Vega has a cult following in natural health circles. Now Charles Chang wants it to be ubiquitous
Editor's note: On Wednesday, June 10, it was announced Vega would be sold for US$550 million. More on that here.
The temptation of scarfing down an oversized 1,000-calorie cheese sandwich is the last thing I expected to chat about with the founder of a natural health brand.
Not that Charles Chang, president of Sequel Naturals Ltd.—best known for its plant-based natural health and sport performance products under the name Vega—doesn’t eat vegan during the day. (Today we’re feasting on mushroom soup and salad created daily by the in-house chef at its Burnaby HQ.) Nor does he shy away from the archetypal West Coast lifestyle—biking, skiing, adventure fly-fishing, paddleboarding—that reflects Vega and its range of nutritional shakes formulated by Brendan Brazier, the Vancouver-born former Ironman tri-athlete.
CHARLES CHANG’S FAVOURITES
1. “When people come from out of town, I always take them to Heirloom (1509 West 12th Ave., Vancouver), a vegetarian restaurant with great décor and sense of style.”
2. “I go to independents like JJ Bean (various locations) for coffee meetings. Americano with room for heavy cream for taste and milk to cool it down.”
3. “We love staying close to home, so Salmon House on the Hill (2229 Folkestone Way, West Vancouver) with its spectacular view and the clean food we like at home.”
But mention dining out, on hockey night for example, and he suddenly flings open his arms. “I’m a celebrator. I’m the guy who says yes to everything,” admits the 44-year-old SFU marketing grad. His occasional dietary downfalls happen even though his wife, Eve, who is a teacher, and their three children always stick to their West Vancouver household’s dairy-and-gluten-free menu. “I can’t restrain myself,” adds the self-described hedonist. “I want it all.”
That goes, too, for the business he started in 2001. Vega’s growth is as punchy as its power bars: the brand has not only crossed over from specialty health food stores and grocers to mainstream outlets like London Drugs and Costco, it has also seen significant traction in the U.S. Vega is “on a tear,” says Chang, from generating $140,000 in its first year of operation to now raking in some $100 million annually, split equally between the two countries.
“Most companies don’t make the same sales in the U.S. as they’ve made in Canada, so we’re really proud,” adds Chang, who has 100 staff south of the border and 160 here. “Our vision has always been Vega up and down the street, in every store, on every shelf—we want to be a ubiquitous household brand.”
Of course, such bullish ambitions are often stoked by a previous flop—and Chang is no exception. In 1995, with two friends, he launched Imajin Marketing Group, a reseller of custom notebook computers. But Chang says he “messed up” with the wrong priorities—a flashy office, expensive cellphones—and Imajin folded 18 months later. “I was young, foolish and cocky. I thought that because we had a ‘business’ that we were successful,” Chang says, adding that his priorities now include checking sales figures daily. “I have a strong desire to make up for past failures.”
Besides, he’d clearly like to keep his Toyota Tundra this time. Chang was forced to sell his car twice before—in early Sequel days “to keep the lights on” and when Imajin collapsed. (“I was in my prime for dating and had to borrow my Dad’s K-car,” he says with a sigh.)
After the Imajin debacle, Chang worked for six years at Great Little Box Company as VP of sales and marketing. But he knew that he wanted to return to the entrepreneurial life eventually for a sense of freedom, control of time and more money. “Often you can only pick one,” he says, adding that running his own company allows him, for example, to work from his second home in Whistler (“my number-one favourite place”) every summer.
As we wrap up, Chang excitedly points out the landscape painted by his mother that dominates his office wall. “They were the first entrepreneurs of the family,” he says, referring to his parents who moved here, with limited English and no relatives, from Taiwan when he was a toddler. “I don’t want to waste the opportunity given to me by the sacrifice made by them.”