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Emerson Ecologics plays it smart with quality and advocacy

Emerson Ecologics plays it smart with quality and advocacy
NBJ Award winner for Management Achievement

The high drama of the turnaround. The excitement of rapid, unexpected sales growth. These are the classic qualifications for a management achievement award, but for 2015, we tell a different kind of story—one about the deliberate pursuit of quality and the patient work of engagement with policymakers to shape the right future for dietary supplements. It’s not about the drama this time. It’s about the quieter and often unsung moments that have impact far beyond the ledger.

It’s about what supplement industry insiders see when they look at Emerson Ecologics.

“I’ve known Emerson a long time,” says Loren Israelsen, President of the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA). “We go way back, 30-plus years. I’ve watched Emerson grow from a small, regional distributor in the professional channel to a premier national distributor. It would be easy to stop there, but that’s not what they did. Emerson changed the model of what a distributor should be in terms of adding value and providing efficient service to get good products in the right hands of professionals.”

NBJ would concur. Emerson Ecologics, this year’s winner of our Management Achievement Award, is 35 years into its journey as a leading provider of dietary supplements in the healthcare practitioner space. The company now carries upwards of 275 brands, and enjoys annual sales in the neighborhood of $150 million, according to NBJ estimates. But above and beyond the statistics, Emerson continues to mature as a quiet influencer in the industry by driving quality throughout the supply chain, and by exhibiting thoughtful engagement with the trade associations and policymakers that set the foundation for a healthy future.

In pursuit of quality

In 2009, the team began brainstorming a quality assurance platform that would come to be known as EQP—Emerson Quality Program—for a 2010 launch. The EQP mission was simple—to over-deliver on DSHEA and foster the kind of transparency in the professional sales channel that could highlight the quality standards baked therein.

This was years before transparency became a buzzword, but the target of that effort rings especially relevant today when the industry is tasked to recapture and retain trust. No single channel can deliver that trust turnaround, but practitioners possess an authority unmatched in the supplement space.

Practitioners possess a near-existential concern for quality and efficacy—their reputations and careers are tied so closely to the products they sell. They need trusted ways to find good product for their patients, and Emerson set out to provide them the confidence they needed.

“We wanted to make it quick and easy for the practitioners,” says Dr. Jaclyn Chasse, ND, Emerson’s medical director and executive in charge of scientific and regulatory affairs. Thus began the development of a quality standard still the envy of the industry. EQP includes protocols that demonstrate a level of quality to practitioners above and beyond federal cGMPs. Before it carries a supplement brand, Emerson sticks its nose into product design, manufacturing, and quality testing at both the raw material and finished product levels. For each brand that carries a gold or silver EQP stamp of approval, there’s a paper audit of SOPs, there’s an on-site audit of that company’s manufacturing facilities, and there’s independent, third-party lab testing to spec of product pulled from distribution.

“We’ve been able to provide transparency to the healthcare brands and all the great things they do with quality,” says Andy Greenawalt, Emerson’s CEO. “But there’s another important piece to this. With some of the smaller brands, they’ve been audited by us and felt the peer pressure to step up and get to a higher level.”

“It’s an unintended consequence,” says Chasse. “But our auditing team probably sees inside more manufacturing facilities than FDA or NSF, so we can help those companies improve. This gets beyond just quality assurance to education and real transparency.”

With the debut of EQP, Emerson put themselves under the magnifying glass as a first step, certifying both of its distribution centers—one in California, one in Virginia—with NSF. In Virginia, Emerson went even further to achieve Q11 compliance for pharmaceuticals, a move that allows the company to strategically stretch its wings from a supplement distributor to a full-service partner with healthcare practitioners.

“Emerson is really good at something you wouldn’t necessarily expect a distributor to be good at,” says Israelsen. “They’re a quality filter. Whatever passes through their system meets a quality standard that they’ve spent years building. This, in turn, helps build the industry.”

The right kind of engagement

As the supplement industry continues to squirm under the bright lights of bad press, two items jump to the top of the wish list—better quality and better advocacy, with regulators and pundits alike. Emerson’s NBJ Award covers both sides of the coin, with the company serving as a clear role model for industry engagement.

The company ignores few avenues for that engagement, counting memberships in twelve major trade associations, including UNPA and Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). Emerson supports six schools to create the next generation of practitioners. Dr. Chasse is currently the president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, a trustee at the American Herbal Products Association, and board advisor at both UNPA and the Integrative Health Policy Consortium. Needless to say, the spirit of service runs deep at Emerson. Says Greenawalt: “We’re fortunate to have ownership that values our responsibility to the industry. We do feel we have a responsibility to better the industry, especially in the healthcare space.”

That responsibility runs deep, too. Emerson contracts with a lobbyist to open doors in Washington, DC, and regularly visit the right folks with the clear agenda of providing a friendly face to legislators. That lobbyist becomes a resource to lawmakers when issues arise. “Emerson has been very effective in quietly talking to key policymakers,” says UNPA’s Israelsen. “They come in as a neutral player, and that helps. They’re not pushing a specific brand.”

“We feel that Emerson, by being a distributor, has more of an independent view, and Washington perceives that to be true,” says Greenawalt. “We meet with these folks to let them know they have another resource for questions. The more people they see from industry as respectable and professional, the better. Honestly, I think our lobbyist is the second to last thing our owners would let me cut from the budget.” This foresight at Emerson has led to face time with senators, representatives, health committee leadership, and industry’s new favorite, state attorneys general. Emerson was also instrumental in staffing the supplement caucus, with both New Hampshire representatives now involved.

Calling New Hampshire home helps too, Greenawalt says. “One the beauties of New Hampshire is that you can get more attention. It’s a lot easier for me to get to a U.S. senator than someone in California.” This speaks volumes to the quiet, deliberate work done skillfully at Emerson, each and every day, observers note.

“They get it,” says Israelsen. “They play it smart.”

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