Picture This: July 2014 — Nature gets nurtured

Back to July 2014 issue

Nature gets nurtured

An herbal-supplement company in Brevard strives to make Mother Nature's best better.

Brevard-based Gaia Herbs Inc. built its 45,000-square-foot headquarters in the shape of an eagle. The theory is its outstretched wings absorb energy from the sun and transfer it to those working inside. That style of building is part of Sthapatya Veda, Indian principles of architecture based on the laws of nature and championed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to The Beatles. This might sound like hippie mumbo-jumbo, but it’s one of Gaia founder and CEO Ric Scalzo’s core beliefs, and it’s difficult to argue with success. His company, which sold $32 million of health supplements in 2013, sprouted from a 200-square-foot office in 1987. “Disruption is apparent everywhere in business with respect to nature. I like to think we don’t disrupt nature but improve the tilth of the earth.”

Gaia doesn’t leave Mother Nature to her own devices. It has poured millions of dollars into research and development, combining Eastern medicine with plant physiology and science. An in-house lab uses high-pressure liquid chromatography, inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry and other fancy-sounding methods of measuring crop composition to ensure that, for example, the polysaccharides in echinacea — an herb that enhances the immune system, relieves pain and reduces inflammation — are at optimal potency. “We’re essentially observing the forces of nature as they develop these chemistries in the plant and then harvesting the plant at the right time, when it has reached its peak of activity,” Scalzo, 60, says.

A Massachusetts native who became interested in spiritual development after college, Scalzo graduated from The School of Natural Healing in Springville, Utah, in 1982. He returned to New England to work as a clinical herbalist before starting what became Gaia in 1987 in Harvard, Mass., where he and an apprentice bottled elixirs. The company relocated to a larger Bay State site five years later and began growing its own crops. It moved to the Brevard farm in 1997 because the region’s climate is habitable to 80% of plants grown in the U.S., and it’s within an hour of Asheville, so the 20 employees who came from Massachusetts would have access to urban culture. Gaia has created about 180 jobs locally, where it grows about 30% of its annual crop. The rest comes from its farm in Costa Rica and contracts with growers. It also is planning a farm in China.

Sales of nutritional supplements in the U.S. totaled $11.5 billion in 2012 and are projected to reach $15.5 billion in 2017, according to a division of Rockville, Md.-based Market Research Group LLC. Over the last five years, Gaia has rebranded, debuting packaging, logos and products. It made a “very, very substantial” investment in an online search tool that tracks supplements from leaf to container. (Customers who spend $29.99 for 60 pills to treat stress want to know where their Ashwagandha root comes from.) “We’re not your cheapest brand on the market,” Scalzo says. “We’re your quality brand.” The swell in the market — driven by an aging population looking for alternatives to expensive prescription drugs — and the company’s new offerings have ushered in back-to-back years of unprecedented sales growth of about 20%. It’s on track for a similar rise in 2014. “I’m a clinical herbalist first,” Scalzo says, “but I’ve really become very savvy in business because that’s what happens when you grow a business with $32 million in sales.”

— Spencer Campbell