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Building a Legacy

Martha Todd, chairman of Kalsec, with daughter, Esme, outside the company’s research center named for her grandfather, Paul Todd Jr., who started the company in 1958.
Martha Todd’s journey from youthful rebellion to leading Kalsec with purpose

At 14 years old, Martha Todd was not very different from other teens who had been told no by their parents. In her case she was told no to piercing her ears. Then a tingle of rebellion rose in the teen’s blood. She held up the safety pin in her fingers. But, leaning into the mirror, it wasn’t her ear where she took her aim. Instead, she rested the tip of the pin against her right nostril, held her breath, and pushed the pin through.

Now 45, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Todd smiles at the memory. A tiny diamond stud glints in her right nostril.

“Grandma thought it was cool,” she says. “Grandpa likened it to the nose rings pigs have. And, yes, it did get infected.”

In midlife, a bit of rebellion blends well with tradition and family legacy in Martha Todd. She is the third-generation leader of the family business — Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Co., or Kalsec. In January 2020, she took on the role of board chair, taking a leadership role in a company employing more than 500 people that’s headquartered in Kalamazoo but has additional locations in Texas, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Shanghai, Singapore and, most recently, Mexico.

Today, Todd sits in an office inside what is called The Barn, an 1800s building on the Kalsec campus, at 3715 West Main St., that was at one point indeed a working barn. A place where horses were once stabled is now home to offices that retain the flavor of the past — with wood and stone held over from the building’s previous life. The Barn sits on a small hill overlooking a campus of bright white buildings, each housing a different part of the Kalsec process.

Past and future generations

Todd’s office is filled with photographs of her two daughters, the generation of the future, but also with black-and-white photographs of past generations.

“This one is my grandfather, Paul Todd Jr., when he was 18 years old,” Todd says as she holds up a framed photo. It shows a young, slender man in dungarees, a look of comfortable confidence on his face. “We were very close,” Todd says. “I admired him. He taught me how to drive a tractor, how to fish in the pond. The last time I saw him alive, in 2008, he was 87 and loading firewood into the back of a truck.”

Todd tells how her grandfather founded Kalsec in 1958, based on what he termed his “awesome respect for nature.” Struck by the waste of food not only nationwide, but globally, Paul Todd wondered about the possibilities of preserving food by natural means, using natural antioxidants as an alternative to synthetic preservatives.

“Grandpa was a visionary,” Martha Todd says, “and a bit of a betting man. He bought two trainloads of chilis in Chicago and experimented with extracts from the chilis while looking for a buyer. He loved his beer too and was also passionate about hops.”

The chilis led to experiments with extractions that add color and spice to food products. Success led to more research, and the new company began a plant-breeding program, became a pioneer in gas-liquid chromatography with spice extraction, and by 1977 had developed a Tetralone hop extract to add a stable bitterness to beer. Next came a rosemary extract that can be used in meats, poultry and fish and Durabrite high-stability colors for natural color stabilization in foods. Duralox oxidation management systems were added in 1994, using natural means to keep food fresh longer.

Kalsec products, Todd explains, are always sourced from raw materials, using natural and sustainable means to keep food looking and tasting good without using chemical additives.

At a time when people are looking for clean foods produced by sustainable means, Kalsec has forged ahead to meet those market demands.

“He (Paul Todd Jr.) was ahead of his time in that way, always looking for ways to improve,” his granddaughter says. “The cleaner, the more transparent, the easier it is to fit into different markets and meet different regulations across the world.

“One of the reasons I decided to be involved in the company was because I wanted to learn more about him,” she says. “He was such a strong personality. I never thought I would run out of time with him, but when he was gone, I appreciated what he had created and the community he inspired too, with employees who had become like family.”

A non-traditional childhood

Martha Todd’s involvement in the company, however, wasn’t always a given. She admits that when she was young, she swore she would have no part in the family business. The young rebel wanted to find her own path.

Her story begins with a childhood growing up in a commune. When her father, George Todd, returned from military service in Vietnam in the 1970s, he continued his education with classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and “one of them was a class on communal living taught by Steve Louisell,” she says. “There were 15 students in the class, and seven of them, including my dad, committed to starting a commune together on property that my dad owned off Ninth Street. Someone in the group had experience with brass belt buckles, and a few others had worked with leather. They founded the Tech-Ether Guild — a combination of technology and leather — in 1971.”

Initially successful — Tech-Ether belt buckles continue to be a collector’s item to this day — the business began to struggle when commune members differed on the creative direction they wanted it to take. After a move to Lake Street, the business eventually dissolved.

Martha was five when her family left the commune. Her youth followed a non-traditional path, providing experiences abroad. By fourth grade, she had moved to San Jose, Costa Rica, where she lived with a local family, an experience she had at first resisted but later embraced. She came to realize it had expanded her view of the world while improving her Spanish-language skills. In high school, she attended a boarding school in Carbondale, Colorado, but during her junior year moved back with the family in Costa Rica.

“I helped to homeschool their two youngest children while the father recovered from cataract surgery,” Todd says. “We were living on a vanilla farm in the rainforest and had no electricity — very rustic!”
When she was 16, her father, George, brought her along to a Kalsec board meeting. He hoped to introduce his daughter to the business and perhaps entice her to take a role there as an adult.

“He asked me after the meeting, ‘What do you think?’” Todd says, smiling. “I was learning all about the greenhouse effect at that time in the boarding school in Colorado, so I talked to him about organics. He pshawed that, but today Kalsec is working toward greater sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint in all our practices.

“Some of my best memories are working on the farm crew back when we had fields of peppers growing here,” she says, pointing to land now either covered by Kalsec buildings or lying fallow until conservation efforts begin. “We worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., picking rocks, planting, harvesting. I remember riding around in pickup trucks. It was great fun.”

Todd remained in Kalamazoo for her college years and earned a degree in religion from Kalamazoo College in 2000.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that point,” she says. “Part of my family was Catholic and part atheist. I studied science and I studied religion, and I felt like the two could go hand in hand.

Kalamazoo College is known for its study-abroad program, and I spent six months in Oaxaca, Mexico, working on a senior individualized project on the influence of Catholicism on the role of the Mexican woman. And I did part of my master’s (degree from Western Michigan University) in Spain. I played with the idea of being a professor of Spanish literature, and I toyed with the idea of pursuing a Ph.D., but I got distracted by romance.”

Todd would later attend Michigan State University to earn an Executive Master of Business Administration degree. “That helped me feel more qualified when I was ready to join the board at Kalsec,” she says.

Strong role models

While Todd pondered a teaching career, family influences swirled around her. Would she consider a career in the family business, after all? Kalsec was tightly woven into the family tapestry. Todd may have rebelled at first, but she easily recalls fond memories tied to the company as it grew.

A house rule at the dinner table was not to talk about three topics — Kalsec, politics, religion. “So you can guess what three things the family talks about over dinner,” Todd says, laughing. Todd says she was as influenced by the women in the family as by the men, attributing to the women a strong and independent spirit that she says inspired her then and now.

“It’s true that our family history narrative is dominated by strong male figures, going back to my great-grandfather, A.M. Todd, the ‘Peppermint King,’ and up to my dad,” Todd says. (The A.M. Todd Co., in Kalamazoo, produced peppermint oil and other botanical extracts and was sold in 2011 to a Swiss company, which in turn sold it to Chicago-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. in 2014.) “But the women in our family have always been brilliant and strong and ahead of their time as well.

“My grandmother, Ruth Terry Todd, received her M.A. from the University of Chicago and was instrumental in the founding of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Michigan as well as the classics department at Kalamazoo College. She was very active in civic engagement and volunteering.

“My mother, Clare Todd, too, has been very active, volunteering at the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta over the years, (providing) decades of service on the Texas Township Board of Appeals, and playing for the Kalamazoo Community Orchestra under Barry Ross at K-College for years. Women are too often overlooked in their contributions to our community.”

Another influence on Todd’s future path came when her marriage in 2010 and some years living in Oregon ended in divorce by 2016. She was already keenly aware of the challenges of single motherhood; her eldest daughter Edie was born in 2002. Her second, Esme Joy, was born in 2012. After the divorce she found herself a single mother once again.

“Esme required care for a rare congenital disease called arthrogryposis,” Todd says. Arthrogryposis is a disorder that affects joint contractures, causing muscle stiffness and muscle weakness.

Juggling the responsibilities of school, parenting and work, Todd returned to Kalamazoo — and Kalsec — to be closer to her family. She realized that many who worked at the company faced child-care challenges like hers.

“That’s when I started to think about creating the (Farmhouse) Early Learning Center at Kalsec,” Todd says. “I had been reading a book called Family Business: Innovative On-Site Child Care Since 1983, by Malinda Chouinard and Jennifer Ridgeway. It was a book used by the Patagonia company. That book changed my life.”

Todd pulls a large volume of the book from a shelf in her office, one of several copies. She places the book in front of her on her desk and taps a hand on it. “I read this, and I thought, ‘Let’s do this.’” It was 2016, just after a contentious national election, and Todd not only appreciated, firsthand, the challenges of single parenthood but also worried about equity for women in a changing political atmosphere.

“I wanted to do something for the women working at Kalsec,” she says. “I’m hyper-focused on that still. I wanted to show support for all families, anyone caring for children. In 2017, we opened the Early Learning Center on our campus for children from 6 weeks (old) to 6 years (old). Leslie Poucher and Laura Keiser were the two directors who helped me found the Farmhouse and developed its curriculum. Without the two of them, I don’t know if it would have happened.”

The Farmhouse Early Learning Center is in one of the oldest buildings on the Kalsec campus, the original home of Paul and Ruth Todd and once also Martha Todd’s home. Now it is filled with the chatter of 30 children, and as the need for its services has grown, the center has expanded to its third building, encircling a yard where children play.

“Having the Early Learning Center on site has been a great retention tool for our employees,” Todd says. “And then there are the unintended consequences. We’ve found that community has built around it as parents meet other parents every time they come around for their kids, and the kids have made friends here. Moms and dads can come over and have lunch with their kids and get that extra time with them during their workdays. When the kids parade around the campus, everyone comes rushing to their windows to watch.”

For those whose babies are furry, Kalsec has also added a doggie day-care center. Employees, including Todd, drop off their pets at the center as they head to work.

Once a rebel, Todd has come to embrace her new and expanding role in the family business. She has served on Kalsec’s board for 11 years, five as its vice chair, prior to becoming chair. Her mother’s spot on the board has been passed on to her older sister, Sara.

“We now have three women on the board, and that’s something I want to expand on,” Todd says. “I’ve stepped into big shoes here, but now my passion is moving Kalsec in a net positive direction.”

In December 2020, Kalsec earned the honor of being certified as a B Corporation, meaning it was recognized as a business that has met rigorous social and environmental standards representing its commitment to making ethical and sustainable decisions that serve consumers, customers, employees, communities and the environment. Kalsec is one of only 3,500 businesses globally that have earned the certification.

“It’s based on practices at Kalsec since its beginning,” Todd says. “This is how things have been done here since my grandfather started the business. It’s just great to be recognized for that. My focus now, going forward, is to lead the family business through this transition to its third and fourth generations, (so) that we retain our soul, our family feel, our community, as we continue to grow and expand globally.“

Todd glances again at the framed photo of the company founder.

“My grandpa often talked about Kalsec as providing a platform for people to discover their own passions,” she says. “I feel that is what I strive to do, to continue to ensure that Kalsec remains a place that provides that for our employees while setting new targets and aspirations for a world full of challenges that were incomprehensible even 10 years ago.”

Kalsec’s leadership has identified four pillars of innovation to guide the company forward — green technology, agritech, biotransformation and the creation of novel new products.

“We continue to strive to remain at the cutting edge of technology, not just in our products but our processes and our business practices,” Todd says.

As to her own role, she pauses to think for a moment, then says, “I used to say I would never work for Kalsec. I thought about what I wanted to do to be happy, but then as I grew older I started thinking more about having a life with meaning and purpose. I have found that here.”

Zinta Aistars

Zinta is the creative director of Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing service. She is the host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK, and the author of three published books in Latvian — a poetry collection, a story collection and a children’s book. Zinta lives on a small farm in Hopkins, where she raises chickens and organic vegetables, and wanders the woods between writing assignments.

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