How SunOpta achieved record sales and growth amid inflation

As inflation grows, supply chain challenges mount and some consumer interest wanes, how can a company that focuses on the plant-based sector perform well?

SunOpta CEO Joe Ennen believes he has the answer: execution.

Its most recent earnings report shows SunOpta has been winning the execution game. The company, which is focused on plant-based milks and frozen organic fruit, saw its highest profitability ever in the last quarter. Revenues were up 20.4% compared to a year ago, coming in at $243.5 million. The company’s plant-based sector saw 31% growth in a year. And 95% of the company’s cost increases due to inflation were covered.

SunOpta has been operating in the same economic climate as other companies in the food business, many of which have seen bumpier results as of late. Ennen said it has been able to weather it well because of the company’s dedication to its strategic plan. “GSD,” an acronym for “get stuff done” — “Or get a different S word done, if you’re so inclined,” Ennen said — is all over SunOpta’s computer screensavers, meeting agendas and company T-shirts, he said.

“When we’re faced with adversity, we have a group of people who roll up their sleeves and figure out how to fix it,” Ennen said.

SunOpta’s recent success seems to buck industry trends. The company has been able to upgrade its capacity and has more expansions on the way. It opened a new innovation center this spring. And it’s used the recent acquisition of legacy plant-based milk brands Dream and West Soy to diversify its portfolio and help it prepare for whatever economic bumps lay ahead, Ennen said.

“We think it’s part and parcel to being nimble and evolving and changing with the consumer,” Ennen said.

Continued growth in plant-based milk

SunOpta was founded as a sustainability company in 1973, and didn’t get into the food business until 1999. Ennen, who joined as CEO in 2019, said at an Investor Day event in June that SunOpta was previously run much like a holding company, with a wealth of different businesses underneath it.

Joe Ennen stands in front of a blue, gray, green and yellow painting.

Joe Ennen

Permission granted by SunOpta


When Ennen took over, he reorganized the company’s portfolio with a new focus on execution. SunOpta sold its organic soy and corn business and its global ingredients division, and honed in on plant-based beverages, broths, sunflower seeds, frozen organic fruit and fruit snacks. The plant-based category is its biggest business, worth about 60% of revenues.

Today, SunOpta is a manufacturer of oat, soy, rice, coconut, almond and hemp milk, both under its own brands, as a co-manufacturer for CPG companies, and for private label brands.

Part of the reason SunOpta has done well is it’s found a successful niche: plant-based beverages. While recent earnings reports from other companies might give the appearance that the sector is no longer growing, Ennen said SunOpta disproves that. After all, 31% growth in one quarter doesn’t look like a slowdown, he said. To be sure, he said, plant-based milk is a category that has been growing for 40 years — and it’s seen steady double-digit growth since the mid-2000s.

There are fundamental reasons that plant-based milk continues to grow, Ennen said. Consumers consider it a healthier option. More than a third of people in the U.S. are likely lactose intolerant, according to researchers. And, Ennen said, consumers see it as an easy sustainable choice they can make.

“Not everybody can afford to buy a Tesla, but everybody can afford to buy a carton of oat milk,” he said.

Studies show that consumers have their eyes on more plant-based dairy alternatives. Four in 10 U.S. adults said they have decreased their dairy consumption during the last six months, according to a recent survey done by Toluna. About a third of respondents plan to increase their consumption of dairy alternatives in the next three months — nearly the same amount that say they plan to reduce how many dairy products they eat.

SunOpta’s focus on execution — and specifically the people who make it happen, Ennen said — has been key to the company’s success. It has been able to retain employees by building a company that people are motivated to work for, he said. Plant-based milk uses less land and water and creates less air and land pollution than its dairy equivalent, and Ennen said manufacturing facilities display the company’s real time ticker, showing employees how much water they are saving by producing the beverages.