Career history: Always open to opportunity
In 1994, while working as a gym manager in Birmingham, England, 25 year-old Robert Walker went on a trip to the US and found himself captivated by a store called ‘GNC’.
This was his “first real exposure to sports nutrition” and he loved it.
“Before then, it was only really a bit of protein powder and creatine but this store sold all the supplements.
“I gave them a call and said to them ‘this is a great concept, I’d love to bring it to the UK’. They said ‘funny you say that because we’ve just bought the Health and Diet Centres (HDC) business in the UK.”
HDC was a Holland and Barrett style concept with around 20 stores in the South East of England, which became the core to build a portfolio of GNC (UK) stores.
In 1995, Walker was made Store Manager for the GNC (UK) store in Coventry, from which he worked his way up to become Sports Nutrition Development Manager, putting him in touch with many of the big brands.
He stayed there until 1997 when he was employed as Head of Twinlab Europe and by 2001 the company had promoted him to Executive Director moving he and wife Tiina to live by the offices in New York.
After a couple of years he was head hunted to become Executive VP of Sales & Marketing for sports nutrition brands at Nature’s Bounty (NBTY), a role he took on until 2005 when he and Tiina decided they wanted to move back to the UK.
But having their four dogs front of mind, they had to make a plan to avoid the strict UK quarantine laws of the time so they decided to move to Tiina’s home country, Finland, for six months before then moving to the UK without any need to quarantine their furry children.
However, it wasn’t long before their entrepreneurial minds started to wonder and their mission to return to the UK was put on the back-burner.
"We noticed a big gap in the online market and decided to use our savings of around €50,000 to set up our own sports nutrition site called mass.fi, initially selling other brands, then launching our own brand called Mass Nutrition in 2009 which subsequently won ‘Finnish brand of the year’ in 2013.”
They successfully sold that business to MyProtein in 2014 and Walker went on to become head of a industry leading Swedish sports nutrition wholesale company Gymgossisten.
But he and Tiina were bitten by the startup bug again and, in late 2014, they founded a specialist on-line dog supplement web store called dogsfirst.fi – which Tiina still runs today.
It was in September 2017, that an opportunity came up with the Samworth Brothers and this is what brought him back to the UK.
“I had known Sci-MX for years and I knew they were a real market leader in the UK, almost setting the scene for how to sell sports nutrition in retail and online. It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.”
So, what do you find exciting about the sports nutrition industry?
“The fast-pace of change. The Sci-MX business, along with the whole industry, has changed phenomenally.
“When Samworth Brothers bought Sci-MX it was one of the sports nutrition businesses with sales predominantly in protein powder.
“But since then we’ve moved quickly - along with the entire category - to position the business as a high-protein healthy snack and active nutrition company.
“The cultural change to healthy living, healthy work-life balance and general better wellbeing has been a major change for the industry.
“Of course, social media has been a big driver for this change as people start to take pride in what they cook for their lunches that week, or what activities they do at the weekend.
“It’s thanks to this cultural change that healthy snacking has seen around 35% year-on-year growth in retail (IRI Aug 2019).
“And as people start to buy more protein enhanced foods, they will also start to look into what other supplements are available to them.
“Something like 62% (Kantar Worldpanel) of all food launches last year mentioned protein on the front of pack.”
Is it just a phase?
“This is not a trend, or a phase, or a buzz word, but a real movement towards a more healthy lifestyle.
“An incredible 24% of all students are tee total now (Kantar & University College of London research 2018) – that would never have happened 10 years ago.
“The mentality has flipped for the good and the industry is massively benefiting.”
How’s Sci-MX making the most of this?
“The brand has now been divided into two entities – Sci-MX offering protein powders along with the more sports nutrition focused 200-250 calorie bars with 20-25grams of protein per serve, and PRO 2GO offering active lifestyle products for the everyday consumer.
“PRO 2GO is a new range of products developed specifically from the findings of our extensive consumer research.
“The main discovery was that many consumers, especially females – who actually buy more protein bars than males – feel many protein bars are too large, too dense and contain too many calories.
“We’ve created a range of bars - Gooey, Raw and Flapjacks - some which are smaller, with fewer calories, slightly lower in protein, and come at a cheaper price point, to make them more accessible to this contemporary market.”
How is the company working to continue leading the way in retail?
“We are speaking to the big retailers about multiple locations for high protein snacks, so they would not only be available in the health aisles but also available in front of store, meal deals, till points etc.
“We have done some successful trials where we have put free standing display units at the front of stores and seen up to a three times increase in sales.
“The desire and the will is there from the retailers as well so it’s only a matter of time.”
What’s next for the category?
“The big players in the FMCG industry are seeing the writing on the wall. With acquisitions from the likes of Mondelez, Mars, Hershey’s and Kellogg’s, these big names are going to drive availability. It’s one thing for a sports nutrition brand to tell retailers we need to be front of store, but it’s another for Mars to tell them.
“Although these acquisitions make for much tougher competition, it also means growth for the whole category and it means we can have a piece of a much larger pie.”
Where do you see things heading in 20-years time?
“A lot of the un-necessary mystique surrounding these products is already being lost. Protein powder is starting to become understood as being a minimally processed powdered food – not medicine.
“With this, the protein enriched foods category is going to become more and more mainstream – protein pizza, protein cakes, protein treats of all kinds.
“It mirrors the plant-based movement. Plant based burgers that smell, look and taste like a burger where people don’t have to feel they are making a secondary choice is going to continue to appeal.
“People will continue to demand great tasting food with added value and added nutritional content.”
What’s the best advice you could ever give someone else in this industry?
“Always have courage in your convictions. If you have an idea, run with it. If your employer can see you are thinking about ways to improve the business, this will reflect well on you.”
How many dogs do you have now?
“We now have seven rescue dogs – all bulldog breeds and five are deaf. Our free time pretty much revolve around them.
“We will go pretty far to help a rescue dog in need. When we were living in Finland, we drove for four day to collect a rescue in Somerset, England, then drove four days back home. We did also squeeze in a quick visit to the family.”