A giant of industry. A health supplement visionary. A lion among men.
A determined and spirited competitor who stood 6-foot-7 and spoke with a booming voice, Gerald Kessler was a man who invited superlatives. He lived without compromise, commanded respect and left a deep impression on anyone he met.
With his passing in March 2015, Mr. Kessler has also left a deep void both at Natural Organics, the company he founded and ran for 42 years, and throughout the industry. He, more than anyone, is credited with helping to save the industry from potentially ruinous government regulation.
Gerald Kessler grew up fatherless and in grinding poverty, spending much of his difficult childhood in and out of orphanages in New York City. But that hardscrabble upbringing fostered a lifelong determination to control his own destiny.
It was during the 1960s, while working as a pharmaceutical salesman, that he found that destiny by becoming a pioneer in the growing health supplement industry. Convinced that the traditional drugs he sold treated merely the symptoms – and not the causes – of disease, Mr. Kessler became focused on promoting good health through holistic, dietary means.
He began making and bottling homemade vitamins at night, and then, by day, selling them out of his trunk to health food stores between pharmaceutical appointments. Before long, he was able to quit his pharmaceutical job and in 1972 founded Natural Organics Inc., the acclaimed manufacturer and wholesaler of the Nature’s Plus brand of supplements, in Long Island, New York.
His timing was impeccable. The company entered the market just as consumers, worried about widespread pesticide use and inspired by the popularity of the counter-culture, began turning to organic foods and natural products such as vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals.
But, again, Gerald Kessler was ahead of the curve. Rather than rushing to meet demand with products of inconsistent quality, as many rivals did, he insisted on providing only the best in Nature’s Plus products. The Nature’s Plus brand name reflected his insistence on improving on what nature produced, according to Natural Organics President Jim Gibbons.
“GK pioneered the process of taking an extract of an herb, standardizing it and then combining it with the whole plant,” he said. “So, unlike with other products, Natural Organics customers would always get the standardized concentrated potency of the active ingredient combined with the wisdom of Mother Nature.”
In the same way, Mr. Kessler’s uncompromising nature created a corporate culture that attracted dedicated employees with uncommon loyalty to a boss they liked to describe as “equal parts grizzly bear and teddy bear.”
Although Mr. Kessler could be a tough competitor, said Shari Allen, vice president of sales, he could also be warm, considerate and supportive. “He saw you as family. Even if you made mistakes, if he felt that you were loyal – and first and foremost that what was important to him, loyalty – he would give you a second chance.”
But it was Mr. Kessler’s decision to activate his inner “grizzly” that led to perhaps his most significant single accomplishment, one that many believe saved the industry.
In 1991, after years of following a hands-off policy, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration promulgated rules giving it regulatory control over supplements. The rules proposed reclassifying supplements as “food additives” and requiring manufacturers to provide “significant scientific agreement” to support label claims.
Mr. Kessler invited top executives from supplement companies to his Circle K Ranch near Santa Barbara, CA for an extraordinary summit. There he exhorted competitors to join forces for their mutual survival and kick in $100,000 each to mount a national campaign.
As part of that drive, he encouraged the nation’s 10,000-plus health food stores to urge their customers to write their Representatives, unleashing a practically unheard-of blizzard of protest on Congress. And then Mr. Kessler went to Washington D.C. himself. He and other industry leaders lobbied against the FDA’s proposed rules and drafted a countermeasure to keep supplements out of the regulatory grip of the agency by classifying them as “food.”
“He was relentless,” said lobbyist Tony Podesta, whom Mr. Kessler hired to push the countermeasure through Congress. “He would talk to anyone and everyone trying to persuade them that the ingredients in his products were safe and that the approach of DSHEA [Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act] would safeguard public health.”
When it looked like Congress might leave for the holidays at the end of 1994 without voting on the measure, Mr. Kessler refused to quit. He worked his way in to see then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich – and convinced the Georgia Congressman to hold up adjournment so Congress could approve DSHEA, a name Mr. Kessler himself chose.
The law, which went into effect in 1996, not only ended the FDA threat but paved the way for the tremendous growth of an industry that now exceeds an estimated $100 billion a year in global sales. More letters were written to Congress on DSHEA than on any other piece of legislation, leading then-President Bill Clinton to say that its passage “speaks to the diligence with which an unofficial army of nutritionally conscious people worked democratically to change the laws in an area deeply important to them.”
At the time of his death, the Natural Organics company that Mr. Kessler started from his home had become a manufacturing and sales machine for its Nature’s Plus brand, employing nearly 400 people and selling more than a thousand products in 130 countries around the world.
The continued success of Natural Organics and Nature’s Plus, and the thriving natural supplement industry as a whole, ensure that Gerald Kessler’s corporate and personal legacy will endure for generations.
With a tenacious loyalty to his own vision, Mr. Kessler dramatically improved the lives of millions of people across the globe.