May 01, 2017
NeoLife International: A Leadership Transition That Became a Family Affair
by Angela E. Soper
Headquarters: Fremont, California
Top Executives: Jerry Brassfield, Founder and Chairman of the Board; Kendra Brassfield, CEO
Products: Nutritional, Personal Care and Home Care Products
2016 Revenue: between $150 million and $200 million
What do you do when you’re ready to find the next leader and CEO of the global, multimillion-dollar company you’ve created and the solution seems elusive? That was NeoLife International Founder and Chairman of the Board Jerry Brassfield’s dilemma seven years ago when he turned 70. First he tried two individuals already connected to the company. Next, he hired a professional business manager with impeccable credentials. No dice. He even thought his son would be the ideal candidate, but he was already successful and wasn’t interested.
Then he asked his daughter Kendra to accompany him on a trip around the world to get to know the company, and a surprising thing happened—although neither of them ever thought she would be interested in the job, Kendra turned out to be the perfect choice to take over from her father.
Kendra was probably the most surprised about this decision; she always thought she would become an investor and buy-side analyst. Kendra was just a junior in college when her father asked her to take the trip so she could get to know the Distributors, whom he considered to be the “heart and soul” of the company. “I wanted her to be part of the direct selling business, but she is a stubborn girl so I knew it had to be her own decision,” Jerry admits with a laugh. Kendra traveled with him to Europe, South Africa, Mexico and Australia, and the experience changed both their lives dramatically.
“It was really an eye-opening experience, and I fell in love with the company because of the people,” says Kendra, who is now just 27. “I remember thinking, ‘This is where I am supposed to be.’ I came back from that trip and I told my dad, ‘I’m all in, I’m ready to go and I’m going to dedicate my life to serving this awesome global family that we have.’ I actually immediately regretted my decision because the first thing he said to me was, ‘OK, you need to become a Distributor.’ ” That was terrifying to her. “I told him, ‘Are you setting me up to fail? I can’t even order coffee without turning bright red in the face because I’m so shy, and you expect me to sell products?’ ”
Learning from the Ground Up
Confident he was steering his daughter down the right path, Jerry told her, “You can’t fail, you can only learn.” When he suggested she build her organization in an area where she didn’t know people, she surprised him again. She chose to move to Las Vegas—where she knew no one—to start her NeoLife business. Nine months later she had earned the title of No. 1 World Team Member in North America and was a Sapphire Director with $15,000 to $20,000 in monthly product volume.
Jerry made it a point not to offer support in the beginning, knowing that the challenges would make her stronger and give her confidence in knowing she had what it takes. Kendra found that, although building her own organization had its challenges, there was nothing that could compare to the feeling of knowing she had just changed someone’s life through health.
But wait—there’s more to this intriguing father-daughter making-of-a-CEO tale. Jerry’s plan for teaching his daughter what NeoLife was all about had another component: She had to work full time at the company—without pay.
Kendra agreed and was quickly immersed in the day-to-day operations of the company. “He made certain the most important thing was that my core values were aligned with the core values of the company,” Kendra says. “If that wasn’t there, there was no chance of succeeding.” And, she adds, “He was never afraid to let me fall and fail, and to make those decisions that were scary.”
Kendra knew she had been given a big responsibility. “I did not take it lightly, because I realized what it might seem like to someone on the outside: Here’s the boss’s daughter coming in and she just wants to take over, right?” explains Kendra. “I know for me, I would feel the exact same way. It definitely was a challenge to come in and prove that I wasn’t just feeling I was entitled to a position, but it ended up working out quite well.” She also adds that she worked as CEO for six months before the company announced her position in 2016. This enabled her to make the decisions and think like a CEO but not have the pressure of managing everyone else’s expectations.
Adds her father: “She has surpassed everyone’s expectations. She’s got this rare combination of skills over and above being educated—she has a degree in business and a minor in economics, so she understands the numbers. She’s a good speaker and communicator.” Kendra also is a Milken Global Institute Associate and was recently accepted into its Young Leaders Circle. She also was named one of DSN’s Forces Under 40 in March 2016.
NeoLife International headquarters in Fremont, California.
A New Leader, a New Name
Part of Kendra’s responsibility has been rebranding the company. Formerly known as GNLD, which stood for the company’s first three brands, Golden Products, NeoLife and Diamite (no longer part of the company), the past two years the company has been working to redefine the business as NeoLife International. Kendra feels it is a timely and suitable name since NeoLife means “new life” and most Promoters preferred that name. The company has actually been in existence in various forms since NeoLife’s creation in 1958, with Jerry acquiring 100 percent of the company after first creating Golden Products and Diamite as direct selling businesses.
Creating brands that focus on good nutrition was a natural fit for Jerry; he experienced the benefits of proper nutrition when his mother discovered that certain nutrients alleviated asthma and allergy symptoms he suffered from as a child. It was a lesson he never forgot as he built a company that features whole-food NeoLife nutritionals, scientifically formulated Nutriance personal-care products and environmentally friendly Golden Home Care products.
Working with Kendra is Chief Operating Officer Simon Whetzel. Whetzel spent time literally “in the trenches” at NeoLife; he got his start with the NeoLife family when he was just 15 and had a summer job—often pulling weeds—at the company’s High Serenity Ranch where the company held leadership schools in the 1980s. His five summers there helped him work his way through the University of Southern California to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance. He eventually landed back at NeoLife as manager of operations for North America in 1996. A variety of positions followed before he was appointed to his current position as COO.
One of Whetzel’s tasks is supervising product supply and logistical infrastructure to ensure product needs are met all over the world—the company sells products in over 50 countries. “We’re in the early stages of some strategic planning,” he says. “It has to do with finding better efficiencies in our product supply areas and also in our logistics. We deal with such a large footprint around the world I believe there are opportunities there to consolidate and find efficiencies.”
NeoLife’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) oversees product development and existing formulations. The company maintains its own lab in California and contracts with other lab facilities in Europe and South Africa, with products manufactured primarily in the U.S. and in Europe. In the U.S., NeoLife markets about 130 products, many of which are also sold in other markets or reformulated to meet international regulations. Its core product is Pro Vitality, which features ingredients like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids. The founder of NeoLife’s SAB, Dr. Arthur Furst, was an internationally regarded pioneer in toxicology and cancer research. “Many of his discoveries led to groundbreaking NeoLife products,” says Kendra, “and his vision and pursuit of excellence continue to be a driving force behind NeoLife products.
“Our unique and enduring commitment to scientific excellence has attracted the attention of researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control, major universities and respected scientific institutions around the world.”
Focusing on the U.S. Market
One market both Whetzel and Kendra hope to grow is the United States. Whetzel says he feels NeoLife needs to establish itself in the U.S. and in other major direct selling markets even though it has grown well in markets that other companies in the channel haven’t ventured into, such as different parts of Africa.
Adds Kendra, “I believe the reason the U.S. hasn’t been as strong of a market for us has really just been our focus.… We have some really strong Distributor leaders here in the U.S. [who are] building, but when you have passionate people who are passionate about sharing the products, that’s where you’re going to see the growth.” At the moment, one of the highest-percentage growth markets for the company is Canada.
“Our Distributors are fiercely loyal to us as a company and to our products,” adds Whetzel. “We have many Distributors here in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Africa who are literally passing their NeoLife businesses on to future generations.” In some cases, he states, to the third generation.
Jerry has no qualms about letting Kendra and Whetzel guide the company now, and he has learned that turning over the reins to someone else takes time. “You’ve got to stay in business long enough to need it, and then you’ve got to give yourself enough time to make sure whoever you put in charge has the heart for the company, and that means a heart for the Distributors and a code of ethics,” he says. “I’ve watched Simon and Kendra run the business. While I was still CEO I would force them to think situations through and come up with a decision with me, and I found them to make even better decisions than I would have made. I feel very confident in their abilities going forward.”
One way Kendra hopes to keep the company going forward is by attracting a new wave of leaders, including millennials. However, she is also interested in reaching out to baby boomers, pointing out that research has shown 65 percent of retired individuals can’t afford to retire. Part of her strategy to grow the company, especially in the U.S., is to continue to offer Promoters access to training and events featuring best practices from the most successful NeoLife entrepreneurs around the world. The company holds training events that are designed to empower people with the tools, knowledge and motivation Promoters need to reach their goals.
NeoLife Promoters in Africa are recognized for their achievements at a recent event.
Working to End a Dangerous Health Trend
Alongside building financial and leadership growth Kendra fully intends to maintain the company’s emphasis on philanthropy. Its NeoLife Family Foundation donates a generous portion of profits to organizations that serve the needs of underprivileged children, and it also provides aid to areas affected by natural disasters. In addition, the company supports the educational initiative Curriki, a project designed to create the world’s largest library database for teachers.
With his daughter firmly ensconced in the business, Jerry now feels comfortable taking a backseat. He still keeps an eye on sales in various parts of the world, especially in Africa, Europe and Mexico, but he no longer worries about the company not remaining in the family; he never wanted to sell it. He is approached nearly every month with offers to buy the company, and he routinely ignores such suitors.
Since NeoLife is all about improving lives and promoting wellness, both Kendra and Whetzel put an emphasis on staying fit themselves. Kendra is an avid surfer and competes in half-marathons. Whetzel bikes to work twice a week—a journey that is 40 miles roundtrip. And 77-year-old Jerry has been known to challenge people to vigorous pushup contests.
Kendra, however, knows that fitness alone won’t ensure the company’s success. “Our end-game goal is to fight the trend of chronic disease that is literally destroying families around the world, and we’re using good nutrition as our weapon of choice,” she says. According to Kendra, the World Health Organization and CDC estimate that by 2020, three out of every four deaths will be caused by either cancer, diabetes or heart disease. “And to me, the most heartbreaking part about that statistic is the fact these are diseases of lifestyle,” she says. “And that’s where we come in; we have a solution to bridge the gap between diet and nutrition, with superior quality nutrition products that are based in nature and backed by leading edge science.”