Ralph D. McRae: Chairman, President & CEO of Leading Brands

My NativeAdVice:


Mr. McRae is a director and the Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Company and has been with Leading Brands, Inc. since March 1996. He is also a director and the Chairman, CEO and Secretary/Treasurer of Leading Brands of Canada, Inc. (“LBCI”), the company’s main operating subsidiary.   Mr. McRae is a also a director and the Chairman of McRae Management Ltd., a family-owned waste management and resource company based in Surrey, British Columbia.  He is a lawyer and member of the Bar of British Columbia.

Mr. McRae is located in Vancouver and responsible for the overall direction of the company, its capital markets function and is intimately involved in the identification, creation and focus of the company’s brand initiatives.

How did you get into the Beverage industry?

 In 1996 I was retained to undertake a financial restructuring of the company. With that successfully completed we began charting our course into and through the then burgeoning healthy beverage sector.

Tell us about Leading Brands and Happy Water.  What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

 Leading Brands got its start as the financier of the original “new age” beverage: Clearly Canadian.  When that relationship ended in the early 1990s we turned our energies to bottling and distributing other peoples’ brands: Snapple®, Evian®, SoBe®, Fiji Water®, Monster Energy®, etc.  That ultimately proved disruptive as the fortunes of those brands rose and fell and distribution relationships were changed.  By 2000 we determined to chart our own course and created the first North American-wide blueberry juice, TrueBlue®.  As that brand grew we resolved to focus solely on creating products that were “naturally functional” and could not be easily duplicated.  Out of that thought grew HappyWater®.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Leading Brand's success?

 We try to work only with quality, reliable suppliers and foster relationships with retailers and distributors who really“get” our brands and see a distinct benefit to carrying them.  Our customers are curious and well-educated.  They seriously care about their health and what they consume.  We engage them directly, both in store and where they play.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them? 

Consumers are really learning about ingredients and becoming more selective in what they buy.  Value finally trumps price.  Real food and beverages are more often chosen over calories, artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors and preservatives.  People now crave the truth and for the most part reject marketing spin.  They appreciate that bread need not contain HFCS, a “sugar-free donut” is still a donut and calling it “healthy” doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Life Motto?

Learn something new, every single day.

Leading Brands's Motto?

Better Ingredients.Better Brands™

Your greatest success as Founder/CEO of Leading Brands? 

Will it be Happy Water?  Of course!

Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn? 

Fifteen years ago a supplier secretly diverted a million dollars of incoming inventory, that we had pre-paid for, and tried to sell it directly our large retail customer it was destined for, behind our back.  Because the supplier had an accomplice inside the retailer, our initial pleas for their help fell on deaf ears and the courts would have provided hollow relief. It was money we simply couldn’t afford to lose.  As it turned out, a friend of mine knew a senior executive with the retailer who quickly thwarted the scheme.  The lesson: You can’t have enough good friends!

Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?

Five keys:  (1) Thoroughly understand how and why your prospective venture works. What important problem does it solve?  What pressing need does it fill?  How will you succeed against bigger and better funded competitors (which exist everywhere)?  “We’ll be more nimble” is never the complete answer you’d like it to be. (2) You wouldn’t be starting down this road were you not naturally optimistic.  Unfortunately, legitimate optimism must always be earned, it doesn’t jump out of a spreadsheet.  You actually know the names of every entrepreneur whose “hockey stick” financial forecast proved accurate: Morgan, Getty, Ford, Walton, Knight, Gates and Jobs, to list a few.  So temper your enthusiasm and be conservative.  Your partners, customers, suppliers and financiers will both appreciate and reward that.  They already know you’re keen and a true believer, but are you a realist too?  Identify and point out the risks yourself so they don’t have to dream them up for you.  (3) The one tangible thing you have in life is a finite amount of time.  You never know precisely how much in advance, but if you’re starting in your 20’s a long career will likely give you five “do overs”; big mistakes from which you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward with only a life lesson learned.  Try not to burn through them too quickly, if at all, but every 8-10 years one disappears, whether you use it or not. Do not waste any time chasing rainbows or beating your head against a stone wall.  If you do, you’ll soon awake with grey hair and little but squandered opportunity.  (I highly recommend routinely reading Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go and studiously avoid “the waiting place”.)  (4) Your financial success will mean absolutely nothing if you do not lead a balanced life and include those closest to you in your quest.  If you’re lucky and this exciting endeavor proves to be something you actually love doing every day it can become all consuming.  You will think about it every waking (and sleeping) moment.  Your spouse and children (should you be fortunate enough to allocate the time to have them) will live and die with you through each up and down. That will invariably lead you to one of two polar opposite places: (a) being divorced and miserably lonely or (b) living amongst abundant, loving support.  Intriguingly, that is the ONLY result you have absolute control over.  (5)  Finally, never give up; and remember to stock your new corporate commissary with HappyWater®.  Happy workers are better workers!

Describe the ideal experience using a Leading Brand's product such as Happy Water.

“I’m happy!” (Shouted aloud during impulsive smiling, singing or dancing.)

How do you motivate your employees?

Find good, responsible people. Help them set their course. Let them do their jobs.  Guide them when they stumble.

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?

Blueberries and HappyWater®.  I’m serious.

What literature is on your bed stand?

The Accidental SuperPower by Peter Zeihan

Role model - business and personal?

Mike Markkula, for unsuccessfully trying to retire in his 30’s.  My wife.

Current passion?

Improving packaging and recycling practices to reduce waste and save finite resources.

Favorite travel destination?

La Quinta, California.

What's next for Leading Brands? 

Putting HappyWater® in the hands of every sentient being in North America. What could possibly be more rewarding?