In the early 1980s, long before jugs of whey protein took gym lockers by storm and everyone from bodybuilders to snowboarders trusted in brands like Muscle Milk and BPI, hardcore gym rats looking for an edge really got creative. “Guys would take anything,” says Eric Hillman, 53, who at the time was a powerlifter in Charlotte, NC, capable of deadlifting more than 700 pounds and squatting more than 600. “When I was 21 and lifting, I took ‘cheque drops,’ which is what they give female dogs to prevent them from going into heat!” The drops, he was told, would burn body fat and build strength. “I don’t know if it worked, but it burned like hell!”
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since — and no one knows this better than Hillman, whose singular influence in the world of fitness and nutrition supplementation can’t be overstated. As the co-founder and CEO of the North Carolina-based Europa Sports Products, he’s launched the majority of the industry’s biggest brands, including not only Muscle Milk and BPI, but also Clif Bar, Gaspari Nutrition, and Dymatize. Europa owns more than 450,000 square feet of warehouse space, employs 460 people, and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales, servicing 84,000 locations including Walgreens, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Duane Reade, in addition to 16,000 mom-and-pop shops. Since 2013 the company has grown close to 30% and Europa just opened their largest warehouse yet, in Las Vegas.
Though Hillman’s quick to write off his success as the product of “dumb luck,” the reality is that the road from humble powerlifter to godfather of the modern supplement industry wasn’t simple or easy. But along the way Hillman learned a great deal about fitness (for the record, he still trains five days a week and prefers Bio-Gro from iSatori, a bioactive peptide supplement that’s “fertilizer for your muscles,” he says.
From Toxic Drops to Creepy Crawlers
Hillman got into the supplement business on the ground floor. It was 1985, and the entrepreneur was already a partner in a gym called LivingWell, and VP of sales for a supplement retailer. He eventually left and teamed up with a new pal, Jeff Compton, a competitive bodybuilder and winner of the 1993 North Carolina state bodybuilding championships, to sell supplements for Vitalabs, a private-label manufacturer.
Their sales were good; but when gyms’ checks for their purchases would bounce, the company would take it out of the pair’s paychecks — and the gig eventually grew frustrating. “I saw a need then for a one-stop shop,” says Hillman, “and that’s when we decided to go out on our own.”
In 1990, most gyms were in the hands of competitive bodybuilders the duo already knew from events. This was before the Internet and big-chain supplement stores and easy-to-order-from catalogs, so gyms had a hard time staying up to date as the supplement market grew. To fill this glaring hole in the marketplace, Hillman and Compton decided to become not sales people but actual distributors — and Europa Sports Products was created. The name came from the Europa gym in Greece, where Hillman worked out on his frequent trips to Europe with Mr. Olympia Lee Haney doing seminars. So the pair started working out of Hillman’s living room — and supplement history was made.
But there were obstacles. Hillman remembers the early days, when the line between legal supplements and illicit performance drugs was still blurry, and many athletes avoided supplements altogether.
“At the [bodybuilding] shows, guys would say they were ‘all-natural’ and didn’t want to take anything.” But as awareness grew, they started expanding their horizons by using egg powders and amino acids to bulk up and speed muscle recovery. Hillman sees the same thing happening today with the functional fitness and CrossFit crowds — who for the most part have avoided nutritional supplements — blowing up into a megamarket for nutritional supplements.
“These guys are starting to realize they need their protein powders and branched-chain amino acids for recovery,” he says, giving as an example Rogue Fitness, the popular CrossFit strength-equipment manufacturer, which didn’t start offering supplements until earlier this year but now sells a wide variety of proteins, energy drinks, vitamins, and sleep enhancers. “All of a sudden we’re setting up at all the regional events for CrossFit,” says Hillman.
As for the next big leap in nutrition, Hillman believes it’ll be something far more surprising — specifically, a supplement in the form of a new protein. “We have enough casein and whey protein today, but it won’t last forever,” he says. The fitness world has gotten the religion of protein in a big way, and demand is rising. Chobani’s decision to add a few grams of whey protein to each container of yogurt will tighten the market all by itself, Hillman says, driving prices higher, so something else is needed. In case you’re wondering, that something else he’s talking about is bug protein.
“There’s a ‘yuck’ factor,” he says, “but we used to have that same problem with sushi.” And unlike traditional protein supplements, bugs are high in omega-3s and other essential nutrients because they’re ground whole. “They’re the perfect combination of protein and fats because you’re eating the whole thing; but this is going to take a while to go mainstream.”
We’ll agree with him there (and also freak out knowing that he’s probably right about all this, given his track record). But in the meantime, after all his years of experience, Hillman has some great lessons to share about how to become successful in business and in life. Here, his top three pieces of advice.
Rule 1: Make Friends
This lesson Hillman was lucky enough to learn from his dad, who worked as a salesman for Sears & Roebuck. “He was the best salesman I ever met,” Hillman says, “and he always used to talk about making ‘parking- lot friends.’” The idea is to take the opportunity to make friends from the get-go — that is, in the “parking lot,” before you start a meeting or do a sales pitch. Why? “Friends are for life,” Hillman says, “but customers will leave you in a heartbeat.” Also, he says, make sure to hold on to your most talented deputies. “We’re great because I have great people,” says Hillman. For example: “There’s Robbie Duncan, whom I met in the gym at age 17, and hired to start working in my warehouse,” he says. “After college I made him an ultimatum to stay when he wanted to be a police officer. Today he’s my COO. We tag-team together and he knows where the market is trending. I call him my Rain Man.”
Rule 2: Do Whatever it Takes
To make ends meet during the first seven years of Europa’s existence, Hillman bounced at a local Charlotte club. Each weekend he’d travel to a competition somewhere along the East Coast, set up a booth early Saturday morning, judge the show, and then drive home to work the club.
“Wednesday through Saturday I’d bounce until 3 a.m., wake up early to train, and go back to work at Europa. And then I’d rest on Sundays,” he says. “That’s how it was for a long time — I worked another job so I didn’t have to draw a weekly paycheck, and I could put the profits back into the company.”
Rule 3: Don’t Set Goals
“Once you set a goal,” he says, “you set a limit.” For example, in 1999, when the company was about to reach its first $100 million, it suddenly looked like they’d fall short by $30,000. Employees began to brainstorm for ways to make up that shortfall, but Hillman told them not to worry. “It was just a number,” he says. “If we didn’t hit it that year we’d hit it the next.” They hit the goal.
Hillman says he’s only set one goal in his life: “When I was 12, I told my parents I’d build them a big house with tall white columns. About five years ago I was able to do it. The house doesn’t have tall white columns. But it does have a few short ones.”