Quest Nutrition president: 'Our goal is to end metabolic disease'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

(L-R) Quest Nutrition co-founders Tom Bilyeu (president), Mike Osborn (CFO) and Ron Penna (CEO)
(L-R) Quest Nutrition co-founders Tom Bilyeu (president), Mike Osborn (CFO) and Ron Penna (CEO)

Related tags: Chief financial officer, Nutrition, Metabolism

Quest Nutrition has a somewhat ambitious mission statement (“Our goal is to end metabolic disease,” says president Tom Bilyeu). But while it may be some time before the El Segundo-based firm can tick this particular goal off its checklist, its progress to date has been truly mind-blowing.

Bilyeu won't disclose financial data about the company, but confirms that Quest – which launched in 2010 – notched up revenues of $82.6m in 2013 (a figure published in Inc), and is still generating triple-digit growth driven by a combination of distribution gains and strong velocity in mature accounts.

Today Quest products are sold in almost 80 countries from 40,000+ points of distribution from GNC and Vitamin Shoppe to Kroger and Trader Joe’s, while the firm has also built a significant online business and has almost 1.2m likes on facebook and 137,000 twitter followers.   

So it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see why it is the #1 food company in the Inc 5000 list of fastest-growing businesses.

Sports nutrition isn’t nutrition for people that do sports, it’s just good nutrition

But Bilyeu’s ambitions go well beyond protein bars and powders, he tells FoodNavigator-USA: “We’ve built our business thus far on products that are very high in protein, but even we don’t consider ourselves to be a protein company. For us, sports nutrition isn’t nutrition for people that do sports, it’s just good nutrition.”

Indeed, says Bilyeu – who started Quest with CEO Ron Penna and chief financial officer Mike Osborn in 2010 after selling their data loss prevention company, Awareness Technologies – protein bars are just the tip of the iceberg.

Quest pumpkin bars
Quest’s core product is the protein bar (it makes 18 bars in flavors from white chocolate raspberry to strawberry cheesecake), but it has recently expanded its portfolio to include potato chips with dairy proteins, plus a range of protein powders.

We’re in this to drive value over the long run; so when it comes to products we will be as broad as you can possibly imagine, making healthy – by which I mean metabolically advantageous – foods. We’re helping people move to a diet that gets their blood markers to move in the right direction.

“And to end metabolic disease, which is really at the heart of diseases from Alzheimer’s and cancer to heart disease, we are going to have to revolutionize the food supply.”

Pyramids of influence

So who is the target consumer for Quest’s high-protein wares?

Everyone, says Bilyeu, but the formulations first and foremost must appeal to people that understand nutrition.

“There is a pyramid of influence. At the top, there is a small group of thought leaders, people that really understand metabolic science, athletes, fitness enthusiasts; then you get people that are influencers, that get their information from thought leaders; and then you have the mass market consumers, people that may not understand why they are eating that brand of cereal or protein bar, but they buy it because someone they trust thinks it is a good bet.”

And from a commercial/strategic but also an ethical perspective, says Bilyeu, who comes from a family that has struggled with morbid obesity, “If we are really going to end metabolic disease, we have to get to the masses and you get to the masses by that pyramid of influence.”

‘It was born out of misery’

quest

“The company honestly was born out of misery. My partners and I had a successful technology company, and we were making money, winning awards, and sitting in this beautiful conference room overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and we turned to each other and said we’re completely miserable.

“We knew there was a fundamental flaw to the way that we were approaching business. We weren’t engaged in something that we really cared about. We weren’t doing things on a daily basis that made us feel most alive.

So we sat down and thought, what is the change that we really want to see in the world? And that led us to health and fitness. I grew up in a morbidly obese family, and I understand the emotional toll it has, so I was completely invested emotionally from day one.”  Tom Bilyeu, president and co-founder, Quest Nutrition

Market white space – formulations

As for the products, they taste great, they deliver from a nutritional perspective, and thought leaders that know what they are putting in their body have embraced them, and spread the word – like wildfire – on social media, says Bilyeu.

“It’s been incredibly valuable for us to have a direct relationship with our customers so that we can get direct feedback. 100 years ago people would have sold their left arm for the kind of feedback you can get from social media.”

On the recipes, he says: “When we first started looking at the protein bars category in 2009 there was something like 1,600 new flavors or brands, but there wasn’t a single bar we​ [Quest Nutrition’s three founders] wanted to eat, so we knew that we at least had a market of three, and we suspected that there must be more people like us.”

Protein bars had 'way too much sugar, and sub-par proteins'

But what was wrong with the bars out there?

They had “way too much sugar, sub-par proteins, and they tasted like cardboard”​, says Bilyeu, who uses milk- and whey protein isolate as the key protein source coupled with soluble corn fiber, which has prebiotic effects. The products are sweetened with sucralose and/or stevia, and erythritol, with each 60g bar containing 0-3g sugar, up to 15g of fiber and 20g of protein.

The formulations will evolve, however, says Bilyeu, who recently introduced protein powders and chips to the range. “We consider ourselves as a tech start-up, so you get something out in the marketplace and improve it over time as new information and new ingredients come out. So we’ve had four major formulation changes since we launched, and two have been primarily around the fiber source.”  

If at first you don’t succeed…

Tom Bilyeu Quest Nutrition

“In the beginning, we thought we’d just be product marketers, and use contract manufacturers to make the bars, but when we approached them they told us that the bars we wanted to make couldn’t be made, and the funny thing is they were right - if you start with the base assumption that the only products you can make must be made on equipment that currently exists…

“So we decided to buy equipment and make them ourselves, and we tried and tried and it didn’t work, because we had removed all the liquid sugar, which makes bars more pliable… and that’s where Mike​ [chief financial officer and co-founder Mike Osborn] came in. He ended up pulling the equipment apart and reengineering it so it could handle our products.

“Everyone said you must adjust the product to fit the equipment, but we adjusted the equipment to fit our product. It was a totally different approach that forced us to become our own manufacturer. And today we still manufacture the vast majority of our products.”  Tom Bilyeu, president and co-founder, Quest Nutrition

We’re going to see more diet cycling in future

In future, he says, the company will also be “looking at the potential of high fat ketogenic diets, which can help people on cancer treatments. For some people, creating foods that are high in fat, low in protein and virtually devoid of carbs can be very useful, and right now, if your doctor says you need to go on a ketogenic diet there’s not much out there, so it’s hardly surprising that compliance is really poor.”

But Quest is not about to make a big leap into medical nutrition products or health claims: “You will never see us making claims, ever, it’s just not a game that we’re going into.”

He also notes that “There is no one diet that works all the time for everything, so I predict that we’re going to see more diet cycling, so having a diversity of offerings is something we’ll be heavily involved in in the coming years. Our goal is to give people control. If they want high protein, or high fat, or whatever, we can do that.”

Quest protein chips

Protein: We’ve looked pretty closely at cricket powders

As for protein, he says: “We have continued to explore all of the new proteins out there – we are not dogmatic – we just want to use the things that are most metabolically advantageous, so we are constantly looking at new protein sources.

Quest single serve protein powders

"For example, we’ve looked pretty closely at cricket and certainly wouldn’t rule it out in future, but right now we have an obscene amount of things in our R&D pipeline.”

Just telling people to eat less and exercise more doesn’t work

Above all, however, the products have to taste good, he says, which is a cliché trotted out by every food marketer that just happens to be true: “Here’s the reality. Just telling people to eat less and exercise more doesn’t work. Food is amazing, it’s like a drug, and it really is that powerful, and it you strip it of all the things that make us covet it, people just won’t eat it.

“We must make the experience of eating good food as amazing as the experience of eating cookies cakes and pies.”

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