At age 50, after more than 30 years of retail experience, Ray Slawecki decided to pursue his true passion: the natural health industry. In 1991, he and his wife opened Holly Hill Health Foods, a 100-square-foot shop in an indoor farmers market in North Wales, Pennsylvania. As his tiny store gained traction, Slawecki took over neighboring retail spaces and expanded his business hours, eventually relocating to Montgomery Commons Shopping Center, where the store resides today. Now he oversees a thriving 5,200-square-foot business featuring a broad selection of supplements and a knowledgeable, dedicated, professional staff.
At age 75, Slawecki shows no signs of slowing down, and his enthusiasm for helping shoppers lead healthy, balanced lives is stronger than ever.
What prompted you to delve into a new industry at 50?
Ray Slawecki: I had lots of allergies as a teen, and then I got two very painful kidney stones before I turned 32. Needless to say, that shook me up a bit. Luckily, I had an uncle who was into health foods, watched what he ate and took lots of vitamins. He’d read that kidney stones are caused by calcification and that you need other minerals to keep calcium from accumulating. Bottom line, my uncle inspired me. I discussed natural remedies with him a lot, and that really spiked my interest. So when the camera industry started going digital and a lot of businesses were going down, I decided to leave and do what I really wanted: get into the natural health industry.
And that decision has panned out?
RS: Absolutely. We’ve had a few hiccups, but our business is still growing. We were getting hurt a bit by internet competitors so we’ve gotten more into online sales. That percentage of our business is growing—we had a really nice year in 2016—but brick-and-mortar is still our mainstay. We’re about to add another 1,200 square feet.
My wife and I have worked together from the beginning, along with other family members. I am very passionate, and I rely on wonderful, professional employees to give customers the attention they need. We promote the natural way of life instead of pharmaceuticals, which have so many side effects. I truly believe in mind, body and spirit, and that has helped our store a lot.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
RS: Helping customers. The biggest satisfaction I get is when they come back and say, “Hey, this worked!” I think helping people is my purpose. In fact, even back when I was in the camera business, they’d call me “Dr. Ray.” I just enjoy bringing people’s education to a point where they understand more about their body. Because when you abuse your body, it’ll come back to haunt you. I believe there are some basic things we should all be doing: eating right, exercising and thinking positively.
What are your interests outside of work?
RS: I really walk the talk. I grow foods naturally and organically in my backyard greenhouse. Right now I have tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and spinach. I love going out into the yard and just forgetting about everything, and I love that I can pick a salad and eat it fresh for lunch. I’m also passionate about meteorology and enjoy watching weather. It keeps me in tune with my gardening.
What is your staff like?
RS: I have 25 employees and about half are full-time with full benefits. I believe in ensuring they are satisfied and happy by compensating them well. We help with medical insurance and offer an employee discount, extra holidays and profit sharing. It’s a team effort that makes it all work, so every Tuesday we have a meeting to share where our store stands. That way, they’ll know if we had a good or bad week and understand our plan for the future.
You also have health care practitioners in-house, correct?
RS: We have a naturopath who sees people by appointment and a nurse who is a homeopathy expert. We also have three nutritionists so that one is here to assist shoppers every hour we’re open. We make our profits by selling products and having happy customers come back to buy those items again and again. Our real satisfaction comes from seeing them become healthier.
What are Holly Hill’s strong suits?
RS: We mainly sell supplements. Within a mile we have Wegmans and Whole Foods, so I have a hard time competing with foods; they represent 15 percent of our business. Because we have a naturopath and nurse on staff, we can carry professional supplement products here too. But while a great doctor may sell a narrow selection of vitamins, we offer New Chapter, Country Life, Garden of Life—all kinds of great brands. Aside from supplements, we’re enhancing our cosmetics section. This is a growing part of our business, and we do lots of demos. That’s really our difference: We offer unique products, give customers attention and offer great prices.
How do you compete against other supplement retailers, especially online vendors?
RS: I work hard to make these products affordable. If we get a discount from a manufacturer or distributor, we don’t just take the profits. We pass those savings on to customers, so our prices actually compete with a lot of products online. We’re working on building up our website so it’s a little easier to make purchases. We just brought in experts to help us with that.
How do you educate your shoppers?
RS: In addition to answering questions and offering advice in-store, we have probably 10 lectures a year. We just had a wonderful session on industrial hemp. We also have our own radio show called the “Holly Hill Health Hour” with guests such as Dr. Michael Murray and other health industry experts. Our passion for education really draws people to our store. Education is key to realizing that what you eat can be so negative and that, for example, vitamin B works better if you also take vitamin K. There is just so much to learn in our industry.
Any concerns about this industry’s future?
RS: There’s always a concern that the government will change the regulations to make it more difficult for people to buy vitamins. And of course, some pharmaceutical companies will denounce the natural health industry, but the next thing you know, they’ve come out with a similar product. Pharmaceutical-grade fish oil is a perfect example. We offer the same thing at a lower price.
Have you considered opening a second store?
RS: Well, at my age I have no plans to open another store. Whether our younger family members will take over and expand the business remains to be seen. We’ll cross that bridge later.
Since you’re still going strong, what excites you about the future?
RS: I love that there are so many new, natural solutions that can really help you. There are always new discoveries, such as PQQ, which generates energy within cells and may help with short-term memory. This is what makes this industry so exciting. But it takes discipline to make a healthy life happen. There are so many toxins out there, so you’ve got to exercise, eat right and take supplements when needed. Mind, body and spirit is the way. I pray a lot. Overall, the big word is balance, and we help people balance life with all the negativity out there. This is why I believe the natural health world is the very best pace to be.