Reflections on the life of a natural health Industry icon.
By Allan Richter
Gerald Kessler favored white suits, a style that the supplement industry icon patterned after the actors Sean Connery and James Coburn, the latter a friend and, some said, doppelganger. But Kessler’s white suit was also a fitting cinematic metaphor for the good guy standing up to the black-garbed villain in a real-life epic showdown: a fierce battle with the Food and Drug Administration, which in the early 1990s proposed standards for labeling supplements that Kessler saw as possibly the death of the industry.
To fight the proposal and win support for giving health-minded consumers more choices, a concept that came to be known as health freedom, the 6’8” Kessler amassed the support of industry colleagues and key members of Congress, and built an enormous grassroots movement. His efforts led to the October 1994 passage of the Kessler-named Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, or DSHEA, cementing his reputation as perhaps the sector’s most unflappable competitor who just may have saved the industry.
“He was a man of action and a man of passion,” recalls Tony Podesta, chairman of The Podesta Group, the Democrat and lobbyist whom the politically conservative Kessler, who died at 80 in March, recruited to help fight for DSHEA.
“He worked harder than anybody and was never in doubt about being correct about his point of view,” Podesta says. “He was tenacious. He was relentless. He would talk to anyone and everyone trying to persuade them that the ingredients in his products were safe and that the approach of DSHEA would safeguard public health. The business that DSHEA fostered is enormous, and so he opened the doors for a flood of products that people find useful and consume in enormous quantities.”
Adds medical and science author Dan Hurley, who chronicled Kessler’s lobbying achievement in his 2006 book Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (Broadway): “Gerald Kessler had an absolutely singular pivotal role in getting passed the most important piece of legislation affecting the supplement industry ever.”
As Hurley tells it, Kessler worked as a salesman for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz after he graduated from New York University in the 1950s. The longer Kessler spent in the industry, however, the more he saw pharmaceutical medicine as a salve that only masked the affliction, in contrast to the preventative powers of supplements. So he entered the supplement world by spending long hours working out of his garage, printing and affixing labels himself, and selling product from the trunk of his car. In 1972 he launched Natural Organics Inc. and its Nature’s Plus brand.
Kessler understood that most drugs are based on the compounds naturally present in plants. But he saw the drug industry’s isolation and chemical synthesis of single plant-based molecules as a major flaw. Mother Nature never provides an isolated chemical. Instead, botanicals contain many phytonutrients that work together to yield their healthful activities. Such natural activities are spread out over a range of compounds, offering greater benefits and making adverse reactions to any single chemical much less likely. Kessler described this gap as “the difference between knowledge and wisdom.”
Jim Gibbons, Natural Organics president, explains, “Drug companies focus on the knowledge that a single chemical has a certain activity, because they can patent it and own it. They discard Mother Nature’s wisdom, the wisdom that the range of natural phytonutrients in a plant is safer, better tolerated and more effective.”
Kessler applied that holistic approach to his company’s Herbal Actives line, differentiating his approach from that of other supplement makers. Many were taking the dried extract of a plant and putting it in a capsule, but they risked inconsistent results because one plant could be more potent than another, even though they looked identical.
“We pioneered the process of taking an extract of an herb, standardizing it and then combining it with the whole plant,” Gibbons says. “So you get the standardized concentrated potency of the active ingredient with the wisdom of Mother Nature. That was Mr. Kessler’s concept, and that was what he was really trying to get at when he was transitioning from his pharmaceutical days to the natural industry. To bring the holistic wisdom of Mother Nature to the people—that was his vision.”
But in the early 1990s FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler (no relation) tried to take control of the supplement marketplace. In 1991, the Federal Register published rules proposed by Kessler’s deputy associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, Gary Dykstra, who headed a Dietary Supplement Task Force. Dykstra’s rules were based on a “significant scientific agreement” standard that had been proposed earlier by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, who chaired the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, but rejected by Sen. Orin Hatch, Utah Republican and an industry ally.
The Dykstra/Waxman rules had called for the standard of proof for claims made on labels to be, as Hurley writes, representing a general consensus—that most studies and experts had reached asimilar conclusion—regarding such claims.
Supplement industry executives saw the proposed rules as “ruinous,” according to Hurley, but none more than Gerald Kessler, who took the reins to lead the fight. He invited executives of competing companies to his beautiful Circle K Ranch, a half-hour inland from Santa Barbara and once belonging to McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.
“It really never happened before and I doubt that it’s happened since, this kind of meeting with all the leading company executives and the trade group leaders,” Hurley says. “He got hundreds of people to show up and decide what they were going to do, if anything. A lot of people thought you shouldn’t make too much noise. Jerry (Kessler preferred “Jerry” to “Gerry”)basically convinced the entire room that if the FDA continued to do what it was planning to do it was going to be the death of the industry.”
Each company had to put up $100,000 to help fund a campaign to stop the laws from being passed. “They created this national campaign the likes of which had really never been seen,” Hurley says. “It goes to the passion people have about supplements and Jerry’s leadership. They got hundreds of thousands of letters written. I’m told that more letters were written to Congress out of this campaign than they received about the Vietnam War. Everyone says it was an astonishing presence from the public.”
Celebrities, including Sissy Spacek and Mariel Hemingway, joined the campaign. Coburn and Victoria Principal, among other actors, appeared at trade shows and in industry videos.
In what Hurley calls “a masterstroke” of Kessler’s, the executive had each of the 10,000-plus health food stores that stood to lose from the proposed rule change recruit support from customers and local media. Stores allotted space for material such as sample letters to Congress.
Success shifted the campaign’s focus from defense to offense, Hurley reports. Rather than simply head off the FDA’s proposed rules, Gerald Kessler now sought to create pro-
supplement legislation. A turning point came when Hatch and then Rep. Bill Richardson, New Mexico Democrat (later two-term governor of New Mexico), urged Kessler to hire Podesta.
That move eventually got the industry a congressional hearing, previously turned down by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “Even though he hated government and bureaucrats, he was extremely skillful in navigating the Dietary Supplement Act through the Congress, and he built incredible grassroots support,” Richardson says of Kessler.
If Kessler’s persistence wasn’t apparent by then, it certainly was in the final stretches before DSHEA was adopted. When the congressional session for the year was ending, Hatch told Kessler and the other manufacturers that it seemed they’d have to wait until the following year because there was no time to get a vote on their bill during the current session.
The others left Washington, Hurley reports, but Kessler stayed and called another lobbyist, who put him in touch with Newt Gingrich. Gingrich refused to go out of session until the bill was voted on, paving the way for DSHEA’s passage.
Under DSHEA, as stated on the FDA’s website, a supplement maker determines that the products it manufactures or distributes are safe. Except in the case of a “new” dietary ingredient, a supplement maker does not have to provide the FDA with the evidence it relies on to substantiate how safe or effective its supplements are before or after it markets its products.
“Without Jerry there would have been no such law,” Hurley says. “They were simply trying to find what to do to fight a law they didn’t like. Nobody in the industry had any inkling that they would pass a law that they would love instead. It was really quite extraordinary.”
Gerald Tarlynsky, shortened to Tarlyn when his family moved to the United States, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants; years after his father died, he took the last name of his stepfather, Kessler. Gerald Kessler’s wife, actress Meadow Williams, traced her husband’s fortitude to the time—from age 4 or 5, when he was told his father had died, to age 13—that he spent in an orphanage. He was frequently beaten there, Williams said.
“This orphanage treated him absolutely horribly,” Williams recounts. “He was very thin, and they didn’t feed him enough. No one knew he would be 6’8”, and he needed more food. Fortunately he became friendly with the cafeteria lady. The few people that were nice to him were ladies.”
With the memory of the orphanage cruelty, Williams says, “he wanted to take charge of things so they would not be so horrible, so that no one could beat him, no one could oppress him, no one could humiliate him. He wanted to control his own destiny.”
The grit that Kessler would show in later life was apparent on the high school basketball court in Forest Hills, in Queens, New York. His scrapbook is filled with articles reporting on that team, with Kessler, its star center, often leading in points scored. “Jerry Kessler, the big cog of the Forest Hills attack…played an important role off the boards and also did well offensively by bagging 19 points for the game’s highest individual total,” the Long Island Daily Press reported in a February 1952 piece about the then-unbeaten team’s seventh game that season.
For all his drive, and what many who worked or competed with him described as a tough business demeanor, Kessler showed a soft center, too.
Dan Alberti, partner with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Menlo Park, California, saw both sides. Alberti handled legal matters for Kessler since the 1980s and advised the supplement executive when he was buying the Circle K Ranch.
“Every time I heard from Jerry about whether we should settle a case or keep pursuing a case he would always follow his principles,” Alberti says, “and his principle was to do right. He would not back down. That may have irritated some people along the way, but I can assure you that his principles were truly sincere. If he felt it was right, even if it was arguably unpopular, even within his own industry, if he felt it was the right thing to do, it was full speed ahead.”
In a mediation session with Kessler in San Francisco, a judge told Kessler and Alberti he would keep the men all night and would have no food brought in until they agreed to settle the case. Kessler refused, and there was no food brought in, but “we did acquire an injunction. Even though there was an easier way out that 99% of company executives would take, Jerry would say no. He was a warrior,” Alberti says.
In contrast, Kessler showed his tender side when he showed up unannounced at Alberti’s office to console the lawyer, grieving over a long-time assistant who died suddenly. “Jerry surprised me by arriving at my law office to bring me a cassette tape of some very soothing music because, as he said, ‘I knew you were hurting.’”
Shari Allen, Natural Organics’ vice president of sales, recalls when Kessler years ago had her describe him to a new hire. “So I stood back for a minute, and it became clear to me. I said, ‘Think of a bear. There are two sides to the bear. One side is a teddy bear, warm and cuddly and safe and loving. The other side of the bear is the grizzly. He will destroy you if you try to hurt his family. That’s the business side of Mr. Kessler, and there’s no in between,’” Allen says.
“The teddy bear is one that always looks inside of a person, and that’s what Mr. Kessler did,” Allen continues. “Even if you made mistakes, if he felt that you were loyal—and first and foremost that’s what was important to him, loyalty—he would give you a second chance, as long as you didn’t do something unethical like stealing. He saw you as family. It’s either the teddy bear or the grizzly, and that’s how I described Mr. Kessler.”
Adds Barry Gubell, Natural Organics’ distribution director, “Whether he was reprimanding you or giving you a hug, there was always a teachable moment. I’ll always be grateful.”
Gubell begins his 36th year with the company this month. Ten years after Gubell joined the company, he began having dizzy spells after exercising. One Saturday while playing basketball, he passed out, fell and broke his nose.
“I spent a week in the hospital, and the doctors to the day I left could not figure out what was wrong with me except that it might have been heart-related,” Gubell recounts. “Mr. Kessler called me every single day that I was in the hospital to check up on me and to advise me on what to ask the doctors with regards to my condition. When I returned to work the following week, and I started my day at 7 a.m. in those days, Mr. Kessler was in my office waiting for me to give me a hug. That experience has stuck with me for all of my years here.”
Two years into what is now her 17th year with Natural Organics, Allen’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died six weeks later, but not before calling his daughter a week
earlier, on New Year’s Eve, to count down 10 seconds before midnight as the ball dropped in Times Square.
Shortly after Allen’s father died, Kessler called her from Israel. The phone rang at midnight. “Several nights after that, he called me at midnight each time,” Allen says. “He never knew what that signified to me. It signified my dad calling me at midnight. He did that all the way from Israel, three nights in a row.” Allen never told Kessler about her father’s call. “I never ever forgot his kindness, his humanity, his true concern for me,” she says.
Though Kessler was said to seldom vacation, when he did travel, he appeared to favor destinations with religious or spiritual significance. Around 20 years ago, Kessler, who was also a Mason, called his friend Don Pius, owner of Pius Realty in Northport, New York, to take a trip to Egypt. The men hired a private guide to take them into the Great Pyramid at Giza at night.
As Pius recalls, there were no other tourists or visitors inside. “We were up there for about an hour praying,” Pius says. “He thought it was very sacred, the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid. He was very spiritual. He laid on the sarcophagus.”
Films and Actualization
If Kessler satisfied his spiritual thirst in ancient traditions, he nurtured his creative juices in the film industry. He formed a production company, Gruntworks Entertainment, and even acted in some of its films.
“He enjoyed actors,” his wife says. “Actors like to be in touch with their feelings, because in order to be an actor you need to be pliable, you need to be able to touch your own heart and your own feelings when you need them. Jerry had a very strong personality, like actors, so as soon as he would meet them they would instantly bond.”
Kessler’s white suit was his favorite, Williams says, because it invoked “the old-world class of men like Sean Connery, and the elegance. He was friends with James Coburn, who is another actor who had that grace and style, that old charm. Jerry really admired that. These were men who he felt had grace, style and class.”
“The Harvest,” a horror film that avoids gore but relies on fairy tale motifs instead, was the last film on which Kessler was executive producer. Here, too, Kessler proved to be an anomaly for his forthrightness in funding the film, says director John McNaughton.
“People tell you anything,” McNaughton says. “At some point you need proof of funds so we can make offers to actors and start hiring people, and you almost never get proof of funds, you know? He said he would put up the money, and he put up the money—within days. He was a man of his word and a gentleman.”
Williams says her husband was a fine actor, though she says he had trouble memorizing lines because of dyslexia and ADD. But he was able to turn those afflictions into a positive.
“He believed that the fact that he had ADD and was dyslexic made him think outside the box,” Williams says, “because the regular straight path from A to B was never available to him. So he had to always think outside the box because he had to go the long way around. He couldn’t fax. He always wanted to try, but what would take you and I a moment to fax a paper would take him probably 30 minutes. But he turned that into a good thing because he could…come up with these brilliant ideas and he was completely fearless.”
Kessler wanted to coax the best out of people and to help them live to—or “actualize,” as Kessler liked to put it—their full potential, Natural Organics’ Gibbons says. It’s a big reason many employees have spent decades with the company.
At meetings with his salespeople, Gibbons says, Kessler gave speeches like this: “‘Look around, I live on a beautiful ranch, and yes, some may consider me wealthy. But wealth is just a side effect of doing something that I love, doing something that makes a difference. It’s about actualizing who I am as a human being, bringing health to millions of consumers around the world. That’s the legacy that I want you to carry forth. That’s my legacy.’”
That motivation was similar to what Kessler called upon as a teenager, when he coached youths at the Pittsfield, New Hampshire, basketball camp of the Boston Celtics point guard Bob Cousy. Williams says that Kessler was given the most unruly campers and the ones with the least basketball talent.
“And Jerry drove them to become the best team,” Williams says. “They did endless practice. They practiced all the time. But he also gave them great treats. He would sneak away and give them ice cream. He treated them like his own children even though he wasn’t much older than them. Someone believed in them.”
When he died, Kessler carried in his jacket pocket personal notes from people in his life who meant something to him. Along with the notes was a tiny stone heart inscribed with the words “I love you.” It reminded his wife of the small stuffed animal her mother gave him that he kept on his night table; when you pressed its stomach, it said, “I like you.”
When it came to the people behind those mementos, Williams saw her husband as having the perception of Michelangelo. “I read somewhere that Michelangelo said that he saw in the stone the finished sculpture,” she says. “And he would go from stone to stone, the statue of David, and see it in the block. That’s what Jerry did. He would look at people, and he would see in there who they could be. And he chiseled away to make that person emerge out of what looked like to everyone else something ordinary.”
Gibbons recalls something his boss said to him on more than one occasion. “He said, ‘When my time comes and I move on from this world and I stand before my maker, He’s going to say, ‘Jerry, what have you done in this life to deserve to walk through these gates?’ And Mr. Kessler said, ‘I will look Him in the eye, and I will say, ‘I have helped people actualize who they truly are.’”