Leading Canada’s Nutraceuticals Charge
How Richmond, BC’s Herbaland began as a vitamin packaging company in 2009 and in ten years evolved into one of Canada’s fastest-growing manufacturers, specializing in innovative nutritional formulas, is an inspirational story of teamwork.
Herbaland’s vision is a noble one. Quoting from the company website, this vision is to “take fun and functional nutrition global, to be a leader in the nutraceuticals industry; to lead the way to a healthy and sustainable future for our bodies, communities, and our planet.”
Noble indeed. Herbaland’s origins, however, are rather more pragmatic. As Musharaf Syed, CEO of Herbaland, who co-owns the Richmond, BC, company with his wife, Aisha Yang, explains, “At the time Aisha was on maternity leave, but with three young children we realized we were working to pay for daycare expenses, and because of that, we started looking for a business we could do from home.”
They both had an interest in selling natural health products and started researching manufacturers, only to discover there would be too much competition from private label companies that were already packaging and selling vitamins and other supplements in capsule form to retailers.
“We realized we needed to do something different,” Syed says. “Aisha did more research and found a Quebec company that had begun as a confectioner, and then in 2008 started manufacturing vitamins as chewable fruit gummies, so we started buying their products in bulk and packaging it under our label.”¬¬¬
The business got off to a good start in 2009, moving from the basement of the family home to a small office with a 1000 square-feet warehouse. After moving six times in ten years, each time to a larger facility, Herbaland today occupies a 75,000 square-feet facility for research and development, manufacturing and packaging. It employs a staff of 130 with six lines running 24 hours a day.
In 2018, Canadian Business magazine listed Herbaland as #57 on their list of Canada’s 500 Fastest Growing Companies. Business in Vancouver has twice named the company an Export Award Finalist (2017, 2018), Alive magazine announced it had received the Gold Consumers’ Choice Award in 2017, and in 2016, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce named it Mid-size Business of the Year and Workplace of the Year.
Herbaland’s rapid growth was also featured on the list of Canada’s top growing companies by The Globe and Mail, ranking 122 out of 400 in 2019. For two consecutive years, Herbaland has been named one of the top fastest growing companies by Growth500. Furthermore, it is ranked 8 out of 100 companies in BC for the fastest growing companies category by Business in Vancouver.
“We are honoured and happy to receive the recognition,” says Yang. “But this is really for our team, because with just Musharaf and myself, we couldn’t have made it, so we are really grateful to have this amazing team to work with us.”
Adds Syed, “We could never be successful with just two people. This story has to be about our R&D team, our packaging and shipping, our marketing and sales department. When we started, we had no departments and now every department has a head of department. We have weekly and monthly meetings and Aisha and I try to talk to each person. We all work hard, and we made it.”
This is not an overnight success story, though it may appear that way. Syed and Yang did everything right. They identified a unique product that filled a need, surrounded themselves with a good team, provided high quality service to consumers, and from 2009 until 2013, their business formula worked. But then…
Back to square one
In 2013, the Quebec-based company supplying Herbaland with multi-vitamin gummy products was sold to a U.S. company which no longer wanted to supply the product that had put the British Columbia company on the road to success.
“We had a very hard time, with no product to sell,” Syed recalls. There was no other company in Canada producing multi-vitamin gummies and while they could have started packaging and selling vitamin capsules, they decided against it, believing that multi-vitamins in a chewable form offered distinct health advantages and, besides, they had the customer base to back them up.
As Lin Ivey, a certified nutritionist and herbalist, who had begun her career as a consultant dealing with digestive issues, and now heads up Herbaland’s Marketing team, explains, “Gummies are a better option than capsules. I think people forget that when you chew food and smell food with active ingredients that are good for you, you activate enzymes and also signal your body to secrete digestive juices.
“The fact is all of the stuff in gummies or capsules is extremely important, but if you’re taking capsules with water, your body doesn’t know it needs to be digested and absorbed, so with a gummy the body is getting a huge benefit. Plus, there is a huge chunk of the population that is not good at swallowing capsules or finds them hard on the stomach, but everyone can enjoy gummies and get the health benefits.”
Syed agrees with Ivey and notes their dilemma: “We knew we had to make our own because we had customers relying on us, but the problem was we didn’t know how.”
Adds Yang, “We needed to combine the expertise of the confectionery business with the natural health-products business.” To that end, they acquired their first machine, which they designed from stainless steel, because they wanted to use a starchless mould to produce the gummies.
Try, try again
“But we really had no idea how to make the gummies, and we tried for six months. And every single day we failed. We had to advertise for R&D specialists, and we needed people with a passion for the natural health industry, willing to take the risk together with us to build the product. We were a small team then of five, with one in R&D and two in production, but we believed we could make it happen and finally, one day, we were successful, and we made 50.”
In 2014, after almost a year of trial and error, and 50 gummies as proof they could do it, Herbaland increased its team to 15 and made its first full batch of vitamin gummies, using their company’s own patented ‘Eco-moulding’ technology. The advantage of this is that it deposits the gummy formula directly into a stainless-steel mould, which results in a smoother, cleaner, and greener product than standard starch-moulded gummies. “Today we produce more than 40 million bottles annually,” says Yang.
Since 2013 Herbaland has moved beyond producing only multi-vitamins and today produces three distinct lines, as Ivey explains. “In addition to the traditional vitamin and mineral gummies, we have plant-based omega oils, made from flax seed, which everyone can take regardless of allergies or dietary restrictions. It’s good for joints, brain health and for pregnancy. We offer that and we also offer a traditional omega-3 in a kid’s formula, because it’s very important in the younger years to get proper nutrients.
“We have immune system supporting supplements, and I think our new sports line – coming in early 2020 – that balances electrolytes and amino acids would fit in that category.” In addition, there’s an entire range of supplements, specifically designed for individual needs, such as eye health, for example, or to boost energy or improve the quality of hair, skin and nails.
Then there are the food items. Among them are protein gummies, introduced two years ago, which use Saskatchewan-grown pea protein, as opposed to animal-protein products such as whey powder. Each 50-gram package, intended for adults, contains 10 grams of protein, 27 grams of fibre, and 1 gram of sugar and there is also a protein product developed especially for children.
Just launched this past September, are ‘Good News Gummies.’ They are an alternative to candy, produced from British Columbia-grown fruit such as blueberries and raspberries, and contain only two grams of sugar per 50-gram pouch. At $2.99 per pouch, they are competitively priced, as are the protein gummies at $3.50.
All products are vegan, gluten-free, and use non-GMO products. Just so there’s no confusion between the snacks and the vitamins and supplements, the vitamin packages are clearly marked with the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of each of the nutrients.
Herbaland prefers that all ingredients are sourced in Canada, although some are of necessity from elsewhere, mostly from the U.S. but also, Syed says, from Brazil, India, and China. Wherever possible, the company opts for ‘fair trade’ products and organically grown ingredients.
The products are approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA’s approval is required as the company supplies a number of international private-label companies, 90 percent of which are in the U.S.
In Canada, products are sold under the Herbaland Naturals label. They are available at retailers in just about every town and city as well as online. (This East Coast writer found them at three locations within two kilometres of her home.)
Company with a conscience
Syed and Yang are concerned not only with the health of customers but also with the health of their employees, their community, and the planet.
“One of my favourite things about Herbaland is how involved it is in the community,” says Ivey. “We do team-building activities amongst ourselves and as a company we do tons of events in the local community. We’ve been a sponsor of the Vancouver Sun Run for the last two years, and this year we sponsored two athletes from China. We also have a positive relationship with the Make A Wish Foundation. We do international trade shows and we are big in community engagement.”
Yang has been investigating packaging options and plans to introduce zero-waste packaging in 2020. “We plan to have all Herbaland products in flexible packaging – like the protein gummies in a sachet – that is compostable. That will reduce thousands of kilograms of plastic in 2020.
“We have also made zero-waste purchasing available last year to customers in Canada, the USA and internationally. We offer bulk vitamins in compostable bags that break down within 30 to 60 days. People can bring their own mason jars from home to purchase them and either take a photo of the product label or we can provide a label to stick on their jar, so they will have all the product information. And all the cardboard boxes we use are recyclable. This way we can do our part to eliminate plastic waste any way we can.”
As we were ending our interview with Ivey, Syed, and Yang, Yang returned to a recurring topic of hers – her gratitude to the team members. “Don’t spotlight Musharaf and myself,” she laughed. “We do not want to be in the spotlight because we believe in teamwork. All of the awards and recognition we have received as a company are because of our team.”