Seattle is an American city brimming with disruptive companies changing the world. It has more cranes dotting its skyline than New York, Chicago or Silicon Valley and, thanks to Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft, this city by the Pacific has changed the everyday fabric of how we live. Here, beside T-Mobile Park where the Mariners play, sits the headquarters of Nuun, a 16-year-old hydration company that last year replaced Gatorade at all eight Canada Running Series events. Replete with the kind of tech startup funkiness that breeds new ideas—a fresh fruit breakfast bar, indoor bike rack, dogs that roam free to late-90s rap—it’s here that Ottawa-raised Nuun CEO Kevin Rutherford believes that there’s no ceiling on what his company can achieve. “We all believe in the fundamental power of movement,” says Rutherford, vegan and 47, baby-faced and intense, a veteran of ten half Ironmans and five marathons, during a candid and wide-ranging series of interviews at his headquarters last month. “We believe in taking care of the planet, taking care of people—clean product, clean planet, clean sport—and helping as many athletes as possible live as well as all of us possibly can.”
When Rutherford started at Nuun, the beverage company had a formula that was much different from what it is now. Back then, it veered closer to what competitors like Powerade and Gatorade use to flavour their drinks: artificial sweeteners. But Rutherford’s first order of business was writing down his company’s set of beliefs. If they truly wanted to be an all-natural, healthful alternative, certain decisions, like not being sold in single-use bottles and not going to market with artificial dyes, became clear. “We had to define what we are and fully commit—I was hard and fast about that—and be willing to accept whatever consequences that entails,” he says. “People are afraid of change, but we had to be cleaner—I wouldn’t let us be prisoners of what came before, and that turned into our great advantage.”
Rutherford’s advantage was both prescient and prosperous and his tenure at the company has been kilometre after kilometre of unparalleled success. This month, Nuun launches Immunity and Rest, two new categories designed to fuel different hydration needs. Athletes’ immune systems suffer at the height of their training and we know sleep is essential for recovery, and so Nuun brings new product to market. For Rutherford, it’s about anticipating consumers’ needs.
“We are the consumers and we know what’s right and we go there—it’s offense, not defense, because we know, as athletes, what we need,” Rutherford says. “If we were a $4-billion company, we couldn’t change. Look at David and Goliath. David has the advantage! For us, we don’t have that risk—we see what’s right, so let’s go.”
With over US$30 million in sales in 2018, Nuun has had three straight years of profitability and has grown over 300% in the past six years. It can be a $100-million company, Rutherford proclaims, and while Outside magazine names his company one of the best places to work and Inc calls Nuun one of the best privately held companies in the US, Rutherford insists his corporate culture remains dynamic and supportive. In fact, it’s their secret recipe.
“Our single biggest competitive advantage is our culture, our people,” says Rutherford, and he’s quick to deflect attention from his own work and shine a light on his company’s 70 employees. (They’re in the midst of hiring more people on the days we’re in town and Rutherford had to be convinced to appear on our cover.)
“We’ve had highs and lows in the course of changing our product, but Kevin’s always been steady, always been supportive and never backed down,” says Vishal Patel, Nuun’s director of product development. Patel is a trail ultra-runner who worked closest with Rutherford as they iterated their recipe, then kept iterating it, in order to create today’s all-natural, non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan version of what they call Nuun 3.0. “He’s passionate and a great motivator and he leads by example. In this hockey phrase I’m sure I’m butchering, he always says (because he’s Canadian): don’t go where the puck is, go where the puck will be.”
The puck has been going into nets for Rutherford since Nuun first started selling at Whole Foods Market, a deal the CEO personally helped broker with his mix of pluck, belief in his product and facts. He cornered their buyer at Expo West—he got through the door through a contact he had in his previous gig—and convinced her their synergy matched. It was the first in a long set of steps that would establish Nuun over Gatorade as the changing of the guard.
John Halvorsen, race director of the Ottawa Marathon, was Canada’s first RD to put Nuun on course. Even though Rutherford went to a rival Ottawa high school—Kevin went to Bell High School, Halvorsen went to Sir Robert Borden, both in Nepean—John trusted Kevin, and knew his product was good.
“We were looking for a Gatorade alternative—Gatorade to me is not a sports drink, it’s sugar water,” says Halvorsen, who had his mettle tested with Nuun as it made its debut on course in 2016, the year of the Great Heat Wave. “I analyzed the product for electrolyte content and it was much better for our runners,” Halvorsen says. “In fact, our medical incidents at the finish have dropped quite significantly, which I attribute in part to Nuun.”
Driving around Seattle in Rutherford’s 2005 Pathfinder, the CEO leaves almost no topic off the table. He’s attentive and unscripted, and when he talks about his connection to his country, he’s emotional: Rutherford is authentic, the bond he feels with his home is real.
“In the first three years Nuun was on-course, my Dad and Mom were at the finish to cheer me on,” he says. “What many don’t know, is that my Dad used every ounce of mental toughness and energy to see me one more time pursue the Ottawa finish line, as months later, he passed away following a long and hard fought battle with cancer. The lessons and values I’m grounded on like, ‘be an energy-giver,’ ‘help others,’ and ‘never give up,’ which we call ‘Canadian Heart,’ were instilled in me right here in Ottawa. Perhaps this is why I have such pride when I see Nuun at MEC or the Running Room. I’m proud of my Canadian values. For me, it will always be home.”
Part of Rutherford’s and Nuun’s shared values, along with clean sport and protecting the planet, is levelling the playing field around equality for women. Nuun has long been a booster of women athletes—of their 5,000 ambassadors, 70% are female. Arielle Knutson leads Nuun’s initiatives around women in sport and says that the company, which sponsors Canadians like Olympian Natasha Wodak and Canadian marathon record-holder Rachel Cliff, is fighting the right fights.
“Nuun’s Clean Sport initiative is all about levelling the playing field and striving to provide equal opportunity. Our brand resonates strongly with women and we’re leveraging that strength to inspire change,” says Knutson, adding that sponsorships of teams like Smashfest Queen, the only elite-level all-female team of triathletes, helps level the financial playing field. In addition, it’s not just fast times that Nuun looks at for their athletes.
“Many of these women volunteer in their communities or host podcasts with something to say,” adds Knutson, herself a multiple triathlete and Boston finisher. “We want women to have the resources they need to be successful.”
Success, for Rutherford, isn’t measured solely in numbers. Of course he wants his company to be profitable, he wants to grow his business and see Nuun dot the skyline like Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon, his neighbours changing the world. He wants to hydrate as many people as possible. This is obvious. But when he was between jobs, when Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day wanted to go in another direction and he was recalibrating in 2013, Rutherford had a vision: he could consult on a variety of projects, but what he really wanted to do was effect positive change. He had two job offers in hand when the Nuun board of directors gave him a call. He was living in Minneapolis, but sensed something brewing in the Pacific Northwest. He took a trip to Seattle and believed in what he saw. And so he leaned in on the company’s potential. If they were going to represent clean sport, they would go all the way. He would lead an impassioned team and so he began tweaking the formulas. First, he moved the CEO’s office from the back corner into the bullpen. Then he (strongly) suggested everyone work, like he does, at least one customer-facing event. Last month at the Boston Marathon, he handed out Nuun. At Nuun, he would lead something bigger than himself, bigger than his country—he would impact the world.
“I felt empty when I wasn’t part of anything bigger. What’s the purpose of our business? We’re in the business of getting people to move, which gets them healthy,” he says, at the end of a long day, drinking a stout near his home a kilometre away from where he runs in the trails. “People are afraid of change, but once we got going—once we had our beliefs in place—our team responded with a passion that’s been responsible for us creating something better than any of us could’ve done on our own. That, I think, is what I’ve helped build at Nuun.”