- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Fran Free is excited to be free of the daily grind of running the company she founded.

Free, 39, is enjoying life after selling her Oh Baby Foods brand to Blackhive Corp. of Fayetteville for an undisclosed amount this past winter, Arkansas Business (http://bit.ly/1TuH8BR ) reported. The ownership transition was completed in early April, when Free’s title changed from owner and founder to “Chief Mommy.”

“I always wanted to be a chief of something,” Free said. “I’m really having so much fun catching up on life.”

Free founded Oh Baby Foods Inc. in 2009 in Fayetteville. A new mother to daughter Lucy, Free developed a number of all-natural baby foods made only with ingredients sourced in the United States.

It was a natural move for Free, who grew up on her family farm, had a stall at the Fayetteville Farmers Market and loved to cook healthy meals. The brand became popular and, through Free’s persistence, was sold nationwide in Whole Foods Markets.

As the scope of operations grew, so did the business headaches, such as the logistics of producing, storing and distributing all that baby food. The financial requirements and risks began to weigh heavily on Free.

As much as Free loved her Oh Baby products and loved the fact that she was responsible for feeding healthy organic foods to infants across the country, she also felt overwhelmed by the demands and risks of running her business. Then, about two years ago, Free’s young son, Levi, had a medical emergency that required him to be flown to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.

There, while waiting on his recovery with her husband, Dennis Nelms, Free did what many parents do in similar situations: She made a deal.

“I made a bunch of promises that night,” Free said. “You make a lot of promises, and one of those was to really step back. It was 14 months later before I finally sold the company. It was quite a process. I feel forgiven. I made good on my promise.”

Free did not walk away cold from Oh Baby Foods when Blackhive purchased the brand. Blackhive CEO Ryan Efurd said the strongest assets of the brand are Free’s passion and brilliance for creating tasty, all-natural foods.

Free works 15 hours or so a week as a consultant for Blackhive, and she will collect a royalty on all future sales of any Oh Baby product. This past year, Oh Baby Foods had sales of $1 million, and Efurd predicts sales could reach $1.6 million this year.

Efurd said an Asian company has made inquiries about a potential $7.5 million purchase of Oh Baby products.

That’s all fine for Free, who wants to see the brand she created from scratch do well. More importantly, Free gets to spend some quality time with her children: Lucy with ex-husband Johnny Gunsaulis; Nelms’ daughter Lily; and their son Levi.

“I started this company because of Lucy, and now I’ve been able to sell the company because of my kids,” Free said. “Now dinner is ready at 2 p.m. Everybody’s clothes are clean. It’s amazing. We make it on time to soccer. We have a hell of a garden and the house is cleaned. It’s so nice not having to worry or take attention away from what I really should be focused on. It’s time for me to do all the grocery shopping.”

Free said she has also noticed a drastic improvement in her health. She said while was she running Oh Baby Foods, she was often beset with one illness or another, which she attributed to the amount of stress involved.

Now in what she calls temporary semi-retirement - “I know I’m going to have to start something else soon,” Free said - Free has hired a personal trainer to get in a running and swimming program. She spends a lot of time with her three children in the garden or the creek in the backyard or in the kitchen, where she is figuring out the next flavor for the Oh Baby brand.

“You know what’s crazy?” Free asked. “Most days I would come home really tired, deflated. It was a big puzzle, and it seemed a lot of pieces were nonexistent. But the next morning I was always ready to go. I always wanted to go.

“I looked forward to that challenge, and that never ended. What did change was the challenges grew greater; last year we contracted for 280,000 pounds of apples. When you think about what the price per pound of that and what the risk is, the risk just became greater than what I was comfortable with.”

Free said that as the company got bigger so did the amount of capital required to keep it growing. She began to look for investors to help seed the growth and take over operational control.

A local group stepped forward a year ago with a $2.5 million pledge, and Free even hired the CEO the group recommended. The funding fell apart, and Free felt financially endangered because she had agreed to more than $1 million in contracts with manufacturers and suppliers because of the expected funding availability.

Blackhive, which deals with buying and selling commodities such as rice and beans, was looking for a way to branch out with a brand to sell. Oh Baby Foods was a perfect match for a company that knew ingredients and was looking for something to sell.

Efurd said it was amazing what Free was able to accomplish when she was, at heart, a farmer-mother with a passion for food. He said Blackhive has now shifted what she did to an experienced team.

Keeping Free involved was a key part of the acquisition.

“I told Fran, ‘I want you to get back to your passion; let us bear the burden of all the operations and building the brand,’” Efurd said. “It’s really amazing what Fran was able to accomplish with no experience coming in. It’s amazing she was able to keep her sanity over the last six to seven years.”

Free joked that now that she has free time she wants to give upcoming entrepreneurs free advice - free with an asterisk - on what she learned as a startup survivor. Looking back, she doesn’t think she could do what she did again.

“I look back and say, ‘What the hell?’” Free said. “I can’t believe this is where we are now. I literally fed millions of babies organic, USA-raised products.”

___

Information from: Arkansas Business, http://www.arkansasbusiness.com

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