With a commitment to retailers and its founder’s mission, NOW stands the test of time.
Ten years ago, when Vitamin Retailer honored NOW (Bloomingdale, IL) as Manufacturer of the Year, Al Powers, then its president, recalled the company’s progression. “Things have changed considerably since the early days of NOW Foods,” he said. “Back in the 1970s, we were located in a small facility with just four to five employees including our founder Elwood Richard, myself, a bookkeeper and a few part-time people who would hand-pack our products. The company is now sold in more than 80 countries, has about 1,400 SKUs and some 1,600 employees in North America.”
There is a lot to credit for NOW’s longevity and success, but one highlight is the company’s focus on quality.
“NOW’s commitment to quality can be summed up in our mantra that ‘what is on the label is in the bottle,’” said Aaron Secrist, vice president of quality and regulatory affairs specifics of QA (quality assurance). “We are able to say this with absolute confidence because we have total control over the manufacturing of the product, we have complete traceability of the raw materials that we use and we verify the label claims by testing each finished lot of product.”
Secrist explained that the process begins with a rigorous and robust supplier qualification program. “This includes gathering detailed flow charts showing how the raw materials are processed, what starting materials are used, information about the source of the starting materials, what equipment/ solvents are used to process the raw materials, what allergens may be present and what countries the materials are grown in,” he said. “This is especially important to us because we are serious about making sure that only natural ingredients and processes are used when they are available.”
NOW does not use GMO (genetically modified organism) starting materials even if the material is highly processed and there is no DNA left when the material is tested, Secrist added. “If we think the risk is high, we will also perform an onsite audit to see for ourselves how and under what conditions the ingredients are made. Once we have ensured that our standards for natural and non-GMO are being met, and that the supplier has a food safety plan in place that ensures the identity, purity, strength and composition of the ingredient, we will test samples to make sure that our specifications are met. Our purchasing group cannot buy from any vendor until Quality has approved the supplier and tested qualification samples to ensure that all specifications have been met.”
Once the supplier is approved and the qualification samples pass, the raw materials can be ordered. Once the incoming materials are sampled and tested and meet specifications, the products are produced through a very tightly controlled process that ensures the company gets the same output each and every time. Samples are taken at each step of the process to ensure homogeneity and uniformity. After a bevy of other documentation, tests and sampling, a final review of the paperwork by Quality ensures no step was skipped and that all testing conforms before the batch is released for distribution to the customer, Secrist noted. “At NOW Foods, quality is built into everything we do!”
Natural product retailers find a likeminded partnership when they work with NOW. Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing/Family Owner Dan Richard noted that NOW’s founding began within the family’s own natural food stores. “My dad, Elwood Richard, owned and ran five Fruitful Yield stores in the Chicago area before he started NOW. He didn’t start out with the idea of building a brand for health food stores, but that’s what happened.”
Richard explained that in order to support his own stores with a unique value brand, his father launched NOW in 1968. “A very small start led to very slow growth for about 15 years,” he said, recalling that NOW was mostly a regional, generic brand for the family’s own stores, as well as other retailers who bought into the idea of low prices. “The company took off in 1985 when MaxEPA fish oils were the rage, and NOW was well positioned to capture new sales,” Richard said. “NOW only sold to health food stores and couldn’t have conceived how the world would change because of the internet. Even today, NOW still prefers to support independent natural food stores because we can still relate closely with our own stores.”
As an inside sales and customer service manager with NOW for more than 20 years, Marymae Lorenzo said she has watched the company grow tremendously, while always striving to ensure its customers are satisfied. “Our goal is to make doing business with NOW easy, and we consistently hear from our retail customers that that is one of the things they like most about us,” she said. “We have multiple ways they can place orders, whether they want to pick up the phone and talk to a human being, or would prefer to do it online. If there is an issue, we work hard and fast to make it right. We offer training programs and free marketing materials to support the stores and help them drive sales. We view our retail customers as our business partners—they have been the key to our success throughout the years and we depend on them just as much as they depend on us.”
“NOW is particularly sensitive to the needs of our retail customers,” agreed Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, NOW senior nutrition education manager. “This goes beyond products to also include services offered by our company, in line with our company’s mission ‘to provide value in products and services that empower people to lead healthier lives.’”
One of the services that NOW delivers is its Product Information service, Levin noted. “We offer a team of nutritionists to answer product-related questions to both retailers and consumers. This dovetails with our mission and offers transparency related to various concerns, including sourcing, testing, allergens, appropriate uses, safety data, etc. We have the team on line generally from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central Time, Monday to Friday, and answer more than 97 percent of all incoming calls live. We also answer messages submitted on our website or sent to our email account at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Another service NOW offers to retailers is education, Levin added. “We believe that education is the best way to sell products and support our sales and marketing teams to meet our customers’ needs by providing credible and useful content.
“My team helps to create and update the FAQs and other product information on our website, often in response to retailer or consumer inquiries. We also provide informational assistance at various trade shows and symposia. We support NOW’s NOWledge area of our website, which includes webinars and other sessions to view at home to help educate both consumers and retailers. We provide guests for interviews on both local and national radio programs, plus podcasts. And we travel around the country offering both product training to retailers and consumer lectures for their customers.”
For example, in 2017, NOW’s nutrition team provided 123 separate trainings (to retailers, consumers and practitioners), managed and produced a series of 11 webinars, were interviewed on 26 radio programs, and provided information on its products at 15 trade shows and conferences.
“So by honoring the company’s mission,” Levin continued, “possible only due to the continuing commitment of the management team to our founder’s vision to provide services in addition to natural product offerings, we hope to empower people to live healthier lives and thus truly live by the Golden Rule.”
The NOW Mission
NOW’s mission has really been the same since the company started, said Dan Richard. “We aim to make quality natural products affordable, and to help empower people to live healthier lives. We do not ever intend to ‘outgrow’ this mission; it is what we do, and who we are. One way we support our mission is to constantly improve existing products. We have dramatically upgraded our products to be in vegetarian capsules and now have over 1,000 SKUs certified kosher. We are constantly working to eliminate GMOs from our products, while also upgrading sources to be certified organic whenever possible.”
NOW was created for value and continues that focus with low-cost products, processes and expenses to maintain its consistent brand. “Our marketing and packaging costs are much lower than normal, and we intentionally are frugal with how we source and process our products, Richard explained. “This is challenging while producing very high quality products, but our entire workforce is focused on efficiencies to match our quality and safety goals. It helps that NOW is a manufacturing machine, with a large workforce and sophisticated production equipment. We also have advanced lab equipment to support efficient in-house testing of every ingredient we use.
“The reason our brand exists is to save consumers money on quality natural products,” he said. “If we can’t do that, then we’ve done something wrong, because our low overhead structure allows us that advantage. Being private and with zero debt is a big advantage as well.”
1948 – Paul Richard (Elwood’s father) purchases Fearn Soya Foods from estate of close friend Dr. Charles E. Fearn
1962 – Elwood Richard opens first retail store in Elmhurst, IL
1968 – Elwood Richard founds NOW Foods – 4,500-square-foot location within Fearn Soya
1974 – Al Powers joins NOW Foods
1975 – Retail stores adopt the name The Fruitful Yield
1978 – NOW expands operations and moves to 7,000-square-foot Villa Park location
1983 – NOW introduces Max EPA; within two years, sales reach an all-time high
1985 – Elwood’s son, Dan Richard, joins NOW Foods and upgrades labels and catalog
1988 – NOW moves into a 12,000-square-foot facility in Glendale Heights, IL
1991 – HealthCo, NOW’s International division, is launched by Dan’s brother, David Richard
1993 – NOW celebrates 25 years in business
1994 – NOW expands again and moves to the Mitchell Road location in Glendale Heights (45,000 square feet)
1995 – Jim Emme joins NOW as plant manager
1998 – NOW moves into state-of-the-art, 203,000-square-foot facility in Bloomingdale, IL, designed by Elwood’s brother Louis Richard
1999 – NOW wins an unprecedented 32 Vity Awards
2000 – NOW earns GMP certification from the NPA (then NNFA) with an ‘A’ rating, and attains certified organic manufacturer status
– NOW purchases Puresource in Guelph, ON, Canada
2003 – NOW opens shipping facility in Sparks, NV
2005 – Elwood Richard retires; Al Powers named president
– NOW acquires Burnham Labs and begins in-house manufacturing of personal care products
2006 – NOW becomes the first for-profit business in DuPage County to fly the Earth Flag
2007 – NOW honored by Nutrition Business Journal for “Efforts on Behalf of Industry” and “Educational Initiatives”
2008 – NOW is named Manufacturer of the Year by Vitamin Retailer Magazine
– NOW purchases ICP-MS machine for the advanced testing of heavy metals
– NOW celebrates its 40th anniversary
– NOW named the No. 1 selling brand in the natural channel according to SPINScan Natural
2009 – NOW expands, adding an additional 45,000 square feet of manufacturing and laboratory space at its Glen Ellyn Road plant
2012 – NOW builds and moves into new 130,000-square-foot facility in Sparks to better serve West Coast customers
– Al Powers, is promoted to CEO of NOW Health Group, Inc.
– NOW’s Chief Operations Officer, Jim Emme, is promoted to president of NOW
– NOW founder Elwood Richard inducted into the inaugural Industry Hall of Legends
– NOW moves into its new corporate headquarters at 244 Knollwood Dr. in Bloomingdale
2013 – NOW celebrates its 45th anniversary
– NOW’s new Sparks facility is LEED Silver Certified by the U.S. Green Building Council
2014 – Al Powers retires
– NOW Health Group President Jim Emme is promoted to CEO
– NOW wins 7th consecutive Chicago 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For award
– NOW wins first National 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For award
– Elwood Richard honored with the Natural Product Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award
– NOW recognized as a “Founding Supporter” by Vitamin Angels for 20 years of support
2015 – NOW achieves Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Certification
– NOW wins 2nd consecutive National 101 Best & Brightest to Work For
– NOW wins 8th consecutive Chicago 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For
2016 – NOW wins 3rd consecutive National 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For
– NOW wins 9th consecutive Chicago Best & Brightest Companies to Work For
– NOW adds state-of-the-art Dupont RiboPrinter for the verification of probiotic strains
2017 – NOW opens a new 200,000-square-foot distribution facility in Roselle, IL
– Elwood Richard honored at Natural Products Expo West with American Herbal Products Association’s (AHPA) Visionary award
– Elwood Richard passes
– NOW wins 4th consecutive National 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For, and additional award for the new Wellness category
NOW CEO Looks Forward
Here, Jim Emme, NOW’s CEO, tells Vitamin Retailer what’s most important to the company, what its future may hold and what his favorite NOW product is:
Every year, I ask retailers here in the U.S. and around the world what they like most about the NOW brand, and consistently the first term they bring up is value. We view value as the best possible quality at the best possible price.
One of the legacies of our company is with our founder Elwood Richard having been a physical chemist. He believed that there had to be science to back up any statements we would make about our products—the ability to test, to analyze, whether it is a raw material, blend or finished goods. He and I were in alignment with that because my background is in food chemistry, so it was easy for me to buy into his vision.
In order to have value, you have to have the quality component. If you don’t have the quality component, it doesn’t matter what price you sell the product at; consumers, at best, are going to be disappointed. Or at worst, if the wrong ingredient is in the product, it could possibly do harm. That’s something we believe is fundamental for whatever we make. We don’t compromise on our quality standard in order to achieve a price point.
Being a family-owned company, we have the independence to make decisions like that.
In order to support that quality component, we’ve made major investments over the years in facilities, equipment and in people. In our Bloomingdale manufacturing operation here in Illinois, we’ve got well over $100 million in analytical equipment. We’ve got 150 people on our quality team to sample and test. We’ve got capabilities most companies don’t have—we even have some capabilities that some contract laboratories don’t have.
Our formal mission as a company is to provide value in product and services that empower people to live healthier lives. We’re not in the business to cure anything; we don’t have magic bullets—the brand was founded on value. One thing that makes us unique as a company is that we’re a retailer as well. We have 13 stores called the Fruitful Yield in the Chicagoland area. The retail division of NOW was in place since 1962, so that’s actually been around longer than the NOW brand, which was established in 1968 to be the house brand for the Fruitful Yield stores.
Elwood’s philosophy was such that he wanted to treat people fairly, to give everybody a fair deal, and that philosophy carries over to this day. He also felt that you have to have control of your quality—to ensure freshness of the ingredients, to make sure that there are consistent results delivered. He had a gentleman come into his Elmwood Park store, which was the very first store and complain that the product cost was too high, and accused Elwood of robbing him. Elwood took it personally and he realized the challenge that the branded product that the gentleman complained about could be bought at the supermarket for a lower price because of the buying volume. It really weighed heavily on him because he didn’t want to cheat anybody. The more he thought about it, he realized the solution would be to get a health department permit, package his own product in the back of the store and create a brand that was exclusive to Fruitful Yield that was high quality and a great price. And thus the NOW value philosophy was born, as well as the NOW brand.
Philanthropy, Eco-friendly/ Sustainability Practices
We as a company support several charities. There is a charity committee within the Richard family council that decides which charities to donate to. We tend to support fewer charities, but will be more generous in doing so—for example, Vitamin Angels. We were one of the first corporations to donate to Vitamin Angels. We truly believe in what they are doing. If the charity aligns with our culture and values, we do tend to be generous. We also support a lot of local communities’ efforts. We don’t really market the fact that we support the charities the way we do simply because we feel it’s not so much about tooting our own horn as it is about doing the right thing and supporting people who are doing really great work to help others in need. This year, for our 50th anniversary, we are actually increasing our charitable donations. We’re pleased and blessed with the growth that we have.
From a sustainability standpoint, we’ve always looked at environmental sustainability as doing the right thing for the right reasons, but also it’s good for business. For example, we’ve had water savers and infrared faucets for close to 20 years. It not only made good environmental sense, it also reduced our water bill and usage, so therefore we had a lot of savings. We recycle almost all of our corrugated [boxes] when we recycle; we actually reuse boxes when it’s not a GMP issue. When we do that, we save almost $1 million a year. Not to mention, there’s a lot of corrugated boxes that don’t end up in a landfill. Those that have reached the end of their useful lives we bail up and sell it to a recycler, not for a lot of money. We do that with all our plastic. For example, there’s a lot of stretch plastic that comes in on pallets and raw materials. We recycle all of that. It feels good that we are doing the right thing there, but it’s also really good business, and it keeps our costs down, which also supports our mission of value.
We’ll oftentimes spend money on environmental and sustainability investments even though they don’t have a great rate of return. For example, in our Bloomingdale manufacturing operation, we have about 30 solar panels on the roof of that building. The rate of return is not very good; it’s probably about 13 years, whereas a normal investment would be less than a tenth of that. But we decided it’s the right thing to do. Because we’re in the upper Midwest, we may not get the efficiency out of it.
In our manufacturing facility in Sparks, NV, we have a white roof … and we did put up solar panels there that have higher efficiency. And we built a lot of energy saving features in that building that we received a Leed Silver Certification for energy efficiency. When we build a new facility, we’ll certainly learn from the lessons of that and approve upon it even more.
As the steward of the company at this point, [recently] I celebrated my 23rd year with NOW. I came from a larger corporation, and it was Elwood who sold me on the company. I shared a lot of the same beliefs and philosophies as him, so it was easy for me to buy into it.
I was coming from a multi-billion dollar corporation and NOW, at the time, was about an $11 million company, and I thought how could I step down to that. Moving the clock forward 23 years later, we sell products in 80 countries, we have 1,600 associates in the company throughout North America and we’re over $500 million in annual revenues. We’re not small anymore. Going forward, we need to pass on our values and our commitment to our mission to those next generations of leaders and associates in our company, and also to the Richard family. We want to stay true to Elwood’s vision.
We need to be adaptive and agile in adopting technology—that will make us more efficient while not compromising our quality. I can see us in 50 years being well past $1 billion in revenue and hopefully in more countries. The big thing is [to] maintain the culture of treating people fairly of following the Golden Rule to treat people the way we want to be treated. Doing the right thing will help you persevere through difficulties—that philosophy has proven true so many times in the history of our company. That will hold us through to the 100th anniversary. Also, remain an independent family business so we can make the right decisions for the right reasons, and maintain our mission. I believe our culture and our values are sustainable and I’m very positive about what the future holds for our organization.
On His Favorite NOW Supplement
My favorite is glutamine for recovery from workouts. I have a post workout regimen—I’m in my 50s and I can still do vigorous exercise, but the next day I feel it a little more. If I use proper nutrition after cool down, I found glutamine to be extremely helpful with that. I’m not ashamed to admit it. VR
“NOW Foods stands out as a manufacturer because of the people that work there. The level of integrity and hard work displayed by the employees is only one aspect of the company that makes it great. It is not surprising that they continue to be recognized as the ‘Best Place to Work in Illinois.’ The qualification process that NOW Foods has in place for ingredients continues to set the standard for the industry. It has been our pleasure to grow our business with NOW Foods! Cheers to 50 years!”
– Monique Cody, Account Executive, Stauber, Fullerton, CA
“NOW is very demanding in their requirements—they want to partner with the very highest quality raw material suppliers with unique, clinically validated ingredients that can pass their rigorous qualification process. It took about a year from start-to-finish for this product launch, and that was because NOW fast-tracked Organic Astaxanthin because it was such an exciting project! “AlgaeHealth is extremely happy to be working with NOW on our Organic Astaxanthin Powder because of NOW’s reputation.”
– Bob Capelli, Executive Vice President Global Marketing, Algae Health Sciences (AlgaeHealth), Irvine, CA
“Today, we have a great relationship with NOW. An emphasis on quality, innovation, traceability, clinical substantiation is a priority. They see the value in branded ingredients. We meet regularly with their product development and marketing teams, discussing new products, technologies, clinical studies, regulatory challenges, global opportunities and market strategies.
“Through strong leadership, NOW has transformed itself from a low cost/price-sensitive discounter to a premium, well-respected brand in our industry. It is a pleasure to work with them. “Congratulations to NOW for your contributions to our industry. Together, we celebrate your 50-year anniversary!”
– Greg Ris, Vice President Sales, Indena USA, Seattle, WA
“The relationship has a healthy (no pun intended) foundation in communication and exchange of ideas, and requirements and opportunities between us. NOW and Gnosis share a common culture dedicated to science, performance based and high-quality products, which makes the approval process relatively easy and really leaves the adoption of Gnosis-branded ingredients into the NOW product line, up to timing and consumer demand.
NOW is one of a very small group of companies in the industry that is very discerning and thorough in their product and ingredient choices. This characteristic is of great value to the consumer as well as to us, Gnosis, since we believe we benefit from a knowledgeable customer.”
– Mike Petteruti, Vice President Gnosis USA Inc., Doylestown, PA
“We supply several key raw materials to NOW. [The company] has a very thorough and sophisticated approach to quality assurance on ingredients they use, and has often worked closely with our QC department to resolve testing questions that occur in our ever-changing industry. NOW is committed to quality before cost savings.”
– Cal Bewicke, CEO, Ethical Naturals Inc., Novato, CA
“We started selling NOW foods more than 35 years ago. Originally, it was a decision to bring in a lower price line of vitamins to compete with the other national brands. It was one of the best decisions we have made. Our original investment of some 20 SKUs has grown to over 500 different products. Price got them in the store and quality has seen to its success. My customers love the selection of not only the vitamins, but of the health and beauty products and the food products as well. We love the commitment that NOW has in developing new products and formulas that give me and my customers the results they desire.
– Henry and Carol Pietal, Owners and Founders, Simple Enough Natural Foods, Westborough, MA
“We have been selling NOW products over 25 years. We appreciated their goal to provide very high quality at a more competitive price than many other companies. My husband Bob and I were fortunate to visit the NOW facility several years ago, which enabled us to see firsthand the laboratories staffed with many quality control stations. I never have any question that NOW will not send a product out that is not fully guaranteed to be the best raw materials. Finally, I will say that I have had several sales reps over the years, all of whom have been professional and willing to help us out with promotions and educating staff.”
– Susan Crenshaw, Owner of HealtHabit Natural Foods, Goldsboro and Kinston, NC