Donna Williams, Field Goods, Athens
Meet one of our top women in business in 2013: Donna Williams
Veggie virtuoso: Donna Williams of Field Goods
Photograph by Michael Polito
“You can’t sell a funky-looking pepper or a dirty carrot in the supermarket,” declares Donna Williams. “They will just sit there untouched.” By contrast, when customers of her three-year-old company, Field Goods, open their delivery bags to find peculiar-looking vegetables like conehead cabbage and Big Mama squash covered with dirt, it’s a fun surprise.
“My customer doesn’t get a choice — you get what you get,” Williams explains. And that’s just fine with her 1,000-plus subscribers, who are spread throughout the Capital Region and as far south as Kingston (with plans for Poughkeepsie and Westchester in the works). They look forward to getting something different every week from the 5,000-square-foot Field Goods warehouse in Athens. A constantly revolving selection of some 150 different types of local produce enters and exits daily, to be delivered to businesses and community pick-up spots, many of them schools.
“Nothing sits because it’s all to-order from customers,” says Williams. “There is no waste, which is why we can be so price competitive.” (Supermarkets, by contrast, always order more than they need, driving up the cost to customers.) The Field Goods staff mixes and matches whatever’s fresh and in season — the usual green beans and lettuces, along with seasonal surprises like red celery and watermelon radish. Every bag contains five to eight types of produce; available in three sizes, each sack comes with a newsletter that tells subscribers what they’re getting and how to cook with it. “Plus the Web site offers tips,” says Williams. “I am not a gourmet cook — anyone could follow these recipes.”
Deliveries take place all winter long, when root vegetables and frozen produce reign and breads, cheese, and pasta round out the selection. “People stop going to the grocery store so much when they get these deliveries,” says Williams. “That’s means you’re not going to buy the cookies.”
Although she has 13 employees now, when Williams started the business, it was a one-woman operation: She packed the bags and made the deliveries herself.
This was quite a change from her previous career. She earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Mount Holyoke and her M.B.A. from Columbia Business School. She then went on to work as an investment banker in Los Angeles and New York City, followed by a stint in the publishing business that included time at Doubleday (her office was kitty-corner to Jackie O’s). “If someone were to have told me 20-some odd years ago, when I was dashing to catch my first class, that I’d be driving a van and delivering vegetables, I would have been horror-stricken!” says Williams with a laugh.
In the late 1990s, Williams headed to Portland, Oregon, where she managed a digital publishing company that eventually ran out of money. At the same time, she was hit with medical problems that required back surgery, and she moved in with her parents in Athens to recover. The happy ending came when she physically recovered, met her husband, became an executive with a natural food manufacturing company in 2005, and adopted her son in 2007. With a thorough knowledge of all the facets of the grocery retail market and a history of writing business plans for start-ups, Williams took the next step and founded Field Goods in September 2010.
The idea actually sprouted from a study on agricultural economic development for Greene County. “The study looked at how to help young and new farmers start businesses in the county,” she says. “While working on that I realized there’s a tremendous demand for local produce and an increasing interest in farming, but not any distribution system. Field Goods was built around the idea of helping farmers grow their business as well as getting product to consumers.”
So far she’s succeed in that, as evidenced by her booming business. Field Goods sources all its products from local farms ranging from Orange County all the way up to Cooperstown. In 2010, the company made 2,500 deliveries. Only two and a half years later, it made 24,000.
“I like hands-on things,” says Williams. “I think I started my life after college backwards. I did my grown-up stuff in my 20s and was all serious with the big job. Now I’m doing all the fun, young life stuff in my 50s.”