Nature Nate's is the top-branded honey in America, but the company's president, Nathan Sheets, refuses to take credit. Instead, the marketer-turned-beekeeper attributes his business' rapid success and growth to Jesus.
"The overwhelming theme that engulfed me as I started really focusing on Nature Nate's was 'God is our CEO, and I'm simply the chief steward of what He's entrusted to us,'" says Sheets of his McKinney, Texas-based company.
Sheets pursues this theme not only by cultivating a healthy work environment for his employees but also by using the company's finances and influence to share the love of Christ and strengthen families and communities.
For instance, Nature Nate's has launched the Honey Gives Hope corporate giving program and was the presenting sponsor of the 2017 GMA Dove Awards honoring the best in Christian music. The company partnered with the Dove Awards to promote Show Hope, an organization seeking to unite orphans and loving families as quickly and easily as possible.
"Every day, honey gives hope through programs that support music, ministry and better health," Sheets said. "Partnering with the 48th Annual GMA Dove Awards is a natural way for Nature Nate's to support passionate leaders in Christian music. It's a privilege to work alongside organizations that have a shared vision of helping others. Together with the GMA Dove Awards, we'll be able to provide a grant to Show Hope so that a family can bring home a child in need."
Sheets believes exercising this kind of stewardship has a positive impact on the company overall.
"The success of Nature Nate's isn't because we're great branders or we're great marketers," Sheets says. "I believe the success of Nature Nate's is because we truly want to use this platform to make a difference for eternity."
Falling in Love With Bees
"We went from this teeny-tiny honey company in 2012 to five years later, we're the No. 1-branded honey in America [according to market research firm IRI]," Sheets says. "It's just a total God story."
Sheets never intended to sell honey. He was happy with his small, ever-busy advertising agency and the mission work he did on the side for E3 Partners, then called Global Missions Fellowship, creator of the EvangeCube.
But in 1996, right after he and his wife, Patty, married, she said they needed a hobby to do together, so they bought a bee hive from Fred Richardson, the small-business owner of North Dallas Honey Company.
But what started as a post-honeymoon hobby soon became Sheets' passion.
"I just fell in love with beekeeping," he says. "It was just fascinating. [Richardson] had about 50 bee hives just a few miles away from my house. ... So we would go over there, and I would help him work his bees."
When 75-year-old Richardson's cancer inhibited his beekeeping, Sheets stepped up even more. He bottled his friend's honey at night and woke up early to stock it on the store shelves.
Then came the big question.
"That summer, [Richardson] said, 'Hey, why don't you buy North Dallas Honey Company?'" Sheets says. "And I thought, Why in the world would I want to buy a honey company? And so we just prayed about it, and I just felt that was what the Lord wanted us to do."
Sheets bought Richardson's honey company, but he also took a bigger role in E3 Partners, which kept him from full-time honey-selling.
Sheets' work with E3 led to several successful evangelistic projects, including the EvangeCube, a folded cube with pictures depicting the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In December 2008, Sheets helped launch I Am Second, a nonprofit media campaign that offers hundreds of testimonies to inspire people to give Jesus first place in their lives.
"But in 2010, I came to a place where my kids were getting older, and it was just time for a life change," Sheets says. "So I left E3, and we started doing the honey company full time in the summer of 2010."
The business began to expand, but Sheets realized that the regional focus of the North Dallas brand would keep the company from growing in popularity across the U.S. After much prayer, he decided to make two changes: personalize the brand name and shift the focus from the honey's local quality to its raw, unfiltered characteristics.
Once again, Sheets' wife came up with a significant idea: using his college nickname, "Nature Boy." Together, they settled on renaming the company "Nature Nate's."
"We rebranded and did the labels so that 80 percent of the label focus is on raw and unfiltered," he says. "And man, we were just blessed to be at the right place at the right time in the right industry."
Selling to Advance the Kingdom
Indeed, 80 percent of the label's focus is on the honey's "raw, unfiltered" quality, but 100 percent of the company's focus is on making an impact for Christ.
"It's funny because ... when I was in E3, and we were doing I Am Second and EvangeCube, all of our meetings and everything we did all revolved around trying to reach the world for Christ," Sheets says. "And we prayed about it and discussed it and strategized it, and then when I started doing the honey company full time, honestly, I'm like 'OK, God, You've got to show me the eternal value in selling.'"
Around that time, Sheets joined C12, an organization designed to encourage Christian business owners and CEOs to use their work platforms to advance the kingdom of God. Sheets' involvement with C12 coupled with his dozen years of full-time ministry helped him formulate his overarching purpose for Nature Nate's.
"I just came to realize that as a honey company, we don't have to raise money," he says. "We can make money, take that money, go do projects and make a difference in people's lives."
For Sheets, the company's impact begins and ends with stewardship.
"I want to steward our people resources, the people who work for us, first and foremost, to make an impact on their lives," he says. "I want to steward the financial resources and try to make as much as we can, live on as little as we can and give away as much as we can. And then I want to focus on stewardship of our influence and try to use the influence we have at Nature Nate's to share Christ with people. Then [we can] challenge believers to look at the lens of their business as possibly the biggest opportunity to make a difference for Christ where they are 8 to 5, five days a week."
Pointing Employees to Jesus
It's not a requirement to be a Christian to work at Nature Nate's, but the company's Christ-focused atmosphere is evident.
Becca May, director of brand management, comes from a non-Christian background, but Sheets has made it easy for her to fit in with company culture.
"I grew up in a Jewish home, and so I was bat-mitzvahed when I was 13," May says. "I went to a Hebrew school until I was 18. It's the only faith-background and exposure I've ever had. ... [Working at Nature Nate's has] been life-changing and eye-opening—and beyond [our] being welcomed and understood and treated with so much love and respect, Nathan continues to share with us ... the lessons and the roots that we find in [his] faith that guide everything we do."
Several of Sheets' employees have become believers through personal evangelistic efforts, but his overall focus is on demonstrating and encouraging biblical values. He does this in several ways, such as what he calls "Bee-attitudes": "Bee passionate," "Bee creative," "Bee generous," "Bee loving," "Bee faithful" and "Bee honest." The company rewards employees each month for exhibiting these characteristics. For instance, some employees chose to exercise the "Bee passionate" and "Bee generous" principles by spending their own money to buy needed supplies for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
Nature Nate's has also offered practical help to employees in a number of ways, including setting its minimum pay above minimum wage. Sheets' employees have benefitted from his generosity and also have supported each other in times of need. The company also offers monthly financial management classes to any interested employee.
Innovating for Better Health
The concept of good stewardship pervades not only the work culture of Nature Nate's but the company's goals for the future too. Sheets lists his top three, the first of which is to give away $5 million.
"I used to say we want to be there by 2020," he says, though he wants to take care that his goal doesn't become a personal idol that consumes his focus.
Another goal on Sheets' heart is to hire thousands.
"That's an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people," he says. "On one hand, it really excites me, and on the other hand, it really freaks me out because I know that if you create a machine like that, you've got to keep going and growing, and there's just a lot to that."
Sheets' final goal for Nature Nate's is to create better-for-you products that use honey instead of less-healthy sweeteners such as processed sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
In January, the company will launch four new nut butters, three jams, a syrup for Kroger and a single-serve snack for Walmart.
"We're really driven by innovation," Sheets says. "We don't just want to be the No. 1-branded honey company in America. We want to be one of the No. 1 better-for-you food companies in America."
The only way he sees these three goals coming to pass, though, is by depending on and emulating Jesus.
"It says in Ephesians that we're to smell like the aroma of Christ," Sheets says. "And as we live our lives and live in authenticity and transparency, people recognize that there's just something different. It makes people inquire, 'What's different?' And that's what draws people to the Lord. So we just try to live that out."
Jenny Rose Curtis is assistant online editor for the media group at Charisma Media and co-host of the "Charisma News" podcast.
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