Herbin’ cowboy

Au naturel: Gaia Herbs CEO Ric Scalzo on his company’s 250-acre farm near Brevard, where organic herbs are grown and processed into dietary supplements. Photo by Julia Ritchey

Gaia Herbs founder Ric Scalzo stands in front of a renovated guest house on his company’s sprawling farm in Brevard and points to a hill lined with verdant Ginkgo trees. It is on this 250-acre plot, a former cattle farm, that the Massachusetts-born CEO has built what is now the 10th-largest employer in Transylvania County and a serious player in the crowded market of dietary supplements.

As he describes the layout of the farm, including the fields, an administrative building and a 45,000-square-foot production facility, Scalzo points to the grove of Ginkgo trees. He notes that its leaves are good for memory (which could aid the beleaguered reporter whose recorder shut down midinterview). Scalzo’s pitch is canny and one that seems to be resonating in the billion-dollar natural-supplements industry — that these medicinal products aren’t just for aging baby boomers or the health-conscious, but for everyone.

“In retail, we sell only into health-food and grocery stores,” says Senior Product Manager John Holladay. “Gaia Herbs is currently the third-largest herbal supplement brand in the health-food market. This market has grown by double digits for several consecutive years, with Gaia Herbs growing faster and gaining market share consistently.”

Scalzo credits much of his company’s success to the “potency, purity and proof” mantra that dictates the way Gaia makes its 300 or so products — controlling all aspects of production from seed to bottle. The company has launched a “Meet Your Herbs” platform on its website, allowing customers to trace the history of the product by entering a unique code found on every Gaia bottle.

Scalzo sat down recently with Xpress to talk about his company’s growth and evolution.

Mountain Xpress: When did you start Gaia Herbs and what led you to choose Brevard?

Ric Scalzo: We founded Gaia in 1987, and it was really an extension of my medical practice at the time. It started in a very simple way with herbal elixirs, and the products grew over the years to include herbal extracts and others. It was back in ‘92 when we realized we needed to expand — we were in Massachusetts at the time. So we bought a new facility and then we outgrew [it]. In ‘96 we moved just the farm to Brevard. Then it wasn't too long, maybe a few days or month, before we realized we needed to organize and move everything down. In ‘97, we moved the whole operation here.

The real motivation for moving here was to try and contain more consistency in the supply chain of raw materials. This area is very botanically diverse. When you look at the plant life and plant species that grow in the U.S., about 80 percent of them grow right here in Western North Carolina. … All in all, this is a really good climate, good soil, a good growing season and really good diversity for us to grow the crops that are meaningful to us.

What sort of growth has your company experienced since being here?
I would say, when you look at the natural products' space, Gaia is outpacing the industry significantly. … We've been fortunate enough to move through the economic ebb and flows and have a consistent, steady pace of growth ever since we moved here. We established about 90 jobs when we moved here, and today we have almost 150. We're kind of in a growth surge right now. Last year our sales grew about 18 to 20 percent. And thus far we're growing at a pace of about 20 percent over last year.

What makes Gaia different from the other natural product lines out there?
We've always been focused on quality. To us, quality means that we have to maintain custody from seed to shelf with the highest set of standards possible. And it does mean growing certified organic through third-party certification. It does mean producing in certified organic standards, and it does mean compliance to all the regulatory bodies that govern us.

I think when you look back at companies in our space when you're trying to define a distinguisher for Gaia — say, 50 years ago, one of the leading companies then was Nature's Way. Well, they set their [branding] platform … on the foundation of trust. In fact, they coined the term “Trust the Leaf,” and everyone trusted the leaf, and it was good at the time. Other companies have gone after the mantle of truth, belief and now proof.

We jumped onto the pedestal of proof and now here we are with our traceability platform that really aims to deliver purity, potency and integrity. Our “Meet Your Herbs” platform is constructed to deliver those three angles. We’re trying to prove the purity of product; we’re trying to prove the potency. Not just by saying we have the highest concentration or we have the cleanest herbs, but “Here it is, here are the results, take a look.”

That sounds expensive. It was. It cost us a crapload of money.

In what ways does Gaia give back to the local community? We offer the staff and their families free organic produce twice a week during the growing season. We also offer a company-subsidized lunch program with our farm produce. We’ve delivered about 43,000 pounds of produce last year to our staff. We’re not talking about a little bag of beans here, we’re talking about 50-pound sacks of corn so they can put it up all year round and make gallons of pesto and have crates of tomatoes. Then the spill-over of that harvest — I think we’ve supplied the local soup kitchen with over 20,000 pounds of produce for providing meals for those who don’t have a healthy meal everyday.

What sort of plans do you have for the future of Gaia? I would say over the course of the next year we’re going to launch about 15-20 new products that will occupy very important categories that we’re lacking. But really what my thoughts are being driven to lately is how to embody leadership and instill a type of leadership here at Gaia that emulates the leadership of nature. Nature is orchestrating this whole creation in a very spontaneous and automated perfect way. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned just by looking at nature.

Can you give an example? Everything in nature progresses and grows on the steps of rest and activity. And that fundamental principle of nature is seen in so many ways through the changing of the seasons, the cycling of night and day, the passing of the sun over the sky and how flowers move toward the sun and so forth. The cycles of rest and activity are governing principles in nature, and they can very easily be governing principles in business if you understand how to really embrace them into a business model. When you capture efficiencies, you can get to the state of really doing less and accomplishing more.

Looking up satellite image directions to Gaia, I noticed your building was not a typical box but what appears to be in the very unique shape of a bird? An eagle. Yeah, that was intentional. You’ve heard of feng shui, which is a system of design from China. Well, there’s a system of design from India called Sthapatya Veda. So this building was designed according to that principle of architecture, which basically means that the building was put in an orientation on the land at the highest elevation of our property and facing due east. I wanted a picture of a bird with its wings spread out embracing, welcoming the sun/energy into the building. That’s why you see the skylight over here. In fact, that’s why you see all of the elements expressed in the primary lobby. In a company, you want all five elements of nature present in the central point of your building. That’s to harness the maximum energy of nature to bring about optimal success.

— Julia Ritchey can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 122, or jritchey@mountainx.com.


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