Following one’s passion may not always turn out for the best, but there are two potential scenarios that can prove satisfying for the individual when that path is followed.
In the first case, when pursuing the dream doesn’t end as originally hoped, many times the individual can say, “Well, at least I gave it my best effort,” or “I’m glad I tried it and got it out of my system,” or a similar sentiment. Yes, there is some level of disappointment, but there is also something gained from the experience.
In the second case, everything falls into place, the dream becomes a reality, and the pursuit of the passion can only be described in one way: mission accomplished.
The latter description most accurately describes Bruce Reid, the owner and founder of The Vitamin Shop in Victoria, B.C. The success of his store is recognized industry-wide, and The Vitamin Shop is considered by many as one of the top retail operations in our industry. (The store was the inaugural recipient of the CHFA Retailer of the Year West Award in 1998.)
As the Vitamin Shop celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall, Bruce took a look back to the early days, and re-traces some of the steps that compelled him to take a chance on pursuing one of his passions – natural health.
“After graduating from high school I had many decent jobs, but none of them inspired me. I decided to follow my passion and entered the health food industry in 1979. My father, Jack, was a supplement advocate right from the beginning and, as a family, we were very health conscious.”
For the next four years, Bruce worked for the Viteway Bakery. He recalls it as “a famous store, a Victoria institution. Next to Lifestream (in Vancouver), it was the largest health food store in B.C. Viteway had incredible sprouted wheat bakery products, a huge supplement selection and a 100-seat organic restaurant. It was outrageously busy, standing room only. At the time, it was without question the number one supplement account in the country. If you ever wanted to go to university to learn an industry, you had arrived in Nirvana here.”
Joining Viteway proved pivotal for Bruce. It put him in a position to meet many key industry people, some who would be very influential in his career path for the years to come. Among them: Betty Butcher, a co-worker at Viteway, who would later join Bruce when he started The Vitamin Shop, and his future mother-in-law, Loro Brisdon, who Bruce credits with being instrumental in the creation of The Vitamin Shop.
A new direction
After a few years at Viteway, things changed – drastically. Bruce explains: “The economy turned very bad in the early 1980s, heavy inflation and super-high interest rates. People were feeling the pinch and watching their wallets. Viteway took on partners that didn’t see eye-to-eye with me so I left Viteway in 1983.” (as a side note, Bruce is proud to say he is still friends with the founder of Viteway, Lavone Landie who is now in her early 90’s.)
For the next year, Bruce drove a taxi in Victoria, “which I loved,” he says. Driving a cab gave him a chance to ponder his future, and think about what he wanted to do for the rest of his working life. One day, his career path became very clear to him. “I made the decision in early 1984 that I wanted to open up my own business. I knew it couldn’t be like Viteway. There was so much overhead, so much spoilage and waste with the produce and restaurant. I also knew there was very little profit in produce, food and organic restaurants. At this time, there was a huge mark-up on vitamins, usually 100 per cent or more. The economy was bad. I decided the business had to be a one-person operation, a very small leasehold and high profit, with supplements only.”
In April 1984, he found the perfect location - 780 sq. ft. in size – and just one block away from the two largest health stores in Victoria. “I was nervous. My mother lent me most of the money, and I mortgaged every asset I had.” At the same time, he was also confident. One thing Bruce brought to the equation was a deeply rooted sense of how a business should operate. “I was raised in an entrepreneurial family. Both my parents, Barbara and Jack, were self-made, private business owners. I was able to learn business acumen by observing their success.”
A successful debut
The plan for the store was to maximize the space and minimize potential inconvenience. “I constructed the store with eye-level shelving only, with storage cupboards below so I didn’t have to leave the sales floor to re-stock. To promote the opening, I put a 3” by 4” ad in a popular weekly magazine and set my mark-up at 50 per cent. Loro helped me open the store on September 18, 1984.”
According to Bruce, his plan worked, much to his joy and probably his relief. “The Vitamin Shop was a success from the first day it opened. My objective now was to assemble the highest quality staff possible. My first employee was Lucretia Harper (now Lucretia Schanfarber of Prairie Naturals). She was a real professional and I learned a lot from her. I was able to hire Betty Butcher in 1985 and Loro’s daughter, Jenica – now my wife – in 1986. Betty and Jenica co-managed the store. In 1987, I was able to acquire the leasehold next door and expanded the store to 1,480 sq. ft. By the end of 1988, we were the largest supplement store on Vancouver Island.”
One of the biggest steps undertaken by Bruce and The Vitamin Shop team also occured in 1987, when they established a national mail order service. This proved to be very successful, with qualified product advisors answering the phones and projecting The Vitamin Shop beyond Vancouver Island.
Over the following decade, Bruce recalls, there was tremendous growth for the natural health industry and for The Vitamin Shop. “We acquired almost the entire second floor of the building to inventory and process store and mail orders. We now had almost 30 employees and according to our suppliers, we were the number one supplement account in the country.”
It was just after the “dot com” crash and Y2K scare that The Vitamin Shop took on its next challenge: the launching of its ecommerce website in 2000. “It was an enormous job and almost no one in Canada was doing this at this time,” recalled Bruce. “Ecommerce is now the highest growth area of our business.”
Looking back over the three decades of The Vitamin Shop, Bruce says it was a number of elements coming together that resulted in its success. “We had a good plan: high volume, and simple product to handle with consistent margins due to volume purchasing. We’ve had absolutely amazing management and staff and loyal, knowledgeable customers. We have been able to establish wonderful relationships with suppliers that not only provide us with sensational products, but helped us with all aspects of merchandising and educational support.”
Support from a strong team
Another factor that has played in the store’s success, explains Bruce, is there has been no need for any major changes to its operating model. “The Vitamin Shop still operates in a three-department format: bricks and mortar retail store, national mail order and ecommerce.”
If a store’s success can be partly judged on the tenure of its staff members, then The Vitamin Shop would find itself at the top of virtually any ranking. Earlier, it was mentioned Bruce worked with Betty Butcher at Viteway and she eventually came and joined him at The Vitamin Shop. Betty – the store’s general manager – has been a mainstay for 29 years. Bruce’s wife Jenica Brisdon has been on staff for 28 years. The other team members who have 20 or more years of service include floor manager Bonnie Eleniuk (23 years), advertising and promotions manager Renee Wilson (23), assistant general manager Doug Hart (21) and product advisor Kristin Jeffrey (20).
Other long-serving team members include product advisor Liisa Plank (18 years), mail order manager Ajay Sahota (15), comptroller Shelley Hansen (15), Jelena Gibson of the mail order department (13), product advisor Debby Waters (nine) and shipping manager Jamie Martin (seven).
One of the benefits for Bruce of having such a strong team in place is it allowed him a chance to become an active contributor to the industry Canada-wide, volunteering as a member of the CHFA board of directors from 1986 to 1995, including a two year period (1995-1997) as CHFA vice-president West. He felt that at that time, CHFA needed a major change in direction, and he campaigned hard for Willie Pelzer’s bid to be president in 1992. Willie served as president until 1997. In 1995, Bruce sponsored Donna Herringer as a director for the CHFA. “She later served as a two-term president during very dynamic times,” he recalled.
During his time on the CHFA board, Bruce became deeply involved in the earliest stages of regulatory affairs. He was instrumental in bringing members together to discuss options and plan their future course. “Realizing that we were at a cross-road in legitimizing our industry, I helped facilitate the initial liaison between the manufacturers in our industry to work together on regulatory affairs. This culminated with a meeting with many manufacturers present. I facilitated this meeting with the result being the creation of the Manufacturers Council, which rapidly evolved and morphed into the CHFA Regulatory Affairs that we know today.”
Bruce has had the privilege of inducting three industry leaders into the CHFA Hall of Fame: Barrie Carlsen, Willie Pelzer and Roland Gahler. He also introduced Dr. Abram Hoffer, creator of orthomolecular medicine (which spawned the birth of the vitamin industry) to the CHFA. Dr. Hoffer was named to the CHFA Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bruce met Dr. Hoffer in 1988. A local charitable organization called “Cancer Victors and Friends” organized a public lecture with Dr. Hoffer at Camosun College in Victoria. “The entire theatre was jammed to capacity with the crowd spilling out into the hallway. This was where I met both Dr. Hoffer and Renee Wilson, who was president of Cancer Victors. I later served as president of Cancer Victors and together with Renee we arranged many other public lectures which included Charlotte Gerson from the famed Gerson Clinic in Mexico.” A few years later, Renee was destined to join The Vitamin Shop team, in 1991.
Dr. Hoffer’s International Schizophrenia Foundation has been very important to Bruce. He served as a volunteer director from 1999 to 2008, and held the post of secretary treasurer, focusing on fundraising and finances to ensure the continuance of orthomolecular psychiatry and orthomolecular medicine. He sponsored a group of industry leaders to attend Dr. Hoffer’s 90th birthday Gala in Toronto, all in the effort to raise awareness in the natural health industry about where its scientific roots originated. Over the years he has been “a bridge” between the vitamin industry and orthomolecular medicine.
“Working my passion”
Following his heart and taking a big gamble in 1984 has been the success Bruce had originally envisioned. His store is among the most successful in Canada, garnering awards both national and local in scope. His team is solid, educated and dedicated, and it seems as if one of them wins a prestigious industry award every year. He began with a simple model and did not deviate from it, just tinkered with it here and there to keep things running smoothly. The things Bruce has done with The Vitamin Shop have all been geared to separate him from his competition, and give his customers a health food store experience unlike any other they have seen. “I think the most important part in starting a successful business is being different than everyone else. There has to be a reason why customers are attracted to you over other stores. I was able to create The Vitamin Shop because I was working my passion. The supplement industry is in the midst of very challenging times. The traditional landscape has changed. As merchants, we must recognize and respond to these changes but at the same time we must hold close to us the passion, the information and the customer service that keep customers coming, no matter what the demographic changes. Taking charge of yourself and your family’s health will transcend any generational or demographic trend.”
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