"Never, never had I seen anything like that" - Matt Schueller talks COVID and its disruption of the supplement industry

"Never, never had I seen anything like that" - Matt Schueller talks COVID and its disruption of the supplement industry
August 10, 2021

When COVID began to spread around the world in March 2020, Matt Schueller, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer of Nature’s Way wasn’t prepared for what was to come: a dramatic transformation of the supplement industry for businesses and consumers alike. He shares his experience and insight in this exclusive interview with The FORM Post.


Nature’s Way is a global leader in the manufacturing and marketing of dietary supplements and vitamins. The US company has been part of the industry for more than 50 years and is also recognized as a pioneer in herbal supplements.

Matt Schueller started with Nature’s Way in 1993 and has served in a multitude of roles including Sales, Marketing, Scientific Affairs, Product Development, Business Development and Strategy. His current responsibilities as the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer include strategic planning, innovation and business development.

Matt, it’s great to have you with us. Let’s start with a yes or no question: did you take vitamins, minerals or any supplements this morning? If yes, what did you take exactly? 


Matt Schueller: Oh yes, I did. I actually started the morning with my Baze packet. My packet changes about every three months, but right now it’s Magnesium, Omega-3 fatty acids, and in addition to that I use a probiotic from Nature’s Way as well as some Zinc gummies from Nature’s Way, because they are great for the immune system. I think we all learnt plenty about global pandemics and the immune system over the last 15 months and how being proactive can make a difference. So that’s how my day from a dietary supplement or nutrition standpoint started.


When talking about dietary supplements, especially multivitamins, there’s one straight-forward statement that’s often mentioned: ‘Multivitamins just create very expensive urine.’ What is your position on this?


Matt Schueller: It’s actually one of the reasons why we as Nature’s Way invested in Baze. We’ve all heard that story: ‘you don't need vitamins or supplements, if you just eat right’. And I’d say a couple things about that. One is, eating a proper diet so that you get all of your nutrients at an optimal level all the time throughout the year out of our food sources - it’s almost impossible. And Baze has been helpful for me personally in being able to achieve just that - I’ve worked here at Nature’s Way for almost 30 years, I’ve been around supplements for a long, long time, I’ve seen a lot of people in my life who live this lifestyle and people who don’t. And after 30 years of watching and working with people who have had this proactive health approach, I’d say: Yes, there’s something to it. I can just see how they look, how their energy is, how active they stay. And it’s not one thing, it’s not just supplements, there’s a whole bunch of things involved in building a healthy life. Mental health is involved, exercise, stress reduction, having purpose in your life and certainly nutrition and supplements are involved. I would never try to paint it as if it’s just one thing.


The other thing we often hear is: ‘Hey, you take those things and you just pee them out’ and I would say: ‘yes I hope so’. That is how nutrition works. It comes in, our body uses what it needs and then it passes it through. It’s that way with food that we eat, it’s that way with supplements that we take. And for me that’s why a measured approach is really important, because there are water soluble nutrients that come in, they get used quickly, and they don’t stick around and then there are fat soluble nutrients that do come in and stick around and if you’re overdosing or getting too much of those nutrients, that can have bad effects. That’s why I love the measured approach.


You spoke about how important it is to have a holistic and balanced approach. What would you say is your most important health routine?


Matt Schueller: Exercise. Without a doubt. If all of the health benefits of exercise could be packaged into a pill it would be the world’s best selling drug. I say that in all seriousness. It’s helping us burn calories, which is so important, because in the developed parts of the world today, our issues for folks generally are not about malnutrition or not getting enough calories. It’s about overcaloring and the types of calories. So exercise is great for that. It’s also beneficial from a cardiovascular standpoint, which is the number one killer in most developed countries.

Exercise helps us keep weight down, improve insulin and glucose control, sets endorphins free, and improves mental health. And for me personally, it’s also fun. I love to ride a bike with a group of friends, so exercise can also be very social. And not to forget, exercise enables me to eat probably more than would be healthy. I love food and exercise helps me to keep my food intake balanced and moderated.


Exercise was certainly not that easy to maintain for most people during the pandemic. Speaking of COVID-19 - how did it influence the business at Nature’s Way and the overall market?


Matt Schueller: It has been a crazy last 15, 16 months. We go back to February of last year and it’s funny now, because even in February we didn’t see it. We didn’t know it. We had those funny little signals in hindsight. We had some E-Commerce businesses that we work with who sold a lot of things into Asia, wanting more immune health supplements. And at the time it was just weird. Such and such site was ordering stuff and because of this COVID thing we’re hearing about, people are taking more immune health supplements, but we still didn’t fully register what the implications of this were. And then through February we started seeing product sales picking up and when March hit, they just took off. It was nuts, it was crazy. Retailers were super busy with people stocking up. E-Commerce started to grow dramatically. Vitamins, immune health supplements, single things like Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Zinc, Elderberry - anything kind of related to immune health just took off last year in March.


The reality is that most companies dealing with nutrition or supplements spent the rest of the year trying to recover their supply chains. I have been around this business for 30 years and I have seen ingredients, fads and long term trends, but never, never had I seen anything like that and the implications that it had on the industry. It took probably what was 5 years of changes out on the horizon. It just brought them forward in how people thought about nutrition, where they shopped for nutrition and the types of products they were buying.


It must have been very exciting but also shocking to see the industry facing such dramatic changes. How are you personally dealing with it?


Matt Schueller: It’s stressful. At first, it was just disbelief. I’m hearing it on the news that they talk about a pandemic, about this virus - you know, I have traveled before and seen people wearing masks in Asia, but the thought of masks becoming part of our daily existence was just off the table. March 1st I would have probably said no, that’s not going to happen. And by March 30th it was everywhere. So I think, there was some disbelief, and pretty quickly it turned to ‘we are very, very busy. This is great. We’ll sell a lot of stuff.’ And in business you love that, it’s great. It solves what usually is your biggest near term problem which is ‘can I generate enough revenue’.


And we quickly wanted to get everyone out of the building who doesn’t absolutely have to be here. Because our offices were in the same building as our production and our labs and if we get this infection going throughout this building we have to shut it down for two weeks. We can’t make products, then we can’t ship products - we’ll not have any revenue. The mindset had to change quickly to - you’ll laugh, but we call it: ‘protect the paycheck’. Because we can’t take care of our people if we can’t keep the business running, we have to figure out how to do this and how to keep people safe and that means to get 90 % of our office staff out of the building and working virtually which we’re all used to now. And now, after 15, 16 months we’re starting to slowly bring people back in over the course of the summer. But the supply chain has been affected dramatically, it’s been harder than ever to get simple things - bottles, caps, empty capsules, things that we never had to think about before, but those supply chains are really, really stretched and still, they’re recovering. They get a little bit better every month, but it’s not like all of the sudden it’s 25 % better, it’s only a couple percent better.


I would say that life is returning to a somewhat more normal state here in the US. Businesses are starting to wrestle in summer with how quickly to start returning people to the office and the reality is, people probably won’t be as much in the office as prior to COVID. And how do we work like that? How do we collaborate? How do we innovate when we’re not around each other as much? There are some things that virtual work is really good at, but collaboration and innovation for me doesn’t work as well over virtual technologies as it does when you can sit in a room and get on a white board. Those are some of the things we have to figure out better how to do. 


Looking forward, which trends do you see for the supplement and nutrient market?


Matt Schueller: One that I see for the US, but I think it’s global as well, is the continuing rise of E-Commerce. What we saw in the US here, every year E-Commerce was growing, because a greater and greater percentage of households were using it for more and more of their purchases. When all of the sudden you couldn’t go out and go to a store, that shifted to a whole new level. And what we really saw was, people 55 or older,  those were the folks who were least likely to do grocery and supplement shopping online. Well, that was the group that all of the sudden knew that they are most vulnerable and it pushed a lot of them into E-Commerce. And I don’t think this trend will revert to pre-pandemic habits -. It’s handy, it’s really convenient, it saves a lot of time. So, I think E-Commerce has dramatically shifted and it’s never going back. 


Also, the whole field of nutrition has gone to a new level, because people have said ‘Oh I get it more.’ Here’s this viral condition and it really wrecked the most havoc on people who weren’t proactive about health. They had diabetes, they were older, their immune systems were more taxed. So this whole idea about taking care of myself and improving my immune health,, it's much more widespread and it’s never going back, because everyone who was more than 5 years old in the last year, this is one of those events that stays with you for the rest of your life. We grew up and I heard about things like the Spanish flu and other pandemics, but I never lived through one. And now we’ve all lived through one and we’ll be forever impacted by it. Another thing that has changed is mental health. I think it’s been featured prominently in the overall conversation. People have been able to think and hear about, to grapple with the concepts of stress, anxiety, depression, etc.. It’s making people think seriously about solutions and ways to cope with mental and emotional pain. For better or for worse, that’s one of the areas where I have seen telemedicine, at least in the US, taking a huge jump forward and way more people now have access to a mental health provider because of it.


How does this translate to Nature’s Way and its products? Which trends do you see there? 


Matt Schueller: One of the crucial product areas is, of course, immune health. But we’ve seen other product areas grow significantly as well. One of them is sleep.  The other is stress and mood products. I think this will really be one of the long-term growth categories. And I think these fit with the overall trend in different markets and market segments. We’re seeing app based solutions, we will see more supplement and nutrition based solutions, sleep integration, devices that track heart rate and hrv, stress - I expect a lot of growth in these areas over the next 5 to 10 years. 


Could you name one major challenge that you expect Nature’s Way to be facing?


Matt Schueller: It’s one of the Swiss companies causing the biggest problem (laughs): Nestlé. What I mean by that, and it’s not about Swiss companies of course, is that we’re seeing big players enter the nutrition space: Unilever, Nestlé, Reckitt Benckiser, Church and Dwight, Procter & Gamble. When it comes to consumer marketing those will prove to be powerful competitors. But we’re excited and ready to compete.

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