We’re Not in the Bar Business, We’re in the People Business

Peter Rahal, co-founder of RXBAR, quickly realized he was not in the business of making protein bars—those were just one of the company’s products. The true key to success was centering the business around customer service and a deep understanding of people. This realization comes to life in the company’s purpose: to make better food products that solve problems in consumers’ lives.

Rahal has had an affinity for innovation from an early age. He grew up with creative, entrepreneurial parents, and used this foundation to address problems he noticed in the world.

“I was always a creator of things, and I liked to understand how things work,” he said. “[Creativity] is thinking outside the box, looking at things objectively and figuring out how to best solve a problem. I grew up in a home that was very entrepreneurial in that way.”

Rahal’s first job out of college was at a food-processing plant in Belgium. There, he developed an understanding of production and had his first global experience, to which he attributes his strong sense of cultural empathy.

“My job is to collect as much information—data—as possible. So all I do is go through the world learning and figuring out and collecting … growing my database of information,” Rahal said. “To have that global experience of being in Belgium and France and Holland for a little over a year and then in the Middle East, in Lebanon, for a year, I learned a tremendous amount. I [function] by putting a ton of data in my brain to connect the dots later on in life.”

These experiences, and Rahal’s need to understand other people and their problems, heavily influenced the founding of RXBAR. Rahal handled all production and marketing of the bars and cared deeply for the product and the customer—so much so that he put his personal phone number on the back of the boxes.

Fast-forward six years from the company’s beginning, and RXBAR is the fastest-growing nutrition bar brand in the U.S., with more than 200 employees and global distribution. Out of this growth, Rahal has been able to build a trusted team and cultivate a positive, empathetic and transparent culture. One driver of this culture is Jim Murray, who was recently promoted from CFO to RXBAR president. 

Murray provides a balance in leadership alongside Peter’s creative, fastball approach. “[Peter and I] approach problems very differently and balance each other out in how we operate. Peter is creative, innovative and hard-driving. My natural style is to take some time to process and think about things.”

With a background in consulting at Ernst & Young in finance at the Tropicana and Global Nutrition groups at PepsiCo, Murray decided in 2016 that it was time to take on more entrepreneurial ventures with a much smaller, yet fast-growing company called RXBAR.

Murray finds smaller organizations allow for a more fast-paced, all-hands-on-deck experience.

“The thing with finance, or really any position, in a small company is that you see every aspect of the business. I probably learned in a year at RXBAR what would have taken me 20 years to see at a larger organization,” he said.

Humility and Empathy Required

A key element of Rahal and Murray’s leadership is empathy—the capacity to understand how your actions and decisions have consequences for those around you.

“Empathy, I think, is really critical—even foundational—to leadership because you need to know cause and effect of certain actions and decisions,” Rahal explained.

Empathy in the workplace is a combination of self-awareness and a deep understanding of other people’s problems. Encouraging empathic behavior from leadership as well as across teams and departments can help support a successful work culture.

“From very early on, Peter always used to say, ‘We’re in the people business, right?’ At the end of the day we really are in the business of people; I never quite understood it until I moved into this role,” Murray said. “And now I understand this is all about the people and setting them up to be successful. Understanding your people, what motivates them, what problems they face, and how I can help them do a better job.”

Creating Psychological Safety

In order to practice empathy within the organization, both Murray and Rahal continuously work to foster a safe environment for open dialogue. Communication is key for them to understand what is happening in the business, and to learn what’s on the minds of their employees.

“I can’t be effective in my job unless I know what the problems are and where they are. It gets back to psychological safety. If I can create a personal relationship with people, they’ll feel safer to make decisions and fail, because they know my reaction is not going to be around the failure, but around how we learn to get better,” Murray explained.

Transparency and communication have been especially important for RXBAR as the organization has experienced rapid growth, changes in leadership and an acquisition by the Kellogg Company.

“People create narratives in their head unless you talk about it, right?” said Murray. “And the narratives are always worse than the actual situation. So this is really where transparency is key. I think being open about any sort of fears the teams are having gets ahead of those narratives and reminds the team that we’re in this together.”

Democratizing the Problem-Solving Process

Both Rahal and Murray refer to RXBAR as a “problem-solving organization.” Whether it’s leading with empathy, practicing humility, or empowering employees to reframe failures as lessons, each of these techniques is in the pursuit of democratizing the problem-solving process. This process allows employees to take ownership of the customer experience and success of the brand.

Rahal says, “Great leadership is a bit of micromanagement and macro-management. But more importantly, it’s having an understanding of getting out of the way—giving your employees a vision and direction and letting them do it their way.”

Rahal and Murray show that to be in the people business it takes humility, empathy and transparency. By setting employees up with the personal tools they need and fostering a culture where people come first, Rahal and Murray ensure that the employees of RXBAR lead the way.

Fast Facts

Location: Chicago, IL
Number of employees: 200+
Jim Murray President
Time in current role: 6 months (Jan 2019); (3 Years with RXBAR)
Previous experience: Formerly Chief Financial Officer for RXBAR. Prior to joining RXBAR, Murray served as a Senior Finance Manager for Pepsi-Co (Global Nutrition Group) as well as a Senior Consultant for Ernst & Young.
Most admired leaders: Ed Catmull (Pixar), Gary Vaynerchuk, and Jocko Willink.
Things he can’t live without: Family (his wife, two children, and their Yellow Lab)
Peter Rahal Founder
Time in Current Role: Founder title after Kellogg acquisition for 6 months, 6 years as founder and CEO (co-founded RXBAR in 2012)
Previous experience: Worked in Marketing for Mondi Foods (Antwerp, Belgium) right out of college.
Most admired leaders: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos
Things you can’t live without: Exercise, sleep, food, and family

Interviewed by Natalie Taylor and Alex Nichols.