This article and photos first appeared in the Vail Daily on December 12, 2020.
The CEO’s office is painted a bright green with orange trim. Next to the window, there is a boar’s head mounted on the wall. Below is an abandoned ballet studio where groans and cheers from a staff workout can be heard.
The fact that Manna Tree is headquartered in Vail is not the only thing that separates it from other investment firms.
Manna Tree is an investment firm that invests in portfolio companies that help improve human health through food and nutrition.
The holistic approach to investing comes from three focuses: wilderness, wellness and well-fed. Wilderness embodies a commitment to the outdoors and an appreciation for nature. Wellness represents Manna Tree’s push for adopting healthy lifestyles through food and physical activity in order to produce the firm’s best work. And well-fed illustrates the importance of good nutrition and valuing food as medicine. This not only applies to the companies the firm wants to invest in but also to the company culture its leadership team wants to create.
Manna Tree’s leaders want employees to take advantage of the Vail Valley by going skiing, biking, fishing and hiking. The office is located right next to the Cascade Village Lift in West Vail, making it easy to take a long lunch break to hit the slopes, which is exactly what Brent Drever, the president and co-founder of Manna Tree, said he wants his team to do.
On Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., you can find the Manna Tree team pushing past the afternoon slump to get a workout in with trainers from Howard Head Sports Medicine, because in a company devoted to health, the team’s personal health contributes to the success of the team, Drever said.
“We’re trying to do our best to support healthy habits, so people can actually live a healthy life and enjoy the work they do,” Drever said. “But at the end of the day, we just feel like if you can provide people with the opportunity to take advantage of the Vail Valley, specifically our employees, they usually show up a better version of themselves when they come to the office just because they’re thankful and grateful for where they’re at.”
An investment firm’s Fund I is typically an indicator of future success. In March 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Manna Tree was able to close its Fund I at $141.5 million. Fellow Colorado investor, Boulder Food Group, raised $103.3 million in their first fund just a year before Manna Tree in 2019.
Manna Tree also closed their Fund I with 131 investors from 18 countries and 19 states, 30% of which were women and 20% next-gen investors. And around 50% of its investors have some connection to the Vail Valley, according to Gabrielle Rubenstein.
The firm’s investor demographic isn’t the only unique aspect of the company. Rubenstein was quite literally born into the investing world with her father, David Rubenstein, co-founding The Carlyle Group, a very successful American private equity firm. Having a female CEO of an investment firm is also a rarity in the world of finance, according to Drever.
“The investment community is heavily weighted on males,” Drever said. “And our team is six females and four males. And Ellie’s the CEO, right? So it’s nice to see that there’s a lot of gender diversity on our team. And it’s an important part of who we are as well. I mean, we have to be inclusive. And that’s something that we work hard on as well.”
So, what does Manna Tree do with all the money it has raised? The firm’s investment criteria are also very selective because, out of the 200-plus deals the firm receives, it only accepts less than 1%. One of the deals Manna Tree accepted was Verde Farms, the leading U.S. supplier of 100% grass-fed, 100% pasture-raised, and organic beef, co-founded by Dana Ehrlich and Pablo Garbarino.
When Ehrlich and Garbarino were looking for investors after 14 years of running and financing the business all on their own, they wanted a group that matched their core values. According to Ehrlich, it was a marriage. When Drever showed up to the fancy restaurant in a hoodie and jeans, Ehrlich said he knew he had found his match.
“[Other private equity groups] are typically very financially oriented,” Ehrlich said. “And they might have a particular theme or thesis or industry focus. But they’re not really at their core really focused on the mission of what their [portfolio] companies are about. And when you meet, especially with the whole group, but Ellie, it flows out of her. Manna is Ellie, and Verde is me. And I think that our missions just align at their core. And that’s really important.”
Manna Tree’s approach to investing in a company is hands-on. Common support includes strategic planning, executive coaching, organizational design and operational expertise. That help and Verde’s hard work seemed to have paid off because on Oct. 22, 2020, it was announced that Nick Meriggioli, the CEO of Johnsonville, one of the largest sausage producers in the United States, decided to join Verde Farms as an external addition to the board.
As for the future of Manna Tree in the Vail Valley, they want to be part of the valley’s growth by bringing in investors who care about Vail and Manna Tree’s mission surrounding health.
“We feel like we can be a part of that next generation of what’s next for Vail and really center around human health,” Drever said. “People come to Vail for that reason. So we’re super excited for that opportunity.”