Muscling in on the nutrition business

34-year old bodybuilder Zef Eisenberg isn't someone you’d think could be pushed around. So it’s a surprise to learn that he started his niche sports nutrition business because he was “forced into it”.

As a bodybuilder, 34-year old Zef Eisenberg isn't someone you'd think could be pushed around. So it's a surprise to learn that he started his niche sports nutrition business back in 1995 because he was "forced into it". Forced is perhaps a slight exaggeration. Two years previously, the north London gym instructor had written an expos of the sports nutrition business, stating which approaches worked building muscle and burning fat and what products were plain rubbish. The book won a cult following, leading to pleas for Eisenberg to get into sports nutrition himself. His readers were unimpressed with what was already available, as was he.

Much of what Eisenberg saw was "cheap a-z multivitamins with a sprinkle of things... that cost a pound in the supermarket. What I wanted in terms of quality and specifications wasn't out there". So Eisenberg decided to make his own nutrition range, with ingredients selected on the basis of scientific research and clinical studies. This proved expensive, but as Eisenberg puts it: "If you need to compromise, you just don't make the product."

Because of the research Eisenberg had already put into his book, he had the relationships with the food technologists and doctors he needed to create the brand. And the book had given him a customer base: "I'd already gained the trust and relationship with consumers". This helped the business to be self-funding from the start; Eisenberg is proud that he never borrowed a penny to get it going. But that meant staying on the lookout for deals: "I was quite clever in convincing manufacturers that I was far bigger than I was and therefore deserved credit of 90 days." Because the products were being sold direct, money came in right away, helping him build on this "good credit relationship".

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Eisenberg's solid following soon created steady growth, but this came under threat in the late 1990s when athletes began testing positive for stimulants and other banned substances. Some blamed products such as Eisenberg's. So he hit the airwaves with a media campaign aimed at countering unfounded allegations. There were no problematic steroids or stimulants in his products and he would prove it. "I funded the creation of a testing programme that screened every single product, every batch" for their presence. "It cost a fortune to do that" and still does about £250,000 a year. But it was worth it. "We were growing to be the largest company of its kind in the UK at the time. That took us immediately to the top."

Annual growth reached 25%, but Eisenberg knew there were "areas where I needed further help" and knowing when to ask for it is one of the signs of a good entrepreneur, he reckons. "So back in 2004 we went and recruited a chairman and an MD [to] deal with the day-to-day stuff", which took a lot of the stress away. The deal also saw him bank an instant £9.7m from a private-equity group. With retail sales of £39m a year today, Eisenberg takes more of a back seat, "allowing the business to grow with the processes it needs, without taking out the DNA it started with".

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.