is important, and it’s not about being right or wrong. Rather it’s about understanding how to be effective and being an approachable leader.

And there was another takeaway from their three years working together.

“Xavier doesn’t subscribe to the ‘you need to work 24 hours a day and on weekends away from family,’” said Chacko, noting he found that odd. “I came from Coca-Cola and G.E. Capital. No one ever did that. … He said to me, ‘That’s great, but listen, on weekends my wife takes my phone and I have to focus on my family.’”

Back at work, Unkovic is in tune with how to manage different generations in the workplace.

“You try to understand first,” Unkovic said. “It’s about having a lot of empathy and not trying to think about how you were doing (things) when you were young. The recipe is different.”

Unkovic takes a more global view, stepping back and seeing the differences as part of the evolution of life. And when people tell him life used to be much better, his response is that it’s the older generation that needs to adapt — not the reverse.

“It’s a tough world with all the informational overload. My brain was at peace when I was young,” Unkovic said. “Every 10 seconds (the younger generation has) info on their smartphone. This is crazy what’s happening with these kids. They worry about the future.”

With the level of uncertainty plaguing today’s younger generation, Unkovic thinks a well-managed workplace could provide solace.

“In in a sense, the company’s enterprise needs to really find a peaceful place for a young generation to come and operate, and be respected and welcomed for how they feel,” he said. “We need to massively understand this.”

From Chacko’s perspective, Unkovic is not only his former boss and mentor, he is a friend.

“Xavier has a unique ability to balance the art and science of leadership, and can convey it to people,” Chacko said. “He spends time coaching and imparting his wisdom, and he does it in a way where there’s no ego. It’s really about helping the other human being out.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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