A semester hasn’t really started at the Broad College of Business until the Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series begins. Dave Zilko, an alumnus and seasoned speaker, spoke on Jan. 23 in the first event of the series this semester.

Zilko (B.A. Finance ’85) has become a successful entrepreneur in the food sector. As one of very few people asked to be a part of the Pung Series more than once, he took a personal tone for his third time as a speaker, sharing his inspiring life story.

Combining passion and knowledge

Dave Zilko (B.A. Finance ’85) combined his love of food with his business expertise to become a successful entrepreneur.

While at MSU, Zilko studied abroad in France and fell in love with the food and wine culture. He was fascinated by the chefs’ care and attention to detail. Zilko described this time abroad as his most beneficial experience at MSU, which he believes set him on the trajectory he has followed.

After graduating from MSU and completing an MBA at George Washington University, Zilko combined his love of food with his business expertise to found American Connoisseur. He began concocting marinades — which he bottled by hand — and bought a mustard manufacturer, garnering a strong customer base for his high-quality products.

Despite years of business growth, however, Zilko was finding himself in serious financial debt. “This was my lost decade,” he said. But, in 2002, Zilko met a kindred spirit at an industry event in New York City who helped him get back on track.

The beginning of a partnership

Jack Aronson was a fellow entrepreneur, food lover and Detroit native. He and his wife, Annette, had created Jack’s Special Salsa, which had become a massive hit in southeast Michigan. However, Aronson was also facing sizeable financial debt.

Zilko’s inspiring journey led him to write a book about Garden Fresh Gourmet’s success that became a national bestseller.

Aronson and Zilko decided to partner, bringing their skills together to build Garden Fresh Gourmet. Together, they developed the brand into the No. 1 salsa manufacturer in North America — and they didn’t stop there. Garden Fresh Gourmet branched out into tortilla chips, hummus and a variety of dips.

Zilko and Aronson soon received buyout offers from Nestle and PepsiCo. They rejected both.

“After we rejected the sale offers, Jack and I decided that all that matters is our product,” Zilko said. It was critical that they stayed true to their roots and focused on quality as they grew Garden Fresh Gourmet.

“As long as we are the best at what we do, there will be a place for us in the world.”

Zilko and Aronson focused on making a great product by embracing revolutionary pasteurization processes to improve production. They also partnered strategically with retailers to design private label offerings. “We created such a competitive advantage over competitors to buyers that we weren’t selling to them, they were buying from us,” Zilko said.

“What we had with Garden Fresh Gourmet is something I like to call irrational persistence,” he explained. “We started with less than nothing; we were both hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. But we were persistent in what was important to us.”

Selling an empire

In 2014, Zilko was approached by the head of mergers and acquisitions at Campbell’s, and he said this felt different from the other offers they had received. “After the Nestle and Pepsi deals, we really didn’t know what to expect or if we even wanted to sell,” he said. With Campbell’s, however, there was a dedication to a quality product over profit.

This prompted Zilko to ask Aronson, “What do you think we’re worth right now?” Aronson estimated around $40 million. After several months of negotiations and due diligence, they sold Garden Fresh Gourmet to Campbell’s for $231 million.

Zilko and Aronson are already on to their next endeavor: Skinny Butcher, a plant-based protein manufacturer.

Advice for budding entrepreneurs

Zilko advised the undergraduate students attending — a first in the history of the speaker series, to which only MBA students were previously invited — that a critical element of success is pushing yourself to places you’re not comfortable in. “I say yes to everything, which I think is common among people with an entrepreneurial spirit. You know you have to do what you do to make it,” he said.

He ended by speaking about his success in a humble way. “I’ve made a career of being more lucky than good,” he said. “You’re not being honest with yourself if you don’t attribute your success to good fortune, and I’m a spitting image of that.”