15 May 2011

Hidden in Plain View

Nearly every successful business or nonprofit which endures over time begins with a simple yet profound idea.

Such is the case of Charles Edward Merrill, who in 1914, founded what is now known as Merrill Lynch. According to historical sources, Merrill was one of the first New York stockbrokers to realize the importance of selling stocks and bonds to small investors by furnishing them with simple, conservative, and sound financial advice.

Looking to grow his brokerage business, he decides to locate offices closer to potential customers west of New York's Hudson River.

Summarizing Merrill's core idea, he took Wall Street to Main Street.

And did so by looking for external opportunities in an expanding country in the early part of the 20th century.  A lesson here is that change is what you choose to make of it.  What seemed hidden to others in the financial industry, a rising USA middle class became obvious to Merrill. 

His death in 1956 prompted a tribute in the New York Times concerning his "provocative ideas about how to interest the little and often Wall Street-shy man in acquiring a stake in his country's economy. Mr. Merrill was a frequent and firm spokesman for the importance of a free capital market in this nation of free enterprise."

After nearly going out of business during the recent "great recession," Merrill Lynch is now the wealth management division of Bank of America. With over 15,000 financial advisors and $2.2 trillion in client assets, it is the world's largest brokerage.

In the late 1990's André Briend, a French pediatric nutritionist walks into the kitchen of his home one morning where the children are eating breakfast. On the table is a jar of the chocolate spread, Nutella.

For some time Briend and a host of others had been looking for practical solutions to the problem of malnutrition, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Milk spoils. Water is often contaminated. A mother leaving her children to find food in other villages poses safety problems for those left behind.

What to do?

For Briend, the answer to these challenges could be in the Nutella sitting on the table, in plain view. From this "aha" moment, watching his kids eat breakfast, would come a product with a funny name, Plumpy’nut.

Plumpy’nut consists of a peanut-based paste, with sugar, vegetable fat, and skimmed milk powder, enriched with vitamins and minerals. It is available in 92g foil wrappers which provide 500 calories. The product can be used for up to 24 months after the date of manufacture without refrigeration.

As a ready-to-use food, Plumpy’nut requires no preparation, no dilution in water before use, and no cooking, and it can be consumed directly from the wrapper. A daily dose cost $1 and is manufactured in several African countries including Niger, Mozambique, and Malawi. It is also being produced in Rhode Island under the name, Edesia Global Nutrition Solutions.

From the manufacturer, Nutriset, we learn that the product can be used at home without any preparation, under the supervision of the mother or another member of the family. Plumpy’nut makes it possible to treat the majority of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition without them needing to be hospitalized. More malnourished children can be treated with regularity thereby improving the recovery rate.

In 2005 Doctors Without Borders distributed Plumpy’nut to 60,000 children with severe acute malnutrition during the famine in Niger. Ninety percent completely recovered and only 3 percent died. Unfortunately, according to the United Nations, the product reaches only 10 to 15 percent of those who need it due to logistics and budgets.

Where are you looking for opportunities? Customers? Non-customers? Business networks? Your employees?  Are you giving time to new ideas?  Or improving current operations?  Where could you do good and do well at the same time?

Perhaps the next profitable idea is just over the river or on the kitchen table hidden in plain view.


(C) Bredholt & Co.