Brendan Brazier is calling from the Los Angeles airport, on his way home to the hippie enclave of Topanga Canyon, west of the city. The former Ironman triathlete and two-time Ultra Marathon champion from North Vancouver is in transit from a meeting in Washington, D.C., with Sam Kass–Barack Obama's chef, and executive director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. In the near future, he'll be attending the premiere of Nash: The Documentary, about B.C. basketball superstar Steve Nash; Brazier will be there because Vega, the Burnaby, B.C.-based natural health brand he helped launch a decade ago, is one of the sponsors.
Brazier is as close to being a pitch-perfect pitchman as you can be. It's not just his pedigree as a devout vegan and decorated athlete, although that's important, given Vega's promise of high-performance plant-based supplements. As well, he has a growing network of disciples and myriad side projects–fitness programs, books, a magazine, speaking tours–that reinforce the brand. To hear Brazier and his partner, Charles Chang, tell it, that brand is so strong that it suffered barely a blip after a recall in 2013 (more on that later). "Vega's success becomes mine," says Brazier, 39, "so there's a big incentive to make it do well."
Vega's $100-million in projected sales this year–up from $48-million in 2012–are largely thanks to Brazier's healthy glow. But the business would never have gotten out of the starting gate if not for an encounter with entrepreneur Chang in 2003. "I was living with my mom in North Van," explains Brazier. "She had the radio on, and Charles was on, talking about maca, this root vegetable I'd never heard of."
Maca is said to help alleviate adrenal fatigue, among other benefits. Brazier had developed his own blender drink for training, using ingredients like hemp, flax and pea protein, but was still struggling with bad sleeps and low energy. He started taking maca and, after noticing an immediate improvement, asked his agent to find him a maca sponsor. Among the companies contacted was Sequel Naturals, a two-year-old natural health company owned by Chang.
"I told him, dude, we have no money–I'm a one-man show. Forget about it," recalls Chang, 43, from his Burnaby office, where 90 of the company's 165 employees work. "But I told him if he wanted to meet, I'd be happy to."
At the time, Sequel was doing a middling business with a line of natural health products, including maca and Chlorella (a type of immune-boosting algae). The two men met in Chang's living room and talked about combining forces: adding maca and Chlorella to Brazier's drink and finding a way to turn it into a powder that users could mix with water. After finding a manufacturer, the two men hit the road, with Chang calling on retailers and Brazier doing talks. The big break came when Whole Foods started carrying the Vega line in Vancouver and, shortly after, in its mid-western stores.
"If you make it at Whole Foods, you can usually make it everywhere, because they're such discerning buyers," says Chang.
In 2004, the first year Vega products were on the market, sales hit $1-million–more than Sequel had done in the previous three years combined. By 2011, Chang had rebranded the company Vega and dropped all non-plant-based products. He also sold 10 per cent of it to key personnel, including Brazier, who earns royalties on every Vega product sold. (In 2012, Chang sold 30 per cent of Vega to San Francisco private equity firm VMG Partners.)
The growth hasn't been without hurdles. Last year, Health Canada asked that Vega recall products after its shakes tested positive for an antibiotic linked to aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder. Vega wasn't the only company caught up in the recall, but it was the only one that refused, arguing that the risks were overblown and it had stopped using the questionable compound anyhow. Chang eventually relented, spending $9.4-million to recall all affected products and offer full refunds. "Do I think there should have been a recall? No f– way," he says, pounding his desk. "Should I have done a recall right away? Yes. It didn't matter whether we were right. It only matters between the consumers' ears and what they think."
Sales rebounded within two months, and Chang says there's been no lasting impact. Vega is now set on expanding its reach into the U.S. market, which accounts for just over half of its annual sales and is growing twice as fast as the Canadian market. "Eventually, Vega will be an iconic household name that will be available at every corner store up and down the street," predicts Chang.
Brazier, by contrast, describes the competitive landscape in more universal terms. "We're seeing a lot of knock-offs, but that's not a bad thing. When there's more out there, it makes it look like a movement. It's not just a product."