Michael Funk may look a little closer to the land than the average CEO of a $2.1 billion company. That’s partly because he got his start not at Wharton but by picking apricots and peaches in the Sacramento Valley in the 1970s. There he smelled opportunity in the nascent NoCal health-food movement, skipped college, and went off in search of farmers who shunned pesticides. “From that humble beginning, we started running trucks around to the few accounts that wanted our stuff,” says the 51-year-old chief of United Natural Foods, the largest U.S. supplier of organic and natural foods. “The challenge back then was to get organically grown product that looked halfway decent.”
Organic, and Funk, have come a long way. UNF’s earnings increased by 21.8% over the past five years, and analysts predict growth will hit a juicy 19% annually over the next five; its star customer, Whole Foods, saw its stock price nearly double in 2005. “Success in America doesn’t usually go unnoticed,” says Funk. And while organic may still be a tiny slice of the $500 billion food biz, at 20% per year, it’s growing faster than any other. Over the next 10 years, Funk says, “you’ll see a number of the large players experimenting around the country, developing stand-alone franchises of Whole Foods wannabes.” Whether it’s Kroger’s, Wal-Mart, or Target–all three are moving in hungrily–United Natural Foods will be there, happily, at the bottom of the food chain.