Jamieson Laboratories celebrates 90 years

Thursday, May 10, 2012

by Sharon Hill, The Windsor Star

WINDSOR, Ont. -- More than 11.6 million tablets and soft gel capsules roll off the lines at Jamieson Laboratories in Windsor every day.

That's more than four billion supplements a year, enough to circle the earth once and then some if they were lined up end-to-end.

Fuchsia Vitamin B tablets. Chocolate chewable Vitamin D. Vita-Vim sour gummies shaped like hippos, monkeys, lions and elephants. Red B12 strips that melt on your tongue.

Those vitamins and nutritional supplements have made the Windsor business Canada's largest manufacturer of natural health products and its oldest. Today Jamieson turns 90.

The company - which now boasts more than $250 million in annual sales, 523 workers in two Windsor plants and 250 vitamins and nutritional supplements - started in 1922 with just two products: halibut oil and concentrated orange crystals.

C.E. Jamieson & Company was ahead of its time, said Paula Prociuk Blacklock, head of corporate affairs and media relations for Jamieson.

"In 1929 the Nobel laureate was given for the discovery of distinct vitamins," she said. "That's actually when they were discovered. Jamieson started as a company seven years prior."

It had plants in Windsor and Detroit. Because of a fire many of the records of the early days of C.E. Jamieson & Company and founder Claire Edwin Jamieson are gone, she said.

Ninety years after his fish oil start, it seems everyone is jumping on the Omega bandwagon and those concentrated orange crystals which Jamieson offered as Vitamin C tablets by 1938 are now a staple during the cold and flu season.

The company launched its first adult multivitamin called Vitroetts in 1940. Today, Jamieson has 61 vitamins including its top seller, Vitamin D, almost 20 different multivitamins for children and adults and even multivitamins for cats and dogs. There are herbal supplements, a bunch of minerals from calcium to zinc, Omega 3 products, glucosamine for joint pain, probiotics, nutrition products, and skin creams.

The company has logged a number of industry firsts. Prociuk Blacklock said Jamieson had the first mega potency vitamins in 1971, the first zinc lozenge for sore throats in 1980, the first over the-counter botanical extracts in North America in 1990, the first Health Canada approved traditional Chinese medicine products in 1997, and the first fast dissolving vitamin B12 strip in 2004. In 2010 Jamieson marketed FluShield, which it dubs the world's most powerful echinacea to fight colds.

A strategic move into international markets pushed Jamieson from having products in five or 10 markets 20 years ago to exporting to more than 50 countries as far away as Saudi Arabia. This year the company hopes to add five more countries.

Jamieson had 93 employees in 1993 and now has 523 employees between its Rhodes Drive and Twin Oaks Drive plants in Windsor, as well as another 35 in Toronto where the headquarters are located.

"One thing that certainly singled Jamieson out is we never let any employees go in the Windsor region," Prociuk Blacklock said. "There's never been any downsizing of the company. It's only been growth."

You don't survive to 90 and become the market leader by slapping labels on your products and hoping they sell, said Jamieson president and CEO Vic Neufeld.

Jamieson needed credible science behind its health products and built its reputation over time, he said.

In 2001, the company started letting customers know it was doing on average 211 tests per product. Since 2008 Jamieson has had its 360 Pure branding, which means each product now receives a minimum of 360 tests. For multivitamins it's more than 1,200 tests including the ingredients and post-market quality testing. The emphasis on traceability is so high the company and its supplier can trace back its Omega 3 to what fish was caught from what boat on a specific day.

Neufeld said the company spends about $1 million a year adding more equipment to its lab.

"That's what we're really basing our brand equity on, the fact that we're market leaders but what's behind that, well it's our continual focus and never letting our guard down when it comes to the quality aspects of our products."

Jamieson has jumped ahead of its competitors in the last 20 years. When Neufeld joined the company in 1993, it was one of five brands in Canada that each had about the same market share. Now it would take the combined market share of the next top five brands to equal Jamieson's 27 per cent, he said.

Neufeld said retail sales of nutritional products total $630 million a year in Canada. That includes supplements sold at grocery stores, drug stores and large chains such as Walmart. It's more than $800 million when including other sales outlets, such as health food stores and Costco.

Although much of the company's growth has come during Neufeld's tenure he steers credit to a team of leaders that includes owner Eric Margolis, who brings a drive focused on innovation, marketing and quality. In 1951, Henry Margolis, a New York industrialist and Broadway producer, purchased the company. It was later passed to his son Eric.

"The position from Eric is spend what you need to spend to raise the bar continually," Neufeld said.

Neufeld, now 57, was an accountant with Ernst & Young and his biggest tax client was Jamieson when he got a call from Eric Margolis in 1993. He headed to Toronto not realizing it was a job interview and landed the role of president. His CEO title was added later.

Neufeld, who grew up on a farm in Leamington, said the company has considered other locations. He could have moved to Toronto. Over the six expansions at the Rhodes Drive plant and the addition of the softgel facility, the board has asked him why Windsor. It came down to people who were committed to the company who were already in Windsor or had moved here and wouldn't want to leave, Neufeld said.

"We've had frequent decisions we had to make. Do we invest more and more into Windsor or Toronto? And it all gets down to people. It is not a financial consideration for us anymore."

It's exciting to see Jamieson celebrating its 90th anniversary, said Ron Gaudet, CEO of the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation. The company produces all its products here and would be one of the top dozen private sector employers in the area, Gaudet said.

"Jamieson Laboratories exemplifies what we would like to promote in Windsor Essex, a company that's committed to the region, a company that gives back to the region."

Analytical accounting manager Marg Lauzon used to have to explain that Jamieson made vitamins when people asked her where she worked. Now they know. The rows of Jamieson products on store shelves and the company's tree planting initiatives have boosted its profile.

Lauzon started as a bookkeeper for Jamieson 42 years ago when there were about 25 employees.

"Look where we are now," she said from the board room at the Rhodes Drive plant.

After watching so many in Windsor go through the ups and downs of the economy, she appreciates Jamieson means steady jobs in her hometown.

She returns that dedication. When she sees a green-capped Jamieson bottle out of place on a drugstore shelf, she takes the time to tidy up the rows. "You kind of make sure it looks good."

Decades of Growth, Investment

Jamieson Laboratories president and CEO Vic Neufeld wonders wistfully about the amazing office view he could have had if the company had remained on the Windsor waterfront. The original Jamieson plant stood on Riverside Drive, where a Holiday Inn was later built and then burned down in 1999.

Jamieson moved to Ambassador Drive in 1966 and then to Rhodes Drive near E.C. Row in 1994.

The Rhodes Drive plant has about 200,000 square feet and is where 8.8 million tablets are produced a day. Neufeld estimates the company has invested more than $50 million in that facility.

There's another 200,000 square feet between the distribution centre and plant on Twin Oaks Drive where 2.8 million softgel capsules are produced daily. Jamieson opened what it calls the industry's most advanced softgel manufacturing facility in 2011 and has more than $20 million invested there.

When asked about more expansion in Windsor Neufeld said "never say never." Jamieson is still looking at land at the Windsor Airport to give it future room to grow.

Sharon Hill

shill@windsorstar.com or 519-255-5796

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