BURNEY, Calif. — When George Denny hired a 24-year-old nanny to care for his three children in 1996, the successful private equity investor counted on her to juggle after-school schedules, help do homework, and manage shopping expeditions.
He wasn't expecting to gain a future business partner.
But Barbara Mattaliano was certain that a wild rice farm Denny owned in California had big commercial potential.
Denny didn't buy it. After all, he was the one who had spent years delivering investment advice and running the San Francisco and Tokyo offices of Boston-based Bain & Co., and she had spent years chasing his kids around their Brookline house.
But she kept at it. For six years. We can create a niche brand of wild rice, she told him, and it will sell. Slowly, he came around.
In 2009 they started Goose Valley Natural Foods to sell the rice grown on Denny's 6,700-acre farm in Shasta County, where the vast blanket of shimmering fields is set off by faraway peaks draped in snow. Today, Goose Valley — headquartered in Boston — claims to be the world's largest producer of organic and natural wild rice, harvesting between 5 million and 6 million pounds annually, and generating sales of more than $10 million. It is available in about 2,600 grocery stores across the United States, including Stop & Shop and Shaw's.
"Her dedication and energy were critical to my decision to move forward, not merely her persistence," Denny, 68, said of Mattaliano. "In my experience, successful entrepreneurs need passion, energy, total belief in their endeavor, and persistence in order to get through the inevitable setbacks encountered in starting a business."
Mattaliano, Denny said, has all of that and more.
For her part, Mattaliano — who is now 41 and no longer cares for Denny's children — downplays her role as an agricultural entrepreneur. "It was just an idea," she said. "The fact that he trusted in me and believed in me, it's just so cool."
And, as it turned out, lucrative. As founding partner, Mattaliano earns a six-figure salary and owns a piece of the company. Just over a decade ago, she was cobbling together an income of about $17,000 working as a nanny and rotating through several part-time jobs.
Today, she's moved up to "Manhattan's most expensive ZIP code" a few blocks from Central Park. She spends a lot of her time in Boston and regularly visits the California farm.
Mattaliano, who is from Revere, began working for Denny and his former wife four years after dropping out of Boston University. She cut short her college education after being severely injured in a car accident on the way to her parents' home, leaving her temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.
At Denny's urging, she returned to BU and in 2000 earned a degree in elementary education, becoming the first college graduate in her family. By 2003, she held a master's in education from Lesley University in Cambridge.
Back then, the Denny children — two boys and a girl — spent summers on the farm with their parents, sometimes canoeing in the irrigation canals, surrounded by tall, flowery stalks of wild rice. It was a new experience for Mattaliano, but she quickly took to the lifestyle and threw herself into learning about the agriculture industry.
When Denny bought the property as a business investment in 1986, it wasn't exactly flourishing. The farm was irrigated through a small stream and a valve the size of a car tire, which became clogged, turning the heart of the land into a mosquito-infested swamp.
Denny turned to Ted deBraga for help. DeBraga, a farmer who for decades had worked his own land in Nevada, worked with Denny to improve the irrigation system. Crops of sugar beets, alfalfa and garlic weren't as profitable as Denny had hoped, but an attempt to grow wild rice produced a high yield of top-quality rice.
"In each farm, you have to find a niche," deBraga said on a recent tour of the farm during the late summer harvest, when huge combines crawl through the watery fields to cut and collect the tops of rice stalks. He believes the rice took off because of the high acidic content of Shasta County's volcanic soil.
"Goose Valley has a niche for grass," he said.
For years, Denny had been content to sell his rice to SunWest Foods, a California company that buys and processes the rice from over 300 farmers, selling it to brands such as Uncle Ben's.
"He had done it one way for so long," Mattaliano said. "He had one customer, and it wasn't like he needed the money."
But Mattaliano had a different idea. She saw an opportunity to cash in on the growing popularity of natural and organic foods. Even during the years she worked for nonprofits on the East Coast, Mattaliano kept thinking about the farm thousands of miles away, and kept pushing her idea to Denny.
"I told him that in all this time at the ranch in the summers I learned the agriculture end of the business," she said. "I've cooked the rice every single way. I have a lot of practice. I love teaching. I love cooking. I can sell. I can build you a brand. I know I can."
The turning point came at a meeting arranged with SunWest, which had made a failed attempt to get into the retail end of the wild rice business years earlier. John Hasbrook, SunWest's head of marketing, agreed to tell Mattaliano and Denny what he learned.
"The meeting with Hasbrook was pivotal," Denny said. "This is not just Barbara pestering me — this could be a nice business opportunity."
But he was not quite ready to go all-in. He hired Mattaliano on a contract basis to research competitors and begin building the business.
So she studied 30 New York City supermarkets to scope out other brands. She interviewed grocers and asked detailed questions about their preferred package and case sizes — Does the package need a zip lock? Should customers be able to see the rice in the bag? How well do other organic and all-natural products sell? "I worked around the clock, morning, noon and night," Mattaliano said.
Nine months later, in November 2009, Goose Valley Natural Foods got off the ground. In addition to being the company's corporate chef, she handles research and development, marketing, and sales.
She's also an unofficial ambassador for wild rice. Mattaliano leads cooking demonstrations with restaurant chefs, distributors, and grocery stores. She also promotes Goose Valley's environmental sustainability — from the ink on its packaging to the hydropower the farm uses.
She approaches her work with an enthusiasm that teeters on obsessiveness. For instance, when Denny asked her to come up with a few recipes for the company's website, she hunkered down in a kitchen and emerged a few days later with enough dishes for a cookbook.
Although this isn't Denny's most profitable venture, he believes what he and Mattaliano have accomplished together means a lot.
"My kids know this is my single most challenging, most interesting, most satisfying, and most rewarding enterprise," he said, standing in socks on the back porch of the property's farm house. "It's amazing."