Because There Is a Bob

How and why Bob Moore gave Bob’s Red Mill to his employees
By Adam Swenson

Bob Moore moved to Portland in 1978 to attend seminary after an enjoyable—if not economically sustainable—experiment in running a mill with his three sons. Empty-nesters, Bob and his wife Charlee lived in a townhouse two blocks from the seminary. “There was a lark to the whole thing,” Bob said.

In the first two months, they wrote their Greek vocabulary work on 3x5 flash cards and would walk through the countryside, conjugating verbs of a Biblical nature. “We walked by the Martin Brothers mill, abandoned in 1957 when they pulled the rail line out. It was still sitting there in reasonable enough shape; I thought I could restore it.” They hired fellow seminary students to help Bob clean the place and put a new coat of paint on things. (One can imagine those late-night conversations.) Bob found another mill in eastern Oregon with “classy, classic machinery” from the 1800s and the machinery was transplanted. Bob’s Red Mill was born.

“We started in 1978 … and it just went up like a rocket ship. It hasn’t stopped.” Indeed—Bob’s Red Mill products are ubiquitous and healthy, always made with locally sourced whole grain. Their gluten-free line alone now offers 81 products.

When asked about the continued success of Bob’s Red Mill, Lori Sobelson, director of corporate outreach, said, “A combination of things like company integrity and high-quality products, but also because there is a Bob…” at which point Bob cuts in and says, “Not forever though!”

Now 84, Bob’s awareness of his own mortality is very much with him, though he’s not worried about it, just pragmatic. His preparations have been two-fold: a lifelong musician and car guy, Bob is also thrifty by nature, not prone to extravagance. His purchases of three model-A Fords and a 200-year-old Italian violin were a chance to enjoy a few of the finer things this side of eternity.

Second, he gave his company to his employees. (This generosity was nothing new, as they’ve had profit sharing at Bob’s Red Mill since 1983.) The mechanism they used was an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP. Each employee was given stock options, and Bob sold his stock to the ESOP account. Over time some of the profits from the company go to the ESOP to buy out the stocks for the employees.

“At the end of the given period of time, the employees will own this company and I’m not going to,” Bob says. “That’s going to be an interesting thing because right now I’m at 51 percent—I was at 100. You can begin to see this scary transition [laughs] when they can tell me what to do … But I don’t think we’re going to have any problems. I’m 84 and I think it’s going to transition about right, so I’m not concerned.”

While Bob is still in the driver’s seat, he’s made the decision to be philanthropic to the tune of $35 million. Oregon State University got $5 million for a center to do research on nutrition to further Bob’s longtime passion for healthy eating. The National College of

Natural Medicine also got $1.35 million to build a teaching kitchen and fund ECO (ending childhood obesity). Last year Bob and Charlee gave $25 million to the Oregon Health and Science University that established the Moore Institute for Health and Nutrition. “We’re trying to die broke,” Bob says.

And if this grand experiment doesn’t work out? “I can always go live with my sons,” Bob says. “They’re doing fine.”