Reserveage: Turning the French Paradox into a Booming Business

It began with a glass of red wine, and an observation on how well the French aged.

Three years later, Reserveage Organics, a Gainesville-based beauty and nutrition supplement company, has grown to a $20 million dollar business. Its chief executive, Naomi Whittel, has seen her products offered in more than 2,500 stores and featured on the QVC shopping network and “The Dr. Oz. Show.”

“I found the industry to just open its arms up and grab on to everything that we’ve presented,” Whittel says.

Recession Rewards Innovation

Whittel’s company offers a range of products, from a line of multivitamins to supplements created to aid concerns ranging from menopause to prostate health.

Reserveage was built around what is known as the “French Paradox.” That is, the French, noted for their wine-drinking habits, seemed to age better than their counterparts in the U.S. While visiting family in the south of France, Whittel and a cousin, a French doctor, talked about how the French were able to maintain their vitality well into old age.

About the same time, she heard that researchers, including some at the University of Florida, were looking at resveratrol, a molecule present in grapes used to make red wine. Animal studies suggested that resveratrol helped promote cardiovascular health and had a range of other benefits, including anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.

“I felt that this is a great place to start this kind of a company,” says Whittel, who had moved to Gainesville with her husband and daughter a couple of years previously.

Whittel, who had owned a health food store in south Florida and had been involved in the beauty and nutrition supplement business for 15 years, decided she could use her previous experience and contacts to create and market a supplement based around the resveratrol extracted from grapes, and Reserveage was born.

Even though 2009 was perhaps not the best time to start a company, with the recession hitting full stride, Whittel felt she knew what to expect from her previous business ventures. She started with between $50,000 and $60,000 of her own money to set up operations, consulted with researchers in the U.S. and France, and contracted with a French vineyard to extract the resveratrol from its grapes. She worked directly with the raw material sources, rather than going through middlemen, to help ensure quality and affordability.

To her surprise, within three months, the company had become profitable and was one of the fastest-growing companies in the supplement industry.

Whittel says the recession may have worked to the company’s advantage. “New companies aren’t necessarily launching, and innovation is not necessarily at its highest point,” she says. That, she adds, allows a nimble company with innovative products to prosper.

New Research, More Growth

The company quickly gained attention in the beauty and nutrition supplements industry, earning several awards from magazines like Better Nutrition and Taste for Life.

That growth rate continues to surprise even Whittel. It is ranked No. 1 in its brand, according to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry. The company’s figures showed sales increased 41 percent from 2010 to 2011, taking in about $20 million, and it is on track to get to half that figure in the first month of 2012 alone.

Whittel says trying to keep up with the growth has been her biggest challenge, with so many moving pieces. She hopes to double her employees—from 75 to 150—by the end of the year.

One reason for that exceptional growth, according to Whittel, was the stress on innovation and closely working with researchers. “We’re always on the cutting edge with what’s new and exciting, and at the end of the day, that’s what the customer is looking for,” she says.

Whittel was also enthusiastic about the educational base she can draw on in a university town like Gainesville. “Gainesville’s been a very important part of our growth,” she says, stressing how educated and focused her employees are.

Sustainable Expansion

Reserveage is using its close links with researchers to expand its product line. It recently launched a supplement based on cocoa, following a Harvard professor’s research on the island-based Kuna tribe in Panama. The study found that the tribe members, who drank five cups of cocoa a day, had fewer cases of heart and dementia problems than residents of mainland Panama.

For 2012, Whittel plans to step up the company’s emphasis on sustainability. It recently switched to using vegan-based capsules in its products. Reserveage also has contracted to pay 3 percent of the profits on the cocoa-based supplement to the Kuna tribe in the Harvard study.

“Our core mission,” she says, “is to provide life-changing products that are based on sustainable methods.”

Whittle is also determined to help other women succeed in the supplement business.  She is part of an initiative called DAWN, or Developing and Advancing Women in Naturals, designed to help promote women’s success as industry executives.  “Our industry focuses on the female purchaser, and yet less than 3 percent of women are at the executive level,” she says. “So we’re looking very hard to support that growth.”

The key to making a business work, Whittel stresses, is to capitalize on passion.  “I don’t think business is that hard,” she says, “if you’re passionate, you’re focused and you have support around you.

“If you construct great systems, provide high-quality products and services, and you’re always thinking about who the consumer is, that leads to a successful business,” she stresses.

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