Ownership change at Napa Nuts proves timely to weather the coronavirus pandemic

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Business Journal highlighting successful female entrepreneurs.

Bonnie Miluso never intended to work for the family business, let alone run it. She also never liked working for others. But in 2014, Miluso had a change of heart and went to work for her parents at Napa Nuts, a wholesale distribution business. Two years later, she was CEO.

But Miluso’s life changed dramatically in September 2019, when her father passed away. Four months later, Maxine Miluso transferred ownership of Napa Nuts to her two children. Shortly after, the siblings were faced with a pandemic.

Getting on with it

Bonnie Miluso, 41, lives in Sebastopol with her wife, Jai. She co-owns Napa Nuts with her 44-year-old brother, Schecky Miluso, a former teacher.

Maxine Miluso, 74, remains involved in the business she ran for 30 years with her husband, Allen Miluso. Both kids have good ideas and run the operation well, she said, but Bonnie is more of a leader than her brother.

“I do make the final decisions and everybody, including my older brother, knows that and it's great,” Bonnie Miluso said with a laugh.

The Milusos were well aware their daughter likes to be in control, and they gave her a lot of freedom. Bonnie Miluso lived in San Francisco in 2014 and did much of the work from home.

“I thought I could probably stick it out with my parents for a little bit and then I'll run the company,” Bonnie Miluso said. “I'm not a great employee. That’s not my forte.”

She hit the ground running, her mother said, undertaking projects that included writing a company manual packed with policies and procedures; transforming the company’s website from basic to sophisticated; and turning Napa Nuts into a paperless operation.

Right time to transition

“I know my mom is very proud of me and being able to keep the business,” Miluso said, noting that one of her biggest endeavors was to create a food-safety program for Napa Nuts, based on new laws. “Writing a 91-page food-safety plan was not easy, but it was something I could do and implement.”

Change in business rarely comes without expense, but in order to move the company forward, investments had to be made, she said.

“My mom is way more fiscally conservative than I am. I'm a little more risky,” Miluso said. “Mom wasn't really comfortable making changes as big as I'd made them, so I think it was the right time to transition.”

Maxine Miluso agreed, and with full confidence.

“Bonnie is really a self-motivator and has a lot of very creative ideas,” she said. “She is an exceptional young lady. She always has been.”

Facing the pandemic

Napa Nuts’ modernized website proved to be a blessing when Gov. Gavin Newsom in mid-March announced shelter-in-place orders because of the coronavirus pandemic. Most of Napa Nuts’ more than 600 customers are high-end restaurants, wineries and other food-related businesses.

When they temporarily shuttered during the state’s lockdown, Miluso was forced to lay off her staff of 17, a mix of full- and part-time employees.

Napa Nuts swiftly shifted from a business-to-business platform to a business-to-consumer operation, with Miluso promoting Napa Nuts’ little-used online retail store through social media, showcasing its variety of premier nuts, dried fruits, seeds and snacks.

That move, combined with her securing a Small Business Administration payroll protection program loan and a $10,000 economic-impact disaster loan, kept the company alive, Miluso told the Business Journal in late April. She has since requested forgiveness, and is waiting to hear back from her bank.

Miluso said in late April that sales were down 14.5%, compared with last year between Jan. 1 and April 30. The more substantial loss due to COVID-19 was evident in sales between March 15 and April 30, amounting to a 55% sales drop from last year.

By late August, as restaurants and wineries were coming back online, the numbers improved. Extending the March 15 date to the end of August, Napa Nuts’ year-over-year decline in sales was 44%. Over the last three months, sales were down 41%.

“The total year-over-year decline in sales is 28%, reflecting how successful the business was before the pandemic started,” Miluso said on Sept. 3.

Napa Nuts has brought back all but two of its furloughed employees, restoring all benefits and salaries, Miluso said. The other two employees had already found work elsewhere.

Upholding the law

Before joining the family business, Miluso spent a decade as a trial attorney.

“When I was young, I knew I wanted to go to law school,” she said. “I worked at three different law firms in my full-time 10-year career.”

Miluso earned her juris doctorate degree in 2004 from The George Washington University Law School and holds a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Northwestern University, where she graduated in 2000.

Over the years, Miluso grew tired of being a litigator.

“I was just really sick of being adversarial all the time,” she said. “It's just constant … you're always in a struggle.”

She hasn’t entirely given up practicing law though.

These days, Miluso works on personal injury cases primarily for indigent people — usually one or two cases at a time — for her friends’ law firm, Hudson & Luros LLP in Napa Valley.

Her own time

When Miluso isn’t working, she enjoys other facets of her life.

“We have a farm on our property in Sebastopol,” Miluso said, adding she helps her wife and their friend Bree run Bohemian Flowers Farmstand, a small business they launched this summer. “We are all organic … and employ local women.”

“Anyone who’s met Bonnie knows that she is one-of-a kind and you'll never forget her as long as you live,” said Andrea Garfield, co-founder and CEO of the Awesome Institute, a San Francisco-based executive coaching company. The two met about four years ago in San Francisco at a women’s art collective that also serves as a women’s empowerment group through teaching skills in male-dominated industries, like welding and metal work.

“I think Bonnie is really inclusive,” Garfield said. “She always wants to make sure that everyone is involved and is a part of things. … She finds people in the corner of the room who may be a little afraid to get involved and she helps them have a voice.”

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

This article is part of an ongoing series from the Business Journal highlighting successful female entrepreneurs.

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