WHITEFISH — In the spring of 1995, Brian Frank uprooted his family and small business in California and moved to “The Last Best Place.”
Frank settled his mail-order business, called E-Caps, on Commerce Street in downtown Whitefish. He and his wife Sonia answered phone calls past midnight from customers interested in Frank’s rather novel concoction: “Race Caps Supreme,” a supplement guaranteed to help athletes train longer and harder but also healthier.
At the time some people were calling Frank a snake oil salesman. After all, these were the days when amateur athletes were fueling up with candy bars and Gatorade for conventional performance enhancement. A supplement like Frank’s that ditched artificial sugar and combined a healthy formula of nutrients, antioxidants and other important substrates into pill form was unheard of.
Frank turned out to be a man before his time.
Hammer Nutrition, formerly E-Caps, has evolved into one of the leading sources of healthy fuels and supplements in the booming endurance sports world. The business celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012 with another hallmark year. Profits rose 10 percent over 2011, continuing Hammer’s streak of growing every year since being founded in 1987. Its expanding product line – supplements, whey protein powders, recovery bars, sports drink mixes and more – typifies the all-natural, healthy ideals that are now conventional wisdom. A line of vegan products is being prepared for 2013.
Hammer sponsored more than 2,800 events across North America in 2012, and plans to reach events in Mexico next year. More than 40 employees work at the business campus on Whitefish Stage Road and another 125 to 150 are employed at its manufacturer in Wisconsin. Almost 3,000 packages a week are shipped out of Northwest Montana to around the globe.
Since the early 1990s, when the Baby Boomer generation jumped on the fitness wave, endurance sports have become more popular than ever. There were 659 marathons in the U.S. and Canada this year, up from 635 in 2011 and 570 in 2010, according to the online database site FindMyMarathon.com. Hundreds of triathlons, cycling competitions and related events also take place every year. Then there’s the recent craze of adventure racing, like the Spartan Race and Tough Mudder.
Seen as a company that’s well positioned for capitalizing on the vast marketplace, Hammer Nutrition has drawn the attention of large investors interested in making the business’ brand and products mainstream like PowerBar and Clif Bar. But Frank’s response has remained the same: “No, thank you.”
“I don’t want to be in Walmart,” he said, adding, “We don’t want to fall down that slippery slope. I tell my employees, profits are a side effect of doing good business and taking care of your customers. (Profits are) not the goal.”
Frank, who grew up in a health-conscience family, is staying true to his roots. He remains devoted to keeping Hammer Nutrition a family business that its employees, customers and sponsored athletes can take pride in as a “grassroots non-corporate” entity.
Even if a big investor seems in line with that ideal, he isn’t ready to risk losing it.
“I’ve seen it go wrong too many times. The bottom line is, and this is what I’m telling my kids, money comes with strings,” he said. “I’m just not willing to do shortsighted things in the company that may improve profit but could run us off the cliff.”
This mentality helps explain Hammer Nutrition’s meticulous style of developing health-oriented products and supporting events that are more grassroots-oriented than large scale.
“It’s a long-term view. I think in the long run people see what we’re doing,” Frank said.
“In the last two-and-a-half decades, I can’t count how many bars, gels and drinks have come and gone. It’s the same old story: fairly inferior products,” he added. “In this marketplace you have to be able to walk the walk.”
Like many of Hammer’s staff, Frank remains active himself and connected to the endurance sports community. He rides roughly 4,000 miles a year on his bike. He seeks input from athletes and constantly looks for ways to innovate. He maintains five to six staff members at Hammer whose primary job is to talk with customers and trade knowledge about fitness and health.
“We’ve worked hard over the last two decades to really foster that sense of community. I think people feel that,” he said. “I think they understand that here’s a brand that you can feel good about.”
For more information about Hammer Nutrition, visit www.hammernutrition.com.
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