With 3,000 copies of his health and fitness magazine written, printed, delivered to the post office and shipped off to homes throughout Quebec, Adrien Gagnon would find himself having to wait. He would have no idea how many of his anonymous recipients would fill out order forms for the natural health products he was selling, or who would take out subscriptions. "We'd pray that orders would come back by mail," recalls his son, Yvan. Thankfully, for him and his family, completed forms, kwith cheques, would arrive.
Gagnon began his career as francophone Quebec's answer to Ben Weider, mixed with a bit of Charles Atlas. He taught physical-fitness correspondence courses, manufactured weights, and participated in and organized bodybuilding events. But the launch in 1946 of his magazine, Santé et développement physique (which went through a few name changes over the years) gave him a vehicle to sell the supplements that would eventually overtake his other activities.
His first health items were early bodybuilding supplements such as whey protein tablets and desiccated liver. As he learned about the medicinal benefits of certain plants, he moved to products like ginseng and garlic pills. In his later years, it would be the wildly popular meal replacement, NutriDiet and NutriBar, and the joint-pain remedy, glucosamine.
The business would mature, going from mail-order sales to door-to-door representatives across the province in the 70s and then finding a footing when pharmacy chains agreed to sell the Adrien Gagnon products in the mid-80s.
Gagnon died on May 12 in Brossard, Que., on Montreal's South Shore at the age of 87 of heart failure after a two-year period of diminishing health. He was both an advocate and entrepreneur who zealously gave his fellow Quebeckers advice in the alternative-medicine sphere and convinced many of them to buy his products so that they could improve their health.
Gagnon operated on the margins for many decades, enduring about a half-dozen magazine and product seizures, but he made sure his products were rooted in scientific evidence. What he was advocating often came from researchers in Europe, where there was a more receptive market for alternative approaches to health.
Like the gym memberships in which he unsuccessfully tried to interest the 1950s middle class, his advice would eventually become mainstream practice. He was rewarded for his tenacity in 2005 via a $54-million sale of his business to Hong Kong's CK Lifesciences. The sale of Santé Naturel Adrien Gagnon was, for him, a vindication: his products were finally recognized. "His goal was for the products to be successful," said his other son, André.
Adrien Gagnon was born March 4, 1924, in the village of St. Louis de Kamouraska, 170 km northeast of Quebec He was the 11th of 16 children of Justinien and Rose Alba (née Dumais) Gagnon. His family ran a pig and dairy cattle farm and lived in a big rural home with no central heating, where onions were stored under the second-storey beds during winter, chickens were killed in an auxiliary kitchen and where a sitting room was kept presentable so it could host the local priest when he would visit.
In 1930s rural Quebec, strongmen would travel to small towns. When Victor De Lamarre, known as le roi des hommes forts (king of the strongmen), came to Kamouraska, the 15-year-old Adrien was mesmerized by his feats that included lifting a 200-pound barbell with one finger.
After training as a machinist in nearby Rimouski, Gagnon moved to Montreal at the age of 16 and got a job in a factory that manufactured aircraft parts for the war that was raging in Europe. Physically fit from farm work and some early bodybuilding, he would go to newsstands to buy American bodybuilding magazines such as Bob Hofffman's Strength and Health and Bernarr Macfadden's Physical Culture, and began subscribing to Charles Atlas's isometric exercise program called Dynamic Tension, which worked with muscle resistance and contraction.
He decided to launch his own correspondence course in French on isometrics, similarly named Vibro Tension. Using his own sculpted body for the advertisement that he ran in three Quebec dailies, he offered would-be students a "technique that needs no equipment."
The entrepreneurial Hoffman also influenced Gagnon; he used his magazine as an advertising vehicle for the York Barbell Company that he ran. After launching his own magazine in 1946, Gagnon began to manufacture his own weights in a foundry in Napierville and advertised them and his supplements in the magazine, along with health advice.
In his first editorial, he wrote what seemed like a religious sermon given by a man who moonlighted as a salesman and hung out with the paparazzi. "Keep in mind that you have only one body and if you mistreat it you'll be condemned to live an unhappy life," he wrote, also telling his readers that all they'll need to know to become healthy and fit is found in these pages, requesting that they tell their friends about the publication, and to be sure to check out the magazine's photographs and profiles of all the big U.S. bodybuilding stars.
Gagnon organized events where he would offer prizes and bring in stars such as U.S. bodybuilder John Grimek, who appeared at Montreal's Monument National in 1950. That same year he married Marguerite Magnon, a former gymnast who he had met after hiring her to model for his magazine.
He spent a lot of time reading scientific articles, not only on building muscle but on alternative treatments for various ailments. With an X-Acto knife at the ready, he would cut out the sources for his next articles. His newly found knowledge would then have him launching new products in concert with pharmaceutical labs. They would combine various herbs to make teas and capsules for, say, finding energy or relieving constipation. All the products were shipped out of his home with his name printed on the label. By 1971, his operation moved to La Prairie in South Shore Montreal and, in that decade, sales went from about $250,000 to $500,000.
His magazines and products were seized a half-dozen times in the almost 60 years the company operated, mostly for connecting his products with its intended effects. He learned to tiptoe around the law, dispensing advice that mentioned an element like milk thistle and dandelion being good for the liver but not mentioning his products' names in the same article.
The government's reasons for the seizures were not always that sound, such as the incident in the 90s that involved about 3,000 seized boxes of a muesli-type cereal called Budwig, which used a Swiss-inspired recipe. The box sported a Swiss flag, which authorities believed could confuse consumers into thinking it was not a Canadian-made product. "There was no danger to the public," Yvan said. "At the time we saw this as harassment, especially when there were so many products out there that were of questionable quality."
While his work built up his business, it weighed on his marriage, as he usually chose work over taking his family out. "He was not a social person," admitted Yvan. The many nights in which her husband went to the basement after dinner and worked until midnight left Marguerite yearning for a better family life. They agreed in the late 60s to divorce. In 1979, she died in a car accident. He never talked about either event to his sons.
His sons would eventually become partners in the business, following Yvan's training in naturopathy and André's degree in business. The three of them, as well as scientific and editorial consultant Guy Bohémier, made most of the decisions.
Much success came to the company after the launch of his diet products, the milkshake meal NutriDiet in 1977 and the snack-like NutriBar seven years later. NutriDiet was launched immediately after the government enacted legislation which laid out what vitamins and minerals were to be included in a meal-replacement product. Gagnon took out a second mortgage to advertise their product widely. It paid off. By 1992, the pharmaceutical company Searle bought the products from Gagnon, which by that point represented 80 per cent of the company's revenue.
That money was reinvested in the business and by 1996, according to his sons, their company became the first to launch glucosamine. By this time, their products were in pharmacies across Canada and selling well. Glucosamine's sales helped restore the revenue that was sold off in the Searle deal.
He still ran the business into his late seventies. In the last five years before it was sold, Gagnon left much of the operations and regulatory work to André, and the communications and scientific work to Yvan, both of whom consulted with a small circle of advisers.
When the company was sold in 2005, he had slowed considerably but was satisfied with what he had accomplished. Instead of waiting for coupons to come back with cheques or his stand-ins for the Fuller Brush Man opening up their big black cases of Adrien Gagnon items to work the Quebec countryside, a multinational would now be putting his products onto the store shelves of numerous countries.
Gagnon leaves his two sons, a sister, Monique, and two grandchildren.
Special to the Globe and Mail