The Bay Area-grown Shaklee Corp. is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary manufacturing vitamins, nutritional supplements, home- and personal-care products as its new owner is preparing to expand the business from a $500 million company serving five countries to a $5 billion one serving 50 countries.
"We’ve doubled the number of people who are joining us every month for the past year," said CEO Roger Barnett, who in 2004 bought the formerly-public Pleasanton company from Japanese firm Astellas Pharma Inc., formerly Yamanouchi. "The big-picture concept of what we’re trying to do with this company is larger than just being in the vitamin business. We have been a model … about how business can be a force for positive change in the world."
Barnett sees Shaklee’s mission, as established by Dr. Forrest Shaklee in 1956, as helping others enrich themselves through promoting healthy living: from vitamins and supplements to give people more energy to one of the country’s first natural, plant-based home cleaning products, created in 1960.
The "others enriching themselves" part stems from the fact that Shaklee is a multi-level marketing company: its products are sold through 750,000 "members and distributors" who sell to consumers and recruit other salespeople to sell the products, taking a commission off their sales. But Shaklee is a different animal than other such companies, according to Robert Fitzgerald, the president of consumer activist group Pyramid Scheme Alert.
"Shaklee is a company that we’ve received almost no inquiries about," Fitzgerald said. "We consider it … a company that stands apart from other multi-level marketing companies. [There’s] more emphasis on retailing."
For its anniversary Aug. 17 at the Moscone Center, it’s promoting its beyond-the-business "whole health" actions, from its ongoing sponsorship of arctic and Antarctic explorer Will Steger to the donation of $100,000 to 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement that will enable her to plant 1 million more trees in Kenya. Maathai will give the keynote speech at Shaklee’s conference.
The company, the first to be certified as "climate neutral" by the nonprofit Climate Neutral Network organization for Shaklee’s efforts to neutralize its pollution and energy use, is also endeavoring to make its conference free from contributions to global warming by planting trees in Golden Gate Park, eschewing disposable containers and other efforts.
Barnett also will unveil further social goals for the company, which sees malnourishment at the root of ills ranging from unproductivity to violence. He hinted at them in an interview Thursday, talking about efforts to improve nutrition in Africa and other developing countries by making vitamins to meet African peoples’ nutritional needs at a price they can afford, and which Africans can sell to each other, creating business opportunities.
"We think we can use our nutrition products in Africa," he said. "We have sent one of our senior scientists to work with the Millenium Villages [an Earth Institute at Columbia University project]."
By Kate Williamson
San Francisco resident Maggie Wei is not just a lean, incandescent-with-enthusiasm advertisement for the benefits of taking more than six pills a day plus a protein shake of Shaklee products.
She’s also an important part of Shaklee’s goals for the future. The company is actively working on receiving permission from the Chinese government to recruit distributors in China, a health-conscious country of 1.3 billion people. When or if it receives that permission, Wei will already be there. She may be a successful "distributor" in the U.S. with around 40 people recruited under her, but she has many more direct customers from among her family and friends in her native country.
"If you’re healthier, you have more energy — people can really see that," she said, adding that she gets compliments that she looks better and better every time she visits Jiang Su province.
Wei came to the U.S. from China in 1995 at age 22 to pursue her college degree but was unsatisfied with corporate life after she graduated, she said. In 2004, relatives of her husband Tom Robarge spoke to her about Shaklee, in part because she had contacts in China, she said. She tried the vitamins and said they led to exercise — something she hadn’t done in years.
"I had no knowledge of keeping myself in good shape. I was tired all the time," she said. Later, she added, "I had more energy and better brain clarity, so I was confident enough to start a business. The vitamins alone gave me a good start."
Now she and Robarge use considerably more than the vitamins: an estimated $300 or more a month of Shaklee products: dishwashing and dishwasher detergents, skin care, omega 3 supplements "even though I eat fish very often," a six-pill "Shaklee Basics" packet and a protein drink, plus the "Physique" product when she was prepping for and recovering from a marathon in Boston.