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In Search of the Perfect Fish Oil

By: Immpreneur


When Joar Opheim was growing up in northern Norway, he competed in gymnastics, a sport known for its punishing training regimens. To treat the many sprains, bruises and other injuries that came with it, Opheim took fish oil supplements to boost his body’s anti-inflammatory response—not unusual for someone growing up by the Norwegian Sea, which is world-renowned for its fishing. What Opheim didn’t imagine at the time was that, years later, he would move to the U.S. and build a thriving business producing his own high-quality fish oil. Today, Nordic Naturals, the Watsonville, Cal-based company he founded, has about 210 employees, sells 150 products in 35 countries, and has consistent double-digit growth, according to Opheim.

Here’s his story:
First Days In America
In Norway, taking fish oil, with its healing Omega-3 fatty acids, was part of daily life. So it was only natural that Opheim chose to use it as a way of treating his own injuries. When he moved to California in the mid-1980’s to complete his MBA at Santa Clara University, he assumed he’d continue that practice in his new home. But, according to Opheim, he couldn’t find the kind of high-quality fish oil he was accustomed to buying in Norway. On trips back home, he would fill a suitcase with bottles of the stuff to last him until his next visit. Opheim intended to return to Norway when he graduated, but the opportunities in California were too great to pass up. He worked in Silicon Valley for several technology companies, focusing on in everything from financial analysis to marketing to IT. “I wanted the experience of learning about all the functions in a business,” he explained.
Using His Immigrant Advantage
While he enjoyed his work in Silicon Valley, he began to feel that something was missing—he wanted a business of his own. But what kind of business? Gradually, it dawned on him that he had an opportunity staring at him in the face—producing the kind of fish oil he couldn’t find in his new country. If the only thing available were low-quality supplements that were vastly inferior to anything he was used to, Opheim would start making and selling his own brand in the U.S. “It all came together—my Norwegian heritage, knowledge of fish oil, love of science,” he says. His mission: to produce the purest, healthiest fish oils in an environmentally sustainable way and, in the process, to correct what he saw as an omega-3 insufficiency worldwide, a consequence of living on the typical Western diet. In 1995, he formed Nordic Naturals to bring his vision into reality. A year later, he got a $50,000 SBA loan to kick-start the operation.

Creating a Product in a Class by Itself
But even though he had the funding to get started, there were huge obstacles ahead. Building his new enterprise meant juggling several substantial challenges simultaneously. First was the matter of creating a product. Opheim wanted to develop something that, quite simply, didn’t exist: fish oil supplements that were free of toxins, retained their freshness, were mostly comprised of highly absorbable triglycerides, and were sourced using sustainable fishing practices. What’s more, they needed to be in the form of a soft gel without the unpleasant aftertaste of other products on the market. It was a very tall order indeed. 
Through contacts in his native country, Opheim contacted a facility in Norway and began working with researchers to find an effective way to purify fish oil in order to produce a product that met his specifications. Then he formed a partnership with a Dutch firm to develop a method for flavoring the gelatin encapsulating the oil “so we could come out with a product that tasted great,” he says. Altogether, it took a year and a half before he was satisfied with his product.
Since creating and manufacturing his product required developing new formulations and processes, he also needed patent protection. In 1999, he filed his first application. He now has three patents with four applications pending.

Creating The Market
Opheim faced another challenge, however. He had to sell Americans on fish oil’s many benefits.  And he needed to demonstrate how much better his product was than anything else out there. At the same time, Opheim figured the timing was right. The fitness industry was booming, and Americans were gung-ho about fitness and health, and would gladly pay for quality products. What’s more, consumers were already using supplements regularly. Furthermore, his product had the added advantage of tapping into a burgeoning interest in all things ecological and sustainable.
Finally, in 1998, Opheim was ready to sell his product. Health food stores, he figured, were the natural place to start. So, he hired an independent sales rep group to start knocking on doors. But his sales force immediately hit a wall; Opheim had priced his products higher than many other similar supplements on the market and potential retailers were balking. What’s more, “The stores didn’t see why my product was any better than anything else they’d seen,” he says. After a year of no success, he knew he had to make some changes. “I was afraid I would have to declare bankruptcy,” he says.

1) Scientific Research
But Opheim regrouped. First, he stepped up research he’d already started. He understand that Americans, while interested in supplements, needed scientific proof of fish oil’s health benefits.  And scientific support for the efficacy of fish oil was sorely lacking. What Opheim needed was to be able to provide measurable evidence. To that end, he attended medical research symposiums, introducing himself to researchers to see whether they would be interested in doing research on the properties of fish oil and their health benefits. Eventually, his persistence paid off and he found scientists who were intrigued by the area and willing to dive into it more deeply.
Researchers at institutions such as Columbia and Stanford universities produced the kind of studies he had hoped for, some funded by the National Institutes of Health or other government agencies. Nordic Naturals also conducted some important research on its own.
2) New Sales Strategy
He also reconsidered his marketing plan. Who might be open to hearing about and embracing a new, high-quality supplement, one made using sustainable practices, backed by convincing research? Then he had an inspiration: target doctors focused on natural health—chiropractors, holistic practitioners and others who would understand the product’s benefits and, in turn, sell the product or recommend it to their patients. Opheim figured that such a market would be excited about the many studies he now had under his belt and the quality of Nordic Naturals. So, armed with his research, Opheim attended medical conferences and symposiums with an alternative bent likely to attract his target audience. He quickly found an interested audience, who began recommending the product to their patients. Finally, sales started to take off.

Selling To Retailers – Redux
With a successful track record of selling to the natural health practitioners, Opheim decided to try selling to health food stores again. He hired a team of sales reps who, equipped with presentations documenting his products’ attributes and benefits, along with scientific evidence and stories of the supplement’s acceptance by doctors, started selling. This time, retailers bought in droves. After 150 or so health food stores signed on, Opheim decided to approach the supplements buyer at Whole Foods. First, he hired an outside firm to create new packaging: The original labeling was aimed at the medical practitioner and Opheim realized he needed something different for retailers, a design more likely to pop out from store shelves and attract the attention of the consumer. Then, he arranged a meeting and, armed with not only his scientific research, but also his success at other stores, he persuaded the buyer to stock his product.
Dogs, Cats & Kids
To market successfully to consumers, Opheim knew he needed a larger product line. He quickly followed up his first, Ultimate Omega, with DHA and a slew of others, including a children’s line, with such products as Ultimate Omega Junior and Nordic Omega-3 Jellies. Then, because most pure-bred dog and horse breeders in Norway use Omega-3 supplements, according to Opheim, he created a line for pets, selling to veterinary offices, as well as pet retailers.
International Growth
And in 2000, he expanded his market to Canada, and ultimately, responding to demand from retailers in other countries, expanded into more than 30 markets internationally. Thanks to his savvy marketing and painstaking research, the U.S.—and perhaps much of the world—seems ready to embrace Opheim’s vision.  

This article was originally published by Immpreneur
Published: October 22, 2013

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