Tarl Robinson is Reimagining Corporate Culture
From the challenges inherent in ethical business practices to letting your team run wild with ideas, the Plexus Worldwide CEO is pioneering new ways of doing business
To spend time with Tarl Robinson is the antithesis of what you’ve been told to expect from a CEO. Straightforward and unassuming, Robinson projects an air of stability. He’s a presence in the room in an unobtrusive way, gaining insight through listening rather than proselytizing. When you’re with him, you can both see and feel that his focus is wholly on observation, taking in the details to understand your point-of-view. Perhaps it’s this lack of artifice coupled with a deep desire to uncover truth that’s the foundation of Robinson’s success in leading Plexus Worldwide’s rise within the nutrition and wellness space.
When Robinson acquired Plexus in 2008, it was a fledgling company with a single product. He saw the company as a house with good bones; it had the right components for future growth but needed a philosophy and mission. And products. Robinson is the first to say that while he loves the original product, it didn’t lend itself to explosive sector growth.
On the surface, it seems that Robinson has a type of oracular foresight when it comes to product development. Plexus pioneered gut microbiome health before the category became the “it thing” and today Plexus launches a good number of products every year across a wide array of categories that always seem to unearth unknown market needs. But dig deeper and you can see that it’s Robinson’s talent for listening to his global network that’s the driving force. This blank slate approach to information gathering saw the launch of an immunity product seven years in the making at a time when immune function has firmly inculcated itself into a weary population’s psyche.
Or as Robinson puts it, “We’ve got products that do what they say they will and people who know what the market wants. We read the data and can see where things are headed, but our people who are hearing firsthand from consumers? That’s information you can’t get in a study. The synergy between the two is why we’re often ahead.”
Give the products more than a cursory glance and it becomes apparent that Plexus Worldwide eschews gimmicks and fads in favor of hard science. In Googling the ingredients in the newest immune product, studies upon studies popped up on PubMed, the leading database for clinical trials. The products are built upon a type of scientific rigor that mirrors Robinson’s own thoroughness. Just like he wants to learn from other people, he is determined that Plexus’ scientific team research supporting and conflicting studies for a balanced perspective.
“Our scientists are the best in their field and, like all researchers, inquisitive,” says Robinson. “We have a goal, but it’s important that they can go down the rabbit hole of information. By questioning the science then making tweaks, we’re able to challenge our preconceived ideas and innovate better products.”
It’s statements like this that show Robinson’s style clearly favors discovery over paternalism, seeing himself akin to a coach that nurtures talent. Every person at Plexus, whether corporate or distributor, cited his openness to new ideas and fresh approaches, delicately balancing resoluteness and fluidity. As one person said, “to Tarl, we’re not cogs in the Plexus machine, but working together to the best outcome. Tarl won’t ever back down from making Plexus better.”
In this unwavering conviction in Plexus Worldwide, we see another dimension of Robinson – his heart. During the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw massive upheaval in people’s economic lives, he chose to give his salary to his employees. The reason was twofold. First, he wanted to bolster his employee’s income. But the second is perhaps more profound. “It was, it is, an uncertain time in the world. Not taking a salary showed that I felt Plexus would not only survive but come out stronger. It meant they would have a job when the lockdowns ended. It gave people confidence in a time when confidence was in short supply.”
Woven through everything he does is a strong sense of ethical purpose. You can see in his actions that Robinson believes that as a corporate leader, it’s incumbent on him to do the right thing, while acknowledging what the right thing is can be murky. One of his commitments is to spend increasing amounts both stateside and in local markets. Currently, Plexus Worldwide allocates 96% of its dollars stateside and Robinson has committed to increasing that over the next five years. But he acknowledges that there’s no perfect solution for a growing international business, but rather complex decisions with branching consequences. While Plexus Worldwide continues to expand its purchases in the US, packaging remains overseas. It’s a determination Robinson made when looking at the exponential increase in costs to consumers by onshoring that component.
“To think as a business, that all choices are simple, is reductionist thinking,” says Robinson. “But we do have an obligation to navigate the waters of ethical business practices. We’re never going to have all the answers, but what’s important is that we take responsibility for how our decisions affect things. Every business needs to start somewhere.”
And Plexus Worldwide certainly has started somewhere, under the guiding hand of a leader with clear vision. The upcoming product launches are exciting and fresh, and interest from distributors continues to increase, with 2020 being the best performing year to date. This has allowed Robinson’s charitable projects, such as the Nourish One program, which works with Feeding America to end food insecurity, to flourish.
Perhaps it can be summed up that to Robinson and by extension the entire network, Plexus Worldwide is more than a company.
As Tarl Robinson states, “Plexus is a business that we treat like family. As a business, we’re driven to increase our brand footprint and have long-term stable growth. People mistakenly think that adding in the element of caring weakens the overall picture when it’s the opposite. Being a functional family means that we listen to and learn from each other. We have a saying that nobody has an exclusive on good ideas. Having diversity of perspective is a critical element that’s brought Plexus to where it is today.”
UPDATE [12/15/2022]: Tarl Robinson has appointed Gene Tipps to be Plexus Worldwide’s new Chief Executive Officer. Robinson continues his visionary journey with the health and wellness company, as Chairman of a newly formed Strategic Council.