How Bill Bishop fetched his fortune.
In true Horatio Alger form, Bill Bishop began his career pushing a mail cart in an ad agency with virtually no money to his name and steadily rose up the ranks. Quiet and unassuming, Bishop segued from the ad agency business to become a consumer products entrepreneur at the ripe age of fifty-six, beginning with his rollout of SoBe soft drinks that he sold to Pepsi for a princely sum. After SoBe, Bishop and his sons launched the healthy dog food company Blue Buffalo inspired by their ailing Airedale named Blue. They recently sold Blue Buffalo to General Mills for $8.1 billion. If ever one needed evidence that you can teach an old dog new tricks, Bishop is a shining example. There is little question that Bishop owes his latest achievement to his dog Blue, and there is no doubt that Blue is somewhere wagging his tail with pride. N Magazine interviewed Bishop at length to learn about his path to success and his views on business.
BISHOP: I discovered it by accident. I was account supervisor at Ted Bates, and the guy who worked for me had rented a house on Nantucket in the summer for a week. He had a family problem and he couldn’t use it and asked me if I wanted it. So we went up there for a week back in 1973. My son Billy was three, my son Chris was one. We loved it. We’ve come back every summer since and rented all around the island. Then in 2001, we sold SoBe Beverages and finally were able to buy a house in Sconset.
N MAGAZINE: Can you tell us about your first job?
BISHOP: I graduated from college in 1961. I had been at Ohio Wesleyan and played basketball and lacrosse. I had a journalism degree, but I started as a mail boy in an advertising agency in New York. I actually pushed around those little shopping carts of mail back in the Mad Men era. I did that for a year, then I joined the Marines because of the Vietnam War. I joined the Marine Reserves, and thank God, we were never called up. I came out of the Marines and wanted to get back in the advertising business but not pushing a cart. Back then Pan Am and the MET Life building had a bunch of payphones. So every morning I’d go down there with a pocket full of dimes, and I tore out the Yellow Pages on advertising agencies that I started cold-calling beginning with the A’s. I eventually got a job as a trainee. From there, I worked at a bunch of different advertising agencies through the years, working my way up to the position of management supervisor. But then, back in 1995, I spun off on my own. I was tired of making money for other people. I was fifty-six at that time and started my own advertising agency called CR Communications, which we later sold to True North in 2000.
N MAGAZINE: How did you go from advertising to the beverage business?
BISHOP: In 1995, I was also one of three founders of SoBe Beverages. It was actually an idea of a friend of mine who worked for me at General Foods in the old days. We were the first brand to add herbs and supplements, and name our products for functions. We had brands like “energy,” “power,” and “wisdom” that were herb-enhanced fruit drinks. I did the marketing and product development. Both my kids graduated from college while we were running SoBe, so they joined that company.
N MAGAZINE: Explain the name SoBe.
BISHOP: A friend of mine named Johnny Bello came to me with a brand named South Beach Beverages. That was his idea. Because back in the mid-nineties, brands like Nantucket Nectars, Clearly Canadian, Arizona Ice Tea were all destination-based brands. South Beach in Florida was a hot destination back then. We introduced it in 1996 as South Beach Beverages and failed miserably. We were running out of money. We raised $2 million but spent it all. We thought we’d make one more try. The locals down in Florida call South Beach “SoBe,” so we changed the name and focused on the lizard logo.
My son Billy and I took a van loaded with cases of our product and drove down from Connecticut to the big trade show in Houston. We had the worst positioning in the convention center. They had us back by a men’s room. We built a booth out of cases and a ten-foot-long table and put up a little basketball hoop. When guys came back from the men’s room, if they could make the shot, we’d give them a t-shirt. We won the beverage of the show award.
N MAGAZINE: The soft drink business is incredibly competitive. How did you break into this from a standing start?
BISHOP: We ended up with 310 distributors all around the country. This is where my partner John Bello was really superb. We would go into a small market like Columbus, Ohio, or the Pacific Northwest. We’d go up and down the street like a SWAT team, entering all the mom-and-pop shops and delis. We’d give them a free case and say we’d be back in a week. If they didn’t sell anything, we’d pick it up. The stuff sold really well. Back in the day, we had these great glass bottles with the lizard embossed on them. And it just took off. We sold it to Pepsi in 2001 for $370 million.
N MAGAZINE: How did Blue Buffalo come to be?
BISHOP: In 2002, after selling SoBe, my sons and I went to a bar and had some beers. I talked to them about how they needed to keep working and asked them what they wanted to do. They wanted to start a business. Our dog Blue had cancer at the time. We started looking at his food and thought we could make better food than was out there. This was the start of the natural pet food revolution. A bunch of other brands were growing fast. We saw that as an opportunity, so we developed a superior product that was two parts: kibble and supplements in cold form.
BISHOP: We named our brand Blue after our dog. We added the “buffalo” because we found through SoBe that people remember symbols a lot more than they remember names. Nobody had a symbol in the pet food business, so we brought in the buffalo. It’s a symbol of back when things were toxin-free, and toxins are the causes of pet cancer. The Plains Indians also considered the buffalo as the protector of wildlife because of their size and mass. We thought it fit well.
N MAGAZINE: How did you grow the company?
BISHOP: We went to PetSmart in 2003. They gave us a 240-store test. We rode that up. The first year we did $700,000 in revenue. This year, our retail sales are well over $2 billion. The big thing with Blue Buffalo is that we have a motto: “Who you ride the river with is just as important as where you’re going.” We started in a barn with eight people and developed it into an incredible company that we sold to General Mills for $8.1 billion, which was nice.
N MAGAZINE: And Blue Buffalo also has a philanthropic component?
BISHOP: We established the Blue Buffalo Foundation in 2003 devoted to raising funds for pet cancer because our dog Blue died of cancer. We declared May as Pet Cancer Awareness Month—we invented it ourselves. Over time, we’ve raised over $30 million for pet cancer research. We have over forty studies going at nineteen universities and clinics. I think we’re making a big contribution to that, which is very important to us.
BISHOP: On Nantucket, supporting disabled veterans is very high on the list. When Tom McCann was first founding Holidays for Heroes, he called up Blue Buffalo. We became the big sponsor for the first gala and that’s when I met some of these veterans. To see someone like Tim Donelly, who leads the MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band, got to our hearts immediately. Holidays for Heroes became something we really wanted to support. We can’t do enough for these guys. That’s when we also met BJ Ganem who started Sierra Delta: Service Dogs for Heroes, which was a perfect link for Blue Buffalo. So we became a big supporter of that, too. Also on Nantucket, we supply all the food for the dogs and cats at NiSHA. So animals who can’t care for themselves and disabled veterans who have given so much for us are the causes that really resonate with us on Nantucket.
N MAGAZINE: What do you do for leisure on Nantucket?
BISHOP: I play golf and I drink. To me the best people on the island are the caddies. I belong to the Nantucket Club. The caddies are some of the best people. The bartenders are some of the best people. And the contractors are some of the best people. You can meet a lot of interesting people on Nantucket, but I love the caddies and the bartenders. That’s what we do: play golf with family and drink well.
BISHOP: We’ll think about it. There may be another act, even though I’m too old to even think about that. But we’re not in a big rush.
N MAGAZINE: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who may have a product or a service that they’re passionate about and want to launch it?
BISHOP: I’ve met a bunch of guys who have some neat ideas but who are afraid to get out there and meet with the trades. Right now, in almost every category, retailers are looking for new products. They want something new. They want something different. The advice I would give them: If you’ve got a good idea, make a prototype, get off your behind and start calling on people. You can’t just sit back and hope that someone’s going to discover you. You’ve got to go out there and make it happen. You have to be very, very proactive.