By Marcia Heroux Pounds Sun Sentinel
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Naomi Whittel sold her supplements company (Reserveage Nutrition) in 2009 fro $37 million. Now she's CEO of the company that bought hers, Twinlab Consolidated Holdings. From entrepreneur to CEO, Whittel's story is one of dedication, leadership and concern for the consumer.
In only a few years, Naomi Whittel has reached a point in her career that takes some people a lifetime.
It was 2009 when Whittel started a business called Reserveage Nutrition selling nutritional supplements.
The supplements were so successful that Whittel sold her company six years later for $37 million. Now she's CEO of the company that bought hers, Twinlab Consolidated Holdings.
How the 42-year-old Boca Raton woman rose from entrepreneur to CEO is a story of dedication, leadership and concern for the consumer.
"Naomi is naturally curious with a passion to win," says adviser Sanjay Khosla, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Chicago.
Whittel's grew up in Europe, the daughter of a French mother who was an artist and an English father who was a chemist. It was a perfect foundation for the business she would build.
She began Reserveage at a time when she and her husband were looking to start a family. She had been taking herbal supplements and discovered that she had high levels of metal in her body.
In building her company, she stressed science, working off clinical research as well as launching new studies. She went to the University of Bordeaux in France to learn about the "French Paradox," an observation of low coronary heart disease and death rates among the French, despite high intake of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat.
"This is not fair," she said of her French cousins. "They're eating double cream brie and drinking wine."
Her research also led her to the vineyards of Bordeaux, the source of resveratrol, one of the ingredients she uses in her supplements.
Resveratrol is a protective compound found in the stems and vines of French grapes. The supplements also contain collagen, a staple in the Asian diet. They are sold at health stores including GNC, Whole Foods Markets and Vitamin Shoppe; directly through the company website; and through QVC.
Heather Hausenblas, professor at Jacksonville University's School of Applied Health Sciences in Jacksonville, has participated in independent studies and has been a consultant to Reservage in studies over the years on resveratrol, as well as the company's Collagen Booster.
"What I love about Naomi and her product is the great science. There's so much out there that's not very good," said Hausenblas, who now uses Collagen Booster herself. "As a woman approaching 50, I'd like to slow down the clock,' she said.
"I see little improvements in my skin and hair," Hausenblas said, though she warns that it "takes time."
Scripps Florida in Jupiter is studying different types of resveratrol to come up with the best form. Scientist Paul Robbin, who specializes in metabolism and aging studies, said he takes resveratrol, which "has clearly seen positive effects in mice."
He said there's plenty of competition in the resveratrol market with companies including Fort Lauderdale-based Life Extension and Elysium, which has an advisory firm of leaders in the field including Nobel Prize winners.
"There's no reason not to take [resveratrol]. It might have some benefits and there are no side effects," he said. Consumers agreed, so much so that Reserveage Nutrition expanded too quickly.
"We grew within three years to $70 million in top-line sales, and we didn't have the infrastructure," Whittel said. "We spent a year and a half picking up the pieces."
To correct the company's course, she brought in a chief financial officer who told her she needed to spend less time as the company spokeswoman and more time digging into the basic drivers of the company.
"We focused on systems and practices and time management. We became laser-focused," she said.
The biggest payoff has been in its beauty category. Collagen product sales grew 28 percent over the past 52 weeks, according to data by Spins, a Chicago organization that provides data analysis for the industry. Reserveage sales grew by 4.7 percent last year.
Khosla, the Kellogg professor, been a mentor to Whittel since they met an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year conference. Whittel won in her category in 2013.
At Reserveage, Whittel has built a diverse team with complementary skills, Khosla said. "These leadership skills will be really great in helping her succeed as a public company CEO," he said.
Whittel says her focus on the consumer is equally responsible for her success.
"When I started Reserveage, I started with a focus as a consumer," she said.
"As a consumer, you just want to make a good choice on the multivitamin that you're putting into your mouth, on the price point and on the purity, and we have an incredible story to tell."
Whittel advises consumers to find out about the source of ingredients in supplements they're purchasing. "Call up their customer service and ask them how to read the supplement panel," she said.
Besides taking her own supplements, Whittel sips her favorite drink of kale, celery and cucumber during a workday. It helps her maintain her energy as she travels for business and cares for her family. She and her husband, Rob Whittel, a Boca Raton lawyer, have four children, ages 1 to 13.
Whittel she credits her stepfather for her introduction to business. He owned a plastics manufacturing company in Vermont. "He allowed me to shadow him, to sit in every meeting I wanted to at a very young age, and that provided me with a certain level of confidence concerning my level of curiosity," Whittel said.
She embraces the transition to public company CEO. "I do well under pressure," she said
From her Boca Raton office, Whittel oversees 260 employees, including those in Grand Rapids, Colo. Twinlab manufactures some 250 products including Daily One, a multivitamin offered in a soft capsule, and a collection of eye health products under Occuguard.
In 2015, Twinlab had sales of $81.67 million, up 33 percent from 2014. But its gross profit last quarter was primarily attributable to the acquisition of Reserveage and contract manufacturer Nutrascience Labs, according to Twinlab's quarterly filing in May. Twinlab trades over the counter; it's 52-week high was $1.75.
Whittel sees herself as more than a CEO. She also takes on the role of mentor to her employees, particularly women who are coming up the ranks, to give them the exposure and experience they need for personal growth. She also mentors Rachel Zietz, a teenage entrepreneur from Boca Raton who recently appeared on TV's "Shark Tank."
While becoming CEO of a public company is a challenging role, Whittel said she is approaching it with the same curiosity, passion and leadership she has at her own company.
"I'm always concerned. I believe that only the paranoid survive. I believe being concerned is a big part of success," she said.