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Vita Health celebrates 75 years

Vita Health Fresh Markets in Winnipeg, Manitoba is proof positive that great things can come from modest beginnings.

Starting as a small mail order company in 1936, and growing to a full fledged retail business with six thriving and successful health food stores in 2011, Vita Health has definitely come a long way in it’s 75 years.

It all began when founder G.W Seier started selling various herbs and patented medicines via mail order. That little company soon evolved into the first Vita Health retail store and later a manufacturing facility.

In 1970, G.W Seier’s son-in-law John Holtmann joined the family business working various positions until he eventually became national sales manager.

The company continued to prosper and grew to several stores. Then in 1997, it was sold to a California company, Leiner Health Products. The next year (1998), John bought back the retail stores, wanting to keep them as a family-owned company.

Under John’s leadership, Vita Health’s brand continued to flourish. Recently, John retired from his position as president and appointed his son Mathew Holtmann to lead the third generation local family business. And like his father and grandfather before him, Mathew says he is committed to carrying on Vita Health’s legacy. “Vita Health’s founder Gerhard Seier was ahead of his time when he started in the health food business in 1936. Since that time, Vita Health has maintained its commitment of promoting optimal health through sharing knowledge of natural health products, empowering our customers to make informed choices, and providing products and services of the highest quality.”

Empowering customers

And the one constant throughout has not only been empowering customers to make informed choices but to allow them to also have a say in what the future Vita Health would look like. In 2000, after being primarily a supplement only-retail business, Vita Health sold its first-ever organic produce and it was customer feedback that led to this major shift in product selection.

“We wanted to focus more on healthy lifestyles and queried customers about what types of offerings they’d like to see in our stores,” says Brenda Comte, general manager of Vita Health. “Customer demand has definitely led the shift in our product mix.”

Mathew says they are constantly trying to meet customer demands and as a result have continued to expand their offerings to include not only organic food but environmentally-friendly, raw food and locally produced products.

John and Mathew’s vision of the Fresh Market format has enabled Vita Health to grow at unprecedented rates, says Brenda. “With more customers visiting weekly for their organic groceries, we have more opportunities to impress them with all our offerings in the supplements and health and beauty categories as well.”

But the shift to produce came with its challenges, one of which was getting the message out to customers. With some trial and error, a fresh re-brand and some help and expertise from the Health First Network, the message was received.

“We’ve learned a lot since we sold our first organic produce,” says Brenda. “In 2007, we re-branded ourselves with a new name, logo and store look. We’ve always been known for vitamins but struggled with getting our message out that we have food. We feel that our new name – Vita Health Fresh Market – the clean, updated logo with the apple and our store format (walking right into the produce section) have done a lot to address that issue.”

Keeping the business fresh and new is one reason why Vita Health has lasted as long as it has. While some businesses are more than happy to keep the status quo, Mathew has a different perspective on how to keep customers coming back and business thriving.

“I would have to say it’s our ability to stay relevant that has kept customers coming back. No one wants to shop in a store that looks the same as it did 10 years ago. We are constantly adapting our product mix, striving to carry products that reflect the newest research and technology, whether they are foods or supplements.”

For Brenda, another secret to Vita Health’s success and longevity has been the people. With over 20 of their 80 staff on their “wall of fame,” she says John always taught them that if you invest in staff, you can’t go wrong. Celebrating 75 years in business, it appears that little piece of advice and investment has definitely paid off.

“Our stores have worked so hard to create communities,” says Brenda. “We have also built up trust with our consumers and when you do that, word spreads. We still get stories about our founder, G.W. Seier and how he took things out of peoples carts, stating they didn’t need it. If we only focused on making a sale and not the customers’ needs, we would lose that trust factor instantly.”

Listen to staff and customers

And after working with such a successful retail operation for 16 years, Brenda too has some advice she would offer. First and foremost, listen. Listen to staff, to customers, to industry professionals and to peers.

“Networking can provide so many benefits, from reassuring you that everyone else is also experiencing the same things, that you’re not alone, to assisting you with ideas for future plans – the benefits are endless. People will tell you what you need to know, you just need to be listening.”

Secondly, she says pay close attention to the “numbers.” Analysis is key, so doing weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual reports are important. “The reports tell us everything from what demographics are up or down, what categories are on fire, customer count and average sale analysis down to who buys what, how often and where. Investing in an integrated POS system that can do it all seamlessly is very important so that you have the data at your fingertips.”

For Mathew, it goes back to keeping things moving and changing. He has been with Vita full time for five years and although he recognizes that the stores have grown and come a long way in that time, he still believes there is a lot of room for growth. So, it’s not surprising that his advice to other retailers who wish to attain the kind of longevity and success that Vita has is to simply keep changing.

“Always keep an open mind and never be afraid to change. Inspiration can and often does come from the most unlikely places. For a business to be growing it must be continually improving. The status quo is never acceptable.” •


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