B.C. is muscling its way into sports supplement industry
B.C. is muscling its way into sports supplement industry
By PAUL LUKE, The Province July 27, 2012 Comment 4 •Story•Photos ( 7 )
Don Gauvreau is co-owner of fast-growing sports supplement maker, PharmaFreak. He chose Jack Poole Plaza next to the Olympic Cauldron for a recent workout which included using resistance bands and existing architecture for his workout.Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht , PNGGo ahead and stare, wuss. Some of Don Gauvreau’s best customers look a bit inhuman — and they like it that way.
They’re the guys with murderous biceps, deltoids like melons, pectorals erupting into massive slabs of granite.
They swagger over Canada’s beaches on stainless steel glutes and thighs thicker than old-growth cedars. Veins ripple across their torsos like engorged snakes if they so much as pick their nose.
Got a problem with that, 90-pound brother? Dude over there — the smouldering gent with forearm flexors throbbing like volcanoes — would be delighted to hear your concerns, if you’re careful enough to snivel.
They call themselves freaks. And a small group of supplement makers are turning the Lower Mainland into Canada’s freak food factory.
These B.C. companies are capitalizing on a demand for nutritional potions that is growing thanks to a mainstream of weekend warriors, says Connor Link, associate editor of U.S.-based Nutrition Business Journal.
The Vancouver area has evolved into a sport supplements hub, and local innovators are opening new nutritional market frontiers, Link says.
Scott Welch, who owns Toronto-based Muscle Insider magazine, says B.C.’s sports nutrition industry has grown to the point it generates 40-50 per cent of his advertising revenue.
“British Columbia has the highest density of supplement companies per capita of any province in Canada,” Welch says.
“With the West Coast being more health conscious and active than many other parts of Canada, it’s not surprising.”
PharmaFreak, the Vancouver-based company Gauvreau co-founded in 2008, is one of the newest kids on B.C.’s sports supplement block. It’s also among the fastest growing, with distribution in more than 40 countries.
The six-person company’s sales have soared from $250,000 in the first year to an estimated $10 million for the year ending Aug. 31.
Packaged in a hard-to-miss solar-flare yellow, the company’s potions have a reputation for being cutting edge.
In a major coup for PharmaFreak, retailer GNC — a nutritional products chain with 4,800 stores in the U.S. — began stocking its products south of the border earlier this year.
Gauvreau’s top-selling product is a fat-burner called Ripped Freak.
In second place is Test Freak, a testosterone-boosting product to help build muscles. In a sign of the sports supplement sector’s bid to reach beyond weightlifters — maybe to those of us broomsticks whose libidos began to plunge at age 13 — the company’s website assures you that Test will “increase sex drive and performance.”
Gauvreau’s shaved head and bulging ropes are so common among Vancouver’s sports supplement players they’re almost a uniform. But take a look beneath Gauvreau’s sinews.
At 34, he has a master’s degree in education and is a former elementary school teacher. He plays cello, raises an infant son and writes fitness magazine columns. He keeps a thick text on Chinese herbal medicine on his desk.
His entrepreneurial thirst unslaked with one sports nutrition outfit, Gauvreau launched another called SD Pharmaceuticals.
When not working out, Gauvreau pours over medical journals and scientific research, scouting new ingredients.
“I’m totally a nerd,” he says. “I may not look that way but I’m definitely a stay-behind-the-computer-and-study person.”
New boutique supplement makers pour into the industry like whey powder every year, emboldened by the industry’s low entry barriers, Welch says.
The Vancouver area is dotted with supplement factories, making it easy to fill a 300-bottle order with little upfront investment, he says.
Labels can be designed in a few days and a website slapped together during a weekend.
“Coming up with a formulation is often done simply by copying the formula or the label of the innovative companies like PharmaFreak and others,” Welch says.
“Believe it or not, but some consumers will start buying your products with few questions asked if they see a product they’ve never tried before.”
Physique athletes are said to be among the most fickle of shoppers.
“[They] are willing to switch around to different formulas if the guy at GNC recommends something new,” Link says.
And consumers often bypass quality in their quest for lower prices.
“With supplements, you always get what you pay for,” Welch says. “Quality costs more.”
The B.C. nutrition outfits tussling for the same consumers and the same chunk of retail shelf have a predictably evangelic conviction of the superiority of their own products. What’s surprising is the degree of competitive camaraderie.
They share information about the challenges of entering new markets overseas and shifting regulatory demands around the globe. Many of their senior employees worked together at mother ship outfits such as Ontario-based MuscleTech.
Many have competed as bodybuilders. Some are buds.
“We’ll all play nice in the same sandbox,” says Ryan Keller, sports brands marketing director for Port Coquitlam-based Fit Foods.
“There’s enough pie for everyone.”
Companies with brands gnawing on that pie are PharmaFreak, SD, Magnum Nutraceuticals, Vega, Prairie Naturals and Natural Factors.
Fit Foods, whose Mutant supplements account for 70 per cent of its sales, makes its own products, and manufactures for others. Maple Ridge-based GFR Pharma takes the same approach.
Who takes sports supplements? Beach body cravers, hockey players looking to gain muscle to hit harder and fitness-minded everybodies, Welch says.
Bert Neibergall, vice-president at Surrey-based Magnum, says that in the crucial 16-to-25 age group the consumers are 85 per cent males.
Some of these guys are hard-core body builders, others just want to look like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Matthew McConaughey, Neibergall says. Among the most popular supplements for these groups are creatine, whey protein, multi-vitamins, weight-gainers and essential fatty acids.
But from the late 20s to early 50s, women rise to about 50 per cent of supplement consumers as female activity level increases and men’s eases, he says. Welch predicts we will see more variety stores, gas stations, vending machines, movie theatres and other mass-market outlets carrying sports supplements.
“Portable protein shakes, bars and drinks will be the first items you’ll see in these spots but single-serving fat burners and energy pills will follow.”
Supplements producers are by no means recession proof but the physique-tweaking zeal of their youngest consumers makes them contraction resistant, Keller says.
“Nothing is more important to those kids than building big muscles to attract girls,” he says. “When it comes to their cash they’ll spend it on our products before they do anything else.”
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