Over the course of his career, Becker has worked with hundreds of different brands, supporting their quality product needs, and intimately involved in the commercial development process from new product concepts through developing finished product specifications. Under Becker’s leadership, Columbia Nutritional has quickly become one of the premiere contract manufacturing companies based in the Pacific Northwest. He has refocused the company’s core competencies to service more established and high growth brands alike, resulting in a strong and growing sales pipeline. His emphasis on a company-wide, customer-focused approach with proactive communications is one reason for the success he has had in the contract manufacturing industry.
Prior to entering the dietary supplement industry, he worked in the food and beverage industry in various product management and business development roles for major companies including Carnation, Nestle, Coca-Cola and Dole Packaged Foods. Becker holds an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management and a BS in Business Administration from the University of Montana.
Health E-Insights: What’s the history surrounding Columbia Nutritional?
Becker: The origination of Columbia Nutritional came from the merger of two smaller family run operations in Vancouver, WA, about 20 years ago. The company has had a consistent growth trend through the years with an initial emphasis on helping natural practitioners based in the Pacific Northwest develop their own lines of custom products. Since then, it has evolved in supporting multiple brands in various distribution channels including sports nutrition, direct to consumer, natural retailer, mass market, and various international markets. In 2013, the merged partners sold Columbia Nutritional to a group of private investors to bring on more experienced capital partners and management to support additional growth and resulted in more than tripling the size of the company. In 2017, Columbia Nutritional acquired a nearby contract manufacturing company, Pacific Nutritional International (PNI), also located in Vancouver, WA, and relocated the operation into the PNI manufacturing facility, which had almost twice the square footage with greater combined manufacturing capacity for capsule, tablet, and powder blending and filling.
Prior to the acquisition of PNI, Columbia had initiated a greenfield project to establish an eastern U.S. manufacturing location, choosing Columbus, OH, for this new site. It has been functional since the end of 2017, focused on a highly cost competitive powder blending and filling operation. The two combined operations total about 100,000 square feet. In 2018, Columbia’s production output totaled about 500 million capsules and tablets, 1.2 million kg of powdered drink mixes and almost 7 million bottles of capsule and tablet products. The company is operating at around 50% capacity utilization, so there is a strong runway for continuing its growth.
Health E-Insights: What's the newest, freshest approach you have brought to your company?
Becker: Personally, I have brought a focus on a few key items to help position Columbia for further growth. First is understanding Columbia’s place in the rapidly growing dietary supplement marketplace. It is difficult to be all things to all types of customers. We have realized with the combination of having significant capacity and certain core manufacturing capabilities, we must provide a superior level of service and support to our customers in order to earn the label as a trusted manufacturing partner. We went through a significant pivot strategy in early 2018 that included establishing minimum order quantities, which are still quite low compared to other industry contract manufacturers, updating legacy pricing to ensure our updated labor and overhead costs were properly applied to ensure each product we manufacture has a positive cash contribution, in addition to refined business practices.
Second, it is my experience in the industry of almost 25 years and what I have learned through the years of developing and manufacturing products for literally hundreds of different brands. I have taken factors that made my previous company successful, which includes a commitment to quality products, proactive communications, and servicing our customers. The business of custom product manufacturing of dietary supplements is highly technical and requires a great deal of attention to detail. It is critical that our customers are interlinked with us at every step of the process. We strive to practice this communication approach with our customers so when issues happen, we can closely work through these matters in a shared, rapid process. This is really built from a platform of trust and transparency.
Finally, over the past couple of years, the growth of dietary supplements sold directly to consumers via Amazon has changed the market dynamics and it is crucial that suppliers adapt to this rapidly changing marketplace. For Columbia this means that we need to be better at launching new products in a quicker, more efficient process, while ensuring FDA cGMP compliance is not compromised for our customers and their brands are not at risk, while simultaneously offering greater flexibility to support rapid growth. It is crucial that the complete supply chain is tightly linked to minimize lead-times, while ensuring specifications are being met. I believe we have made great progress with this process, and I realized it was something inherent with the culture at Columbia, as they typically had launched over 150 products a year. This is something we continue to build from.
Health E-Insights: As a contract manufacturing company, what services do you offer?
Becker: From the outside, we are very much a traditional contract manufacturer of dietary supplements with capabilities of producing capsule, tablet, and powder drink mix delivery forms. We have experience in the production of thousands of different ingredient combinations from multivitamins and minerals, combination and single botanical products, probiotics and enzymes, and functional formulations like joint, energy, skin and beauty, digestive, recovery and fitness, among others. We are also a certified organic processor based on the USDA requirements. And from a service perspective, our portfolio of capabilities is very deep in order to be a one-stop-shop for quality-oriented consumer-branded companies. It all starts with laying out a clean plan for onboarding a new product that includes the design phase where we work with our customer’s formula or assist them in developing or refining a formula and then generating a theoretical, preliminary formula and quote that lays out all ingredient, packaging, and dosing information on a one-page deck that lays out the general specifications for a formula. As the process moves ahead, we provide documentation to support claims like non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free, and others. Eventually, we end up developing a final product specification that is customer approved and establishes a mutually agreed upon product.
Health E-Insights: Onboarding seems to be one of your signature services.
Becker: New products have always been the lifeblood of the U.S. dietary supplement industry and I don’t see any reason for that to change but will only accelerate in the future. Columbia Nutritional already had a strong culture of developing and launching new products for its customers. What we are now doing is formalizing and tracking these processes at a greater level so we can support our current customers’ needs while bringing on new customers with their new product launch needs. This is an area in which we are investing heavily in both people and execution tools, so that we may become the industry leader in helping brands design, engineer, and commercialize a product cost effectively, quickly, while meeting cGMP requirements and customer specifications.
Health E-Insights: Does Columbia Nutritional carry a wide range of certifications, as well as being GMP certified?
Becker: I wouldn’t call it a wide range at this stage, but we do have a few key ones we currently hold, while planning for a couple of additional strategic add-ons. At this point, we have our Vancouver site certified through the Natural Products Association (NPA) third-party cGMP compliance program partnership with UL Underwriters. We are in the process of having this completed at our Columbus, OH, facility as well. We are currently a Certified Organic processor through Organic Certifiers USDA program with several Certified Organic products under our belt and more on the way. We plan to add another third-party cGMP certification before the end of 2019. We also maintain our site listing with Health Canada, as we have a long history of supplying products to the Canadian market.
Health E-Insights: What sets you apart from other contract manufacturers?
Becker: Dietary supplement brands have so many choices of who they can work with in this industry. The three major competencies you need to have just to be in business is competitive pricing, compliant quality processes, and a reasonable ability to service your customers. I believe fit and compatibility are also two critical factors in what helps a brand make the selection process. It is difficult to be all things to all people, so it is crucial to focus on a sales channel or type of product or a service function that you can really drive. Our customers select Columbia Nutritional for its ability to communicate proactively, deliver quality products in a timely manner, and be a trusted resource with a high degree of integrity.
Health E-Insights: Are you able to service global customers?
Becker: Absolutely. Our ability to help international partners formulate products based on their local market needs while providing extensive documentation support is a core competency. There are several new and existing customers we are currently supporting. Our multiple international markets include China, Japan, India, South Korea, United Kingdom, several Middle Eastern countries and many others.
Health E-Insights: Plans for future expansion or growth?
Becker: At this stage we are focused on growing our core competencies, capsules, tablets and powders. We still have plenty of capacity in all these delivery forms. We have made a recent investment in our laboratory testing capabilities. We have relied on third party labs for most of our testing requirements including microbiological, heavy metals, and potency testing. We do virtually all raw material identity testing in-house and have added microbiological testing. We purchased a BioLumex quick micro testing system and are in final stages of qualifying and running side by side comparative tests. This will allow us to turn our testing results around quicker in order to reduce our processing times at both the front end with raw material micro testing and at the end with the finished product testing.
Health E-Insights: What do you feel are the most significant industry issues your customers need to be aware of?
Becker: The biggest issues our customers and prospects need to constantly be aware of is the quality of the ingredients and processes that their manufacturers deploy. Cost is a driving factor in every industry and is crucial to ensure profitability is achieved. The biggest risk to brand-holders are cutting corners to save costs or time. In today’s world of social media and customer reviews, a brand’s reputation can be damaged very quickly if inferior products or services are used. It is a tough compromise. We are continually working on improving every day at Columbia to help brands reduce this risk. It is an ongoing process that we are dedicated to daily.
Sheldon Baker is CEO of the Baker Dillon Group LLC and has created numerous nutraceutical brand marketing communications and public relations campaigns for many well-known supplement and food industry companies. For Health E-Insights interview consideration or brand marketing consulting, contact him at SBaker@BakerDillon.com.