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Tell us about your brand, what makes it different? What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of what makes us different and that’s our longevity. Lee Labrada is the only other industry survivor who’s been in business longer than I have, and that’s by less than two years. Lee and I are the only two – out of all the many supplement companies that have sprung up over the last few decades, big ones too, behemoths. They’re gone and I’m still here. If that doesn’t make me different nothing does. And I really like being different. And that goes to my products as well. Gaspari has always been known to offer cutting edge, innovative, products that really actually work. Out of the millions and millions of products I’ve sold over the years, I’ve never had a customer return a product because it didn’t deliver as promised. I’m also proud of what my father would have been proud of – the Gaspari name on the bottle, for all these years, all over the world.
What’s your founding story? How (and why) did you start your company? Did you have any false starts? Were there early attempts that did not work out?
My bodybuilding carer was coming to an end. I had nerve damage in my neck from lifting so heavy and I was losing muscle on one side – my physique was done making me money. I had to focus on something else. But, I didn’t want to leave the space. I’d always been interested in supplements and how science was discovering so many interesting compounds that had great effects on performance and health. All throughout my competitive career I’d read and studied about nutrition and supplementation. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. So, in 1997, I sold my condo and my Porsche, moved in with my mom, set up shop in her basement and bought a mini van, borrowed money from brother and drove to every gym and supplement store I could find, trying to get them to carry my brand.
Things were going along pretty well. I remember one day my father came down to the basement and I had a bunch of the neighborhood kids working for me packaging creatine. My dad thought it was cocaine! I had to calm him down and explain the whole thing to him. He couldn’t believe so many packages were going out!
So, I had a few of the guys from the neighborhood packing up orders and we were shipping out product and tee shirts and things were starting to pick up. Then one night, the house burned down. I lost everything. All my inventory all my paperwork, not to mention trophies and photos and other items impossible to replace.
I had to start over completely from scratch. This time from my brother’s basement. I’m grateful for my family for supporting me during this period. It was a very dark and depressing time. My mom had a nice finished basement. My brother’s was unfinished. It was dark and dingy and freezing cold. I had to use his garage as my warehouse and that was freezing too. I remember I had to wrap packages in the snow! It was very depressing and I almost gave up. But, I didn’t. Gradually we climbed out of the hole, got back on the road and we started selling again. Eventually, I was able to afford a small warehouse and office space and slowly but surely we grew from there.
What are the 1-3 most surreal moments you recall from the early days of starting this business? Did you have to go to extreme lengths to keep the company going? I.e. mortgage your house to make payroll?
One of the most surreal moments was staring at that pile of smoldering debris that used to be my mother’s house and my warehouse. It was like from one minute to the next and everything was gone. Finding myself in yet another basement was another surreal moment. It was so hard to believe everything was gone. The change in my position in the industry was also surreal. I went – almost instantly – from being flown first class all over the world and being wined and dined by promotors and business owners and everyone wanting to talk to me, to flying coach or driving a mini van, living in my mother’s basement and no one wanting to talk to me. That was the new reality.
Flash forward to being nominated, year after year, for supplement awards by Bodybuilding.com and seeing $90 mil on my balance sheet. It doesn’t get more surreal than that.
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What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made? Similarly, what were some of the greatest moments of success?
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made – and I’ve made it more than once – was trusting the wrong people. And similarly, allowing my personal life to fog my judgement. In 2012 the supplement industry was in free fall. My company needed my total focus, but instead I was mired in a nasty divorce and custody battle, I was fighting an enormous eight-figure lawsuit, two of my most trusted executives embezzled millions from the company and my sales were tanking. I ended up having to file for bankruptcy and go along with whomever bought the company. I was no longer in control of my own company and, after the judge awarded my ex wife with $7 mil and demanded I pay her in one lump sum immediately, the company and I were nearly broke. Time to start over again.
The biggest success though was not the money. It really was the fact that I was recognized by the industry as a great company. And I don’t mean me personally, with the Arnold Lifetime Achievement award or my induction into the Bodybuilding Hall Of Fame, or my star in the sidewalk at Muscle Beach….. While those are tremendous, what really tops my list is all the nominations and all the awards we won for our products. I was so proud when SizeOn won Intra-Workout of the Year, two years in a row, and Gaspari climbed to one of the top five brands at Bodybyuilding.com. And, of course, how loyal my customers are – to this very day. There’s no greater feeling of success.
At the end of the day though, the greatest moment of success is when you can look down from the top and still be humbled by the fact that you’re there.
Who was your first customer? What do you recall about them and their experience with your brand?
My first big customer was Europa. I was judging shows for the IFBB and one day I was sitting next to Eric Hilman – the owner of Europa, which, at the time was huge. So, I leaned over and asked him what it would take for me to have Europa carry my product line. Hilman told me that the problem I had is that my brand was not in demand nationally. So, I went home and started calling every gym and supplement store in the Charlotte area (where Europa is based), under assumed names, and asking for Gaspari products. Well, somehow word of that got to Eric and he called me and said that there seems to be a big demand for Gaspari products and he gave me a shot at national distribution! That was definitely a turning point.
Do you have a personal philosophy – about life, or business – that is woven into the DNA of the brand and the company?
Yes, I sure do – Work ethic is everything. My father was an immigrant brick layer. You want to talk about hard work? He was ferocious. Thats where I learned it – working for him, at a very young age, hauling cement blocks. It was brutal work, and it toughened me to the fact that I knew what hard work actually was and that I could do it. That’s all I know. I start every day getting things done. I get up at 4:30 every morning to get to the gym by 5. The first thing I do when I get up is make my bed. And I don’t mean just pull up the blanket, I mean make the bed. Pillows, bead spread, cushions… just like a magazine ad for bedding. That’s my first accomplishment of the day, which leads to other accomplishments. It gets the momentum going early in the day. And, no matter if I’ve had the worst day imaginable, at least when I come home my bed is made.
So, I demand hard work out of my staff. Ask anyone who works at Gaspari and they’ll tell you – we know how to work. Weekends, off hours, holidays…. Gaspari is open 24/7. If I need something at 2AM I can grab my phone and any one of my key people will do whatever we need done, on the spot, with not a complaint to be heard…… Except for one guy. He complains, but he still gets the job done and he’s one of the best at it. But, yeah, hard work. That’s my philosophy – nothing comes easy. You want something? Work your ass off and you’ll get it.
How do you think you’ve most contributed to the fitness industry, and maybe the world, as a whole?
I think my greatest contribution to the fitness industry is my product line. The driving force behind my business is making sure I offer high quality, efficacious, science-backed products at a fair price. Margins are important, but my name is on the bottle. As long as it is, margins will never be as important as making sure the products I offer will give my customers the best bang for their buck. That’s why I’ve survived for 25 years. That longevity is also my contribution. I’ve always been there, and I always will. That gives my customers confidence in knowing they will always be able to get the products they have come to love. And that love spans the globe. Gaspari products are available in 34 countries. That’s a huge contribution.
What advice would you give someone just starting out as an entrepreneur in the fitness industry? Maybe share a more macro insight, and something tactical and specific that you have found helpful.
Advice is a funny thing. We can only give it from our own perspective. What I will say is, that while planning is one of the most important elements of growing a business, there’s an old saying that goes: “we make plans and God laughs.“ In my case, he must really have been cracking up. No matter how well you think you might be planning, the devil is in the details and you have to be sharp enough to notice them and pay attention to what they mean. You have to be able to pivot on a dime and always have a back up to your back up plan’s back up plan. Business is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lost. That’s why so many businesses fail in the first five years.
I would also say that R&D is expensive, so it’s always best to let other companies spend their money on it and learn from them. My direct to consumer model is a good example. I didn’t rush to e-commerce when everyone else did and make all the costly mistakes they did. I waited until the concept grew legs and the workforce was offering up competent and talented people to make my model successful. That made it possible to build a team of experienced and talented people who were able to drive my direct to consumer sales well into the seven digits in it’s second year while losing a almost nothing to mistakes. The only shortcoming we had during that phase was not having enough product on hand to satisfy the sales! That’s a good problem to have and very easy to fix.
What’s next for you and the company?
Growth! In fact, not only is the Gaspari product line constantly growing with great and innovative new products and flavor systems, but the company is expanding in its scope. We just launched Gaspari Ageless, which is a high end brand for aging athletes. Right now, we’re offering my Brain Booster and Vitality Booster. I have six more skews in production. The initial response has been overwhelming. So much so in fact, that I can see Ageless sales eventually outperforming Gaspari.
I have a few more cards up my sleeve, but it’s too soon to show them. Let me just say, that we are continuing the Gaspari tradition of launching innovative and cutting edge products. And we’re changing how we market them. I have big investors courting me who recognize the value of my name and my longevity and the great new product ideas I have. I’m building this brand to well over $250 Mil in the next five years. And, nothing is stopping me.