Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.
By JON TWEETEN
Hundreds of miles from major cities, Missoula may not be the most natural location for a nationally recognized, mass-market manufacturing operation, but it is home to Nutritional Laboratories International, a manufacturer of supplements and vitamins that sells its products all over the world.
Started in 1997 by six people interested in the dietary supplement business, Nutritional Labs began with 15 employees and was located in a 50,000 square foot facility in the shopping center next in downtown Lolo.
But the business saw a lot of growth in a relatively short amount of time and quickly outgrew the Lolo facility.
So in 2004, the company moved their manufacturing operation to a much larger facility on west Third Street in Missoula. There, the company was able to grow into what it is today: A nationally-recognized supplement manufacturer with over 100 employees that produces products for more than 30 different markets around the world.
The key to that growth, according to Director of Sales and Marketing Doug Lefler, was building a production system that rivaled any competitor.
“The quality systems that we had implemented at the beginning of the company in 1997 were such that we were trying to be closer—even though we’re not a pharmaceutical company—but be closer to those pharmaceutical regulations than just your standard company that’s just throwing herbs or whatever on a machine and running them,” Lefler said.
In fact, every product that’s designed and manufactured by Nutritional Laboratories goes through four stages of quality assurance testing, as per the “good manufacturing practices” for dietary supplements laid out by the FDA.
“As a manufacturer, we want to put out good, safe, quality products—that’s the end result we’re always shooting for,” said Elizabeth Rissler Pratt, director of Human Resources for the company.
First, there’s an identity test to ensure the product has the correct ratio of ingredients, followed by an analytical test to verify the product’s potency. The physical characteristics of the product—its density, size, and ability to dissolve—are also tested. And lastly, the product is tested for any microbial contamination.
Mass production of the product only begins once these tests have been passed, and after packaging, the product is shipped back to the client. From there, it can end up on the shelves of stores from Atlanta to Alaska, or right back here in Missoula.
“I’ll see some of the products we make in a store and think, ‘We just shipped that to New Jersey, and now it’s back here at Walgreens,’” said Lefler.
Despite its remote location, Missoula provided a workforce that made setting up shop here an easy decision according to the company, according to the company.
“The quality of the people, and the work ethic of the people, are a significant advantage to having our business here in Missoula, Montana,” said Rissler Pratt.
Nonetheless, some Missoulians may find it surprising that a nationally known vitamin and supplement company has their base of operations smack in the middle of town.
The production facility looks like an inconspicuous office plaza with a warehouse attached to it, but inside is a high-tech operation. There are labs for developing prototype products and for testing products, as well as
In another section employees monitor giant mixers and coaters, as well as tableting and encapsulating machines. Everyone is decked out in white full-body jumpsuits, hairnets, facemasks, gloves and shoe covers—the entire environment is as clean and contamination-free as possible.
No matter the client, product, order size, or final destination everything that comes out of Nutritional Labs gets the same care and attention.
“You can find our products over at the Dollar Tree, and you can find them at health food stores for $60 a bottle,” said Steve Dybdal, the company’s Director of Operations. “We service all kinds of different clients, but no matter the product or where it’s going, it always gets the same quality assurance treatment.”
Company officials credit Nutritional Laboratories’ emphasis on quality assurance in large part to Terry Benishek, one of Nutritional Laboratory’s founding members and current CEO. After 20 years in the automotive industry overseeing manufacturing plants that supplied parts to Ford, GM, Navistar, and others, it was his goal to take the extensive quality control systems of the automotive industry and apply them to the supplement industry.
And unlike the auto industry, which needed a major government bailout in 2009, the dietary supplement business has grown exponentially over the years with 4.4 percent growth and $28 billion in sales for 2010 alone.
While quality assurance put Nutritional Labs on the map, it really is the people that have made it the success it is today: “We live in college town, there’s a lot of educated, hard working people here—and that’s just the Montana way I think,” said Lefler.