Natural Foods Merchandiser

Tony Robbins Embodies Twinlabs New Push

Jumping, dancing, clapping Twinlab employees chanting the name of their new vice chairman signaled to many at Natural Products Expo West that something radical is going on at the Long Island nutrition company that filed for Chapter 11 in late 2003.

The name was ?Tony?—Anthony Robbins, leadership coach and one of four major investors in Twinlab Corp.?s new parent company, IdeaSphere Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich. Robbins? oversized persona was on display in Twinlab?s booth, hospitality suites, a Nutracon seminar, a lunch for retailers and on the show floor.

?They have the perfect story—?That was then, this is now,?? said Jay Jacobowitz of Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vt. ?We?re stronger and better having risen from the dead.?

After not exhibiting at all at Expo East, Twinlab presented four days of hoopla at West, a strategy designed to convince retailers that the Hauppauge, N.Y., company is committed to the naturals channel. Among its messages at the show:

  • Twinlab will pull all but six SKUs out of mainstream stores, abandoning $11 million in business, to focus on the naturals channel, Robbins said at the retailer lunch. A separate brand will be developed for mass merchandisers.
  • Some 500 products will be reintroduced in health and wellness retail stores, and IdeaSphere has unveiled a credit card program with MBNA Corp. to help retailers finance resets. Mark Fox, president and chief operating officer of IdeaSphere, said the card is part of a program called Integrative Health Solutions, which will include a Robbins-designed ?retail sales leadership program? and product education trips to Twinlab?s plant in Utah. Fox added, ?We are shifting the economics of natural and health foods retail from a push to a pull model.?
  • A training program for retailers will be developed in partnership with another IdeaSphere company, Rebus Publishing, along with wellness guru Andrew Weil and others. Reliable science will help pull distrustful consumers back into the supplements aisle, Robbins said.
  • IdeaSphere has pledged $100,000 to establish an endowed university chair called ?The Institute for Truth and Nutrition.? Lou Mancini, the CEO of Pittsburgh-based General Nutrition Centers, has informally agreed to match that amount, Robbins said in an interview with The Natural Foods Merchandiser.

Insiders and observers agree that Twinlab had fallen into disarray. ?We haven?t had a new product in four years,? said Steve Welling, president of its Nature?s Herbs and Alvita Teas units, which will become a separate IdeaSphere division based in American Fork, Utah.

?They made horrible mistakes,? said Marty Burman of Burman?s Natural Foods in Brookhaven, Pa., who noted sales of some Twinlab products have risen with better merchandising and promotional support. ?I do have some skepticism. I hope they keep following through.?

The credit card deal will likely appeal to retailers, Jacobowitz said. By promoting expansion of Twinlab?s product set with financing, ?You immediately take away the No. 1 objection, which is, ?I don?t have the space.??

For every person at the show who recoiled from the Tony Robbins commotion, there was another who allowed that what he had to say about the supplements business was both sensible and overdue. ?The industry has aged beyond its time,? Robbins said in a Saturday seminar that attracted more than 1,200 people. By failing to show leadership or deal with the industry?s bad actors, the nutrition business has allowed ?a few people who couldn?t control their intake of ephedra? to dictate its future, he said.

?Mr. Robbins has a pedigree of committing to the end of a project,? said Anthony Almada, founder of IMAGINutrition in Laguna Niguel, Calif. If Robbins can champion an evidence-based approach at Twinlab, ?It will be a very compelling test of his influential power.?

Jacobowitz thinks IdeaSphere management?s background in multilevel marketing informed their decision to focus on the wellness channel. ?They understand networking, relationships, telling a story, which you can?t do in the mass market.? If each independent retailer in the naturals channel commits to a 4-foot Twinlab set, Jacobowitz said, that alone could mean $125 million in incremental sales.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 4/p. 14

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