Natural Foods Merchandiser

Herbal Cowboy

"Never ask a man if he's from Texas. If he is, he'll tell you on his own. If he ain't, no need to embarrass him."

—Popular Texas saying

If Mark Blumenthal hadn't settled in Austin, Texas, more than 40 years ago, chances are that Austin would have found a way to come to him. In many ways, Blumenthal and Austin are intertwined. They're both cowboy yet hippie, bawdy yet sophisticated, smart yet humble. They both have international, cutting-edge reputations—Austin in the high-tech industry and Blumenthal in the herbal supplements field. And they both serve as a type of oasis—Austin literally, with its green and undulating hills rising out of the seemingly endless, dusty, flat central Texas landscape, and Blumenthal figuratively, as a knowledgeable and unbiased resource rising above the squabbles and misconceptions in the world of traditional medicine.

Like Austin, Blumenthal is fun, friendly and filled with energy. At their best, they both inspire a sense of compassion and a desire to give back to their communities. In Austin, it seems possible to live life according to one of Blumenthal's credos: "If a glass has only got this much water in it," he says, holding his fingers an inch apart, "it's still one-tenth full."

So it's no surprise that when it came time for Blumenthal to create the nonprofit herb research and education organization that would become his life's work, he chose to do it in Austin. But how Blumenthal and the American Botanical Council made their mark on Austin and the world beyond is a tale as big and heartwarming as all of Texas.

Ancestral knowledge
There's no arguing that the 61-year-old Blumenthal is a complex man. He'll slide into his low-slung 1999 Mitsubishi 3000GT sports car to take you to lunch at one of Austin's organic restaurants, where he'll encourage a guest who's craving a hamburger, even though he's a dedicated vegetarian. Despite a constantly vibrating BlackBerry, he'll take the time to give a mother and her house-hunting daughter at a nearby table directions to the airport and a primer on Austin real estate. Throughout the lunch, he'll effortlessly recall research and folklore about even the most esoteric herbs. He'll debate about which fork to use—he's eating a salad, which would call for a salad fork, but it's an entrée, which would call for the larger fork—while telling you a joke about how to get a nun pregnant. And then he'll wink to let you know it's OK to laugh.

But to truly understand Blumenthal, you have to understand his legacy. Not just his personal legacy in the herbal world, but his family's legacy as well. His belief in the power of ancestry shapes everything he does. It drives his work at ABC, whether he's editing a research paper for his scholarly magazine HerbalGram, making one of the dozens of presentations he gives each year to organizations and businesses about herbs, or serving as a spokesman to worldwide news organizations about the efficacy and safety of herbs. To Blumenthal, herbs symbolize the tradition he grew up with and still values today. "Herbs represent the collective heritage of our planet," he says. "The use of plants and plant parts for medicine and food is part of what we've inherited from our ancestors."

From his own ancestors, Blumenthal inherited his Texas roots and a sense of community. His great-grandfather on his mother's side, Albert Mathias, emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1888. "I have at home his right of safe conduct [document] to travel through New Mexico territory, signed by Secretary of State James G. Blaine," Blumenthal says. Mathias "sold whatever he could up and down the Rio Grande between El Paso and Albuquerque via horse and buggy when he started out, eventually developing a small dry goods company," Blumenthal says. In the 1920s, Mathias became the exclusive distributor for Zenith vacuum tubes in New Mexico, and by 1927, he had enough cash to finance what became Conrad Hilton's first hotel.

Blumenthal's maternal grandfather, Maurice Schwartz, who emigrated from Hungary to El Paso in 1898 at age 16, was equally successful. He started a small business, the Popular Dry Goods Co., which, according to family lore, was the largest department store between Dallas, Denver and Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1960s. "Everyone shopped there—ranchers, the president of Mexico, the governor of Chihuahua, who bought an alligator purse for his wife and a mink stole for his casa chiquita," Blumenthal says with a wink. The Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was also a customer, buying clothing for himself and his soldados. Schwartz even loaned Villa thousands of dollars to help him make his payroll. "In gratitude, Villa repaid the loan by sending a boxcar full of silver bullion, and allowed my grandfather to take as much silver as he wanted. My grandfather, according to the El Paso Times and family history, went with his lawyer and banker, counted out the exact amount of silver owed, resealed the boxcar still full of silver ingots, and sent it back across the border to Juarez," Blumenthal says. "No one mentioned that it was obviously stolen from Mexican silver mines."

Schwartz devoted his energies to more than just commerce, however. He started the United Fund of El Paso, helped launch the Boy Scouts of El Paso, and funded a college that would eventually become the University of Texas at El Paso. Blumenthal's socialite grandmother was equally involved in her city, as was his mother, who worked to desegregate El Paso two years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, and helped start the local Meals on Wheels program. Blumenthal's family inspired a fundamental force in him—a desire to give more than he receives. "They taught me a sense of social ethics, social responsibility, to give back to the community," he says.

While Blumenthal's mother's side of the family taught him to value his roots, his father's side taught him the importance of an immigrant heritage. His father emigrated from Germany in 1933, but other relatives weren't as fortunate. "Some of my mother's family was in Auschwitz. Two twin cousins were Mengele experimentees," Blumenthal says quietly. "It's chutzpah to me to even think I know what it's like to go through that."

Being the son of an immigrant gives him "all the benefits of being in a family connected to the old country in an old way, just like Italians or Hispanics or Vietnamese or Polish or Irish," Blumenthal says. It also improved his conversational skills—at home, the young Mark spoke German, Spanish and Yiddish along with English, and he is still fluent in Spanish.

Blumenthal's father died last spring at age 94, a loss that still pains him. One of Blumenthal's most treasured possessions is a simple gold ring he inherited from his dad. "It's gold melted from his grandparents' wedding bands. My dad wore it for 75 years and the energy goes back four generations," he says. "Anybody would be happy with their grandparent's gold on their finger. It's one of the few things I would die defending—if I met someone in a dark alley I'd say, 'Let me take you to the cash machine, here are my credit cards, just don't take my ring.'"

Blumenthal calls his 84-year-old mother in El Paso every night, and visits her once a month. Despite his busy schedule at ABC, he took off four months last year to be with his dying father. And whenever one of the ABC staff needs time off for a family issue, he extends leave without question. "My sister had a stroke in July and Mark was the first to tell me, 'Go, go be with her,' " says Nancy Moon, Blumenthal's executive assistant. "Family always comes first for Mark."

They say it's your birthday

The Blumenthals are still one of the first families of El Paso, and Mark grew up with the privileges of wealth. His grandparents' home was staffed with maids, a cook, a gardener and chauffeur, plus a German governess and housekeeper, fondly nicknamed Ogar, who raised Mark, his younger brother and even his mother. "I always thought everyone had an oma (grandmother), opa (grandfather) and an Ogar," he says.

Good manners and social skills are prized in his family, and complement Blumenthal's innate kindness and consideration toward others. "He writes more personalized thank-you notes that any Southern belle you'd ever meet," Moon jokes. When a friend has a child, he sends a nursery lamp and a letter to the child congratulating him or her on choosing such great parents. When someone he knows buys their first home, he sends a fire extinguisher with a note: "Happy housewarming. I hope you never have to use my gift."

"It's saying 'I want to support you in protecting your investment and your family,'" he says. "It's the marketing side of me—figuring out what's important to people and what will make a difference."

But Blumenthal's friends say these personal touches are much more than just marketing gimmicks. "I've known few people like him who are so caring and put out so much personal energy," says Christopher Hobbs, an author and co-founder of the American School of Herbalism in Santa Cruz, Calif. "He'll go into a store to buy a drink and if the person at the checkout has a nametag, he'll use their name, look them in the eyes, smile and make a really personal connection with them. I've read that the Dalai Lama takes the time to make people feel special, and that's what Mark does too."

Blumenthal also makes 50 to 60 birthday phone calls each month to his wide circle of friends and associates. "He's the only person who calls me every birthday," says Joseph Pizzorno, N.D., founder of Bastyr University of naturopathic medicine. "He always says something that's slightly insulting but endearing, and he calls me by his nickname for me, 'pizza oven,' which is the English translation of Pizzorno. He's the only person I know who took the time to figure that out."

Blumenthal says he started calling people on their birthdays rather than during the holidays because "a lot of people get holiday cards, but as people get older, their birthdays become less important. And yet it's your birthday—it's your day.

"A lot of people tell me it's remarkable that I always remember to call them on their birthday, but I don't think it is. It's just what I like doing; I look forward to it. Plus it's a way of keeping connected to people I've known all my life."

War and peace
When Blumenthal graduated from high school in 1964, he was intellectually qualified to go to any college in the country. "I've always thought he was one of the most acuminate young men I've ever met. He's sharp as a tack," says Jim Duke, a Phi Beta Kappa member with a Ph.D. in botany and former chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Botany Laboratory.

But Blumenthal chose to stay close to family, enrolling in the University of Texas at Austin to major in political science and philosophy. "Studying philosophy is all about learning how to think," he says. "I love thinking in domains that appear to be grounded in fact."

With the Vietnam War raging, Blumenthal planned to evade the draft by enrolling in graduate school. He had been accepted at the University of Michigan to study political science, but two months before his graduation from UT, the government abolished the grad school draft exemption. Frantically, he took an incomplete in a Hellenistic philosophy class, postponing his graduation, and signed up for a job as a teacher in a low-income San Antonio, Texas, school district in the hopes of getting an occupational draft deferment. After the draft board nixed those plans, Blumenthal was able to land a coveted spot in the Army Reserve. He and a friend were assigned to a Las Cruces, N.M., Army petroleum-transportation unit, where Blumenthal worked as a clerk/typist before he was transferred to a Houston medical unit doing riot control training. "It was right before Kent State," he remembers. After serving in the Reserves for a year and a half, Blumenthal managed to convince an Army psychiatrist he was not fit for active service because he was the son of a Jewish man from Germany.

During this time, Blumenthal made a life-changing decision: He gave up eating meat. "I decided to become a vegetarian in protest of the war," he says. He rationalized that if he couldn't take a human life, he shouldn't take an animal's life either. But making that commitment meant figuring out how to eat a balanced, nutritious vegetarian diet. After he was discharged from the Reserves, Blumenthal moved back to Austin to help a friend run an ice cream truck business, and became a frequent customer at the city's two health food stores, The Health Kitchen and Austin Natural Foods.

It's no surprise that a fan of family ancestry like Blumenthal would be fascinated by the herbal traditions he learned from the staff of those stores. "They taught me to see the folklore behind herbs," he says, "that the system of medicine in indigenous cultures is as compelling as modern science." Blumenthal bought his first herb book, The Herbalist by Joseph Meyer (Meyerbooks, originally published 1918), and began his 40-year study of herbal medicine.

"I'm completely self-trained. I've never taken a botany course, a chemistry course, and the only biology and physiology I had was in high school. I'm totally unqualified by formal training for what I do," Blumenthal jokes, but then turns serious. "Sometimes interest and passion and enthusiasm can be better than formal training."

Others say Blumenthal's being too modest. "I'm amazed at the breadth of his knowledge," Jim Duke says. "He's very attentive, very fast to learn, like a sponge." Adds renowned ethnobotanist and author Mark Plotkin: "Mark knows his stuff—everybody goes to him for information on plants. I ask him stuff and I have a Ph.D. in botany."

Communal business
At the dawn of the 1970s, Blumenthal was so disillusioned by the war and his Army Reserve stint that all he wanted to do "was get the hell out of society." He moved to northern New Mexico and joined the Tree Frog commune. "I wasn't doing it as a utopian, socialist ideal," he says. "I just wanted to disappear." He lived in the commune for two years, smoking pot, growing his hair long and basically living a hippie ideal. "My family was not amused," he says. "I think my parents didn't think I was compos mentos." His father went so far as to disown him, "but that changed when I provided a grandchild," Blumenthal says. He married a fellow communer named Su when he was 25, and became father to Eva within a year. (Blumenthal also has another daughter from a different relationship, Merope, 13, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her mother. Eva, 35, lives in New York City).

With a family to support, Blumenthal left the commune and launched a wholesale herb-distribution business called Sweethardt Herbs, and the first all-natural salsa manufacturing company, HotChaCha! An entrepreneur since he had his first paper route at age 14, working for someone else didn't appeal to him. "I think there are two kinds of people—visionaries and managers—and I'm the former," he says. But the Sweethardt entrepreneurial venture wasn't a sweetheart deal: The company couldn't withstand the competition from larger distributors, and the business went into foreclosure in 1986. Blumenthal became an herbal consultant to companies he owed money to, and found other ways to pay off his remaining debts. "It was hard, but I sleep well at night, plus I have lots of friends," he says. "And some of the biggest donors [ABC] has today were people I paid off back then."

The foreclosure came two years after he split with his partner, Jacquelyn Small. They met in 1976, after the end of Blumenthal's brief marriage, at a movement-therapy workshop. Small was suffering from medical problems that would eventually lead to a hysterectomy, and Blumenthal offered her some traditional remedies. "He lured me with a pretty little van full of herbs," Small says with a laugh. Twelve years Blumenthal's senior, Small was an ex-Junior Leaguer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who had been married to a prominent attorney. "Mark's lifestyle appealed to me—I knew I needed to make a big change—and I was fascinated to be part of building the [herbal supplements] movement," she says. Small had founded the Eupsychia Institute and Press the year before she met Blumenthal, offering training and books that help people with emotional healing and personal transformation, and she quickly saw that Blumenthal's healing energy complemented hers.

Small says that when she met Blumenthal, she sensed he needed "an older woman—someone who could just let him be." She believes any partner of Blumenthal's would need to understand that "Mark's a type of dreamer who when he gets a dream and a vision, he just goes for it. He doesn't let negative thinking stop him. The shadow side of that is he can be very intense and he expects a lot of people." She laughingly recalls when she wrote him a love letter and "he red-penciled it. I said, 'Mark, you're editing a love letter!' and he took it as a compliment."

Soon after they met, Blumenthal was sending out invitations for a "merger party" between Sweethardt Herbs and Eupsychian Press. But after eight years, the merger failed. "I'm a Virgo and Jacquie is a Leo. One of us was unfaithful to the other. You'd think it would be the Leo, but it wasn't," Blumenthal says. "Jacquie is the kind of woman who takes care of herself, so she left."

With his good looks, charm and compassionate personality, Blumenthal is a babe magnet. "He loves people, loves women, and that's the type of person women want to be with," says Peggy Brevoort, an ABC board member and co-founder of East Earth Herb. But Blumenthal learned his lesson. "If I were in a state of denial, I couldn't be so forthcoming about what happened with Jacquie," he says.

Although Small and Blumenthal would reconnect in 1994 and are still together today (Blumenthal jokes that they "failed at divorce"), the back-to-back breakup and bankruptcy taught Blumenthal humility. "It was kind of like an accelerated course in letting go," he says. "I used to be a real judgmental Virgo, but losing my business and the divorce were two of the best things that happened to me. It turned me into a human being."

One of Blumenthal's most endearing characteristics is his audacious, clever and bawdy sense of humor, but Hobbs says that in the '80s, "there was a bit of an edge to Mark, a bit of irony and sarcasm. He would ride that edge and it could be real challenging to be around him. But that changed and he just became sweeter and sweeter to where just being around him felt good. It's been amazing to see the slow transformation in him."

Learning his ABCs
By the late 1980s, Blumenthal was a successful herbal consultant, but he felt like he could do more. He had begun publishing a newsletter called Herb News in 1977, which morphed into the quarterly journal HerbalGram in 1983. HerbalGram was a pioneer—the first U.S. publication to report on the growing body of herbal literature and scientific research—but Blumenthal had an idea to make it bigger and better. "I wanted to create the Scientific American of herbs, with high production values and peer-reviewed, highly referenced content," he says. So he founded ABC in 1988 to take HerbalGram to the next level.

Blumenthal is uniquely qualified to head up a nonprofit that would eventually become a voice for the herbal medicine community. He was, at various times, co-founder and vice president of the Herb Research Foundation, president of the Herb Trade Association, founding board member of the American Herbal Products Association and an adjunct associate professor of medicinal chemistry at UT's College of Pharmacy. Combine that with his entrepreneurial experience, extensive connections in the herbal medicine field, marketing skills and tireless enthusiasm for all things herbal, and it's no surprise that ABC has become a bridge between the various factions in traditional medicine and the world beyond.

"Because Mark's a very effective communicator and a very effective relationship builder, he makes the whole area of natural health less threatening to people, and he's opened more doors to the conventional medical community than anyone else I know," Pizzorno says.

Blumenthal assembled a respected board of trustees and a varied stakeholder group to launch ABC, including representatives from academia, government, industry, health care, botanical groups and arboreta. His goal was not to be a trade association that promotes an industry and lobbies for its members, but rather a nonprofit that "serves the public interest as we see and define it—an independent herbal think tank committed to the public welfare regarding natural medicine as related to plants."

Certainly, sucking up to industry would have helped ABC in the early days, when "it was very hard to raise money in the herb world, and HerbalGram cost a lot to produce," says Lynda LeMole, a longtime friend of Blumenthal's and executive director of the nonprofit United Plant Savers. Joking that he should write a book called How to Live on a Shoestring While Wearing Sandals, Blumenthal started ABC in his Austin home with two employees who were paid out of the fees he collected from his consulting work. "But ABC kept growing and growing because he put all his energy into it," says Cecelia Thompson, ABC's finance coordinator and an early employee. Eventually, Blumenthal had a staff of 20 crammed into his house, with only the master bedroom as his personal space.

Even after ABC moved to its current headquarters, the 2.5-acre historic Case Mill Homestead in east Austin, 10 years ago, "there was no clear delineation between the 'work Mark' and the 'at-home Mark'," says Matthew Magruder, art director for HerbalGram. A perfectionist with a love for etymology, Blumenthal will edit and re-edit a manuscript, soliciting an average of two to five peer reviews per article. "He's tireless," says his partner Small. "He gets up every morning at 4:30 or 5 and works straight through until 9 or 10 p.m. When people meet Mark superficially, they'll joke and call him a type-A person, but when you're doing your life's work, it's a passion, it's not workaholism."

Blumenthal relies on that tirelessness and his personal credibility to promote ABC. "He never compromises his ethics and morals," says Terry Lemerond, president and CEO of EuroPharma, a Green Bay, Wis.-based supplements manufacturer. "I think everybody trusts Mark because he's direct and will give you an honest answer."

Blumenthal admits that keeping that reputation and credibility is a "constant battle. We walk a tightrope between the interests of industry and consumers and the scientific and research community." Adds Hobbs: "Herbalists criticize him as being too scientific, and companies criticize him for being soft on herbs. He's able to empathize with different points of view, but he doesn't pander to them and tell them what they want to hear. He takes a balanced approach, and he's done it with a lot of grace and fortitude and perspicacity."

One of the benefits to walking that tightrope is that Blumenthal has become "one of the very few spokespersons in our industry that we can rely on," Lemerond says. Blumenthal is widely quoted by international news organizations on herbal matters, has appeared on more than 400 radio and television shows, and frequently writes articles for health publications. He is also the senior editor of ABC's English translation of The Complete German Commission E Monographs, Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs and The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs.

"As far as the herb business and herb world goes, Mark has become the most influential person in the country in interfacing with regulators and the media," says Ed Smith, founder of Herb Pharm, an organic herbal extract company in Williams, Ore. "He can diffuse an erroneous report on CNN, The Washington Post or The New York Times, which is very valuable to our industry and ultimately makes us money."

Blumenthal also leads herbal education trips to the Amazon, Africa, Central America and Europe. Last year, he spent 129 days on the road, mostly for speaking and consulting jobs for ABC. "All of his board of directors try their darndest to keep him from traveling as much, but Mark is such a goodwill ambassador and a very good asset for ABC," Duke says.

ABC is a good asset for Blumenthal as well. Although he could have made much more money in the for-profit world, Brevoort believes that "ABC has clarified Mark, focused him where he's doing his best work. Some people like to sell things, and some people like to sell service. Mark likes to sell service."

A human adaptogen
"For Mark, fund raising and promoting ABC is all about the relationship," says Gayle Engels, ABC's education director. "He won't just walk up to someone with his hand out. He'll say, 'How can we be of service to you?' "

Blumenthal is always devising projects to expand ABC's range of service. He started HerbClip, biweekly summaries and reviews of journal articles, and HerbalEGram for faster, online updates, particularly internationally. According to Accounting Coordinator Margaret Wright, 60 percent of ABC's Web hits are now from outside the U.S. ABC offers free herb-research services for members, as well as databases, marketing and public relations assistance, lists of business contacts, and legal and regulatory counsel. ABC also plays host to a series of pharmacy-school interns, educating them about the volume of scientific studies on herbs.

Blumenthal believes ABC will continue to expand along with the burgeoning herb industry. "There are more random, controlled trials being published, so that's more inventory for us. And the advent of [good manufacturing practices], monographs and databases is an indication of the sophistication and maturation of the herbal marketplace," he says. In addition, "Companies are looking at new patents and products to protect their investments, so we're finding new uses for old herbs."

Blumenthal says the "herb market is quite robust now," but as federal mandates for supplements GMPs kick in during the next three years, the business landscape will alter. "Many of the large manufacturers have been investing for the last decade in improving their facilities, for in-plant labs and more people to do testing," he says. But small businesses don't always have those kinds of resources and may have difficulty surviving. "Companies in the $1 million to $2 million range are going to have to get very creative to meet the GMPs—maybe merge with other companies or work as a supplier for larger companies," he says.

Blumenthal believes within the next five years, traditional medicine will hit the tipping point, where it's more accepted than not. "I see more and more doctors, med students and pharmacists genuinely interested in this field, and more and more people in general who think herbs have value." Soon, he believes, people will recognize herbs' role not just in treating disease or symptoms, but as adaptogens, "a whole level of using herbs to just enhance general well being, promote immunity and increase our levels of sustainable energy—to live in a higher state of wellness overall."

Blumenthal intends to be at ABC to see that happen. "As long as I find this interesting, as long as I'm still learning, I'll keep doing this. I'm a professional student," he says. And that's not a bad legacy for a man who famed herbal photographer Steven Foster describes as "a Jewish boy from El Paso with a cowboy hat on."

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 38,42

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