By David Lewellen
Dr. Royal Lee casts a long shadow over Standard Process, the Palmyra-based nutritional supplement maker.
At its modern manufacturing facility, 1,600 of its 286,000 square feet is dedicated to the Dr. Royal Lee Memorial Library. Its 10,000 volumes, touching on nutrition, chemistry, Galileo and Thomas Edison, served as Lee’s working library until his death in 1967 at age 72.
But “Dr. Lee” – an inventor, engineer and early evangelist for nutritional supplements – is still invoked reverently at SP, as it’s known. The privately held company sells many of the formulas Lee developed 80 years ago, including his first, Catalyn, while carefully venturing into new markets: health bars, purification regimens and even a series of veterinary formulas.
Today, SP’s headquarters sits about a mile from the southern Kettle Moraine State Forest and a short drive from the company’s organic farm. If a supplement’s ingredients can be grown in Wisconsin’s cold-weather climate, SP grows them. But the company’s roots are in Milwaukee.
While earning a Marquette University dental degree, Lee wrote a research paper arguing that many childhood dental diseases were caused by diet deficiencies. Later, as his SP ventures grew, he kept a foot in mechanical engineering, developing many machines used in SP’s earliest facilities.
As part of the first wave of supplement manufacturers, Lee faced run-ins with federal regulators objecting to how he promoted products, leading to a fine in 1939 and orders to stop making “false claims” in 1941 and 1946.
Today, times have changed for the robust industry. “We can say that a product helps maintain a healthy immune system,” President and CEO Charlie DuBois says. “We can’t say that it cures any diseases.”
DuBois, Lee’s great-nephew, took over the company in 1995 after Lee’s widow, Evelyn, passed at the age of 103. Since then, DuBois, just 30 when he rose to the top of SP’s ranks, has tried to honor tradition without stifling innovation.
“We haven’t been real trendy,” he says, though sales grew from $21 million in 1995 to an estimated $124 million in 2011. They’ve found themselves well-positioned to capitalize on booming demand. For instance, the company has sold fish oil for decades. Now, it’s become a hot item, renowned for its omega-3 fatty acids.
But SP’s products won’t land on area shelves. They’re sold through health care practitioners such as doctors, nutritional consultants, chiropractors, acupuncturists and dentists. Chiropractors alone accounted for 65 percent of sales in 2011.
At SP, 300 workers run three shifts that juice, dry and powder organically raised vegetables as well as feed millions of capsules and tablets into the automated order system. On breaks, they buy organic chips and trail mix from on-site vending machines. And after work, they can see two personal trainers and a pair of chiropractors employed solely to treat SP staff.
Workers also get $400 a month for supplements. Most take advantage of the perk, buying Tuna Omega-3 Oil, Catalyn or another of Dr. Lee’s famous compounds.