NutraIngredients-USA Awards 2020

Years of service to best practices made Suzanne Shelton natural fit as NutraChampion

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Years of service to best practices made Suzanne Shelton natural fit as NutraChampion

Related tags Dietary supplement companies Dietary supplement industry Quality assurance Traceability Transparency

Suzanne Shelton, a winner of a NutraIngredients-USA NutraChampion 2020 award, took an alternative path early in life as a groundbreaking Chicago DJ and rode that rhythm into becoming one of the leading voices within the natural products industry.

Shelton was according the honor this week during NutraIngredients-USA’s annual awards presentation, which was an online event this year because of the pandemic concerns.  Shelton’s decades-long history of fostering best practices in communications for prominent companies within the industry made her a natural fit for the honor, the judges found.

Shelton told NutraIngredients-USA that her participation in the industry was at first a matter of happenstance.  Shelton grew up in Chicago, a center of the food industry in the United States, but that was not her first focus.  A natural inquisitiveness and an adventurous spirit led her along a looping path to the position she occupies within this industry today.

One thing led to another

“I actually fell into it,” ​Shelton said. “I’ve always really liked finding things out and sharing with others information on the things I find interesting.”

Along with being a locus of food manufacture, Chicago was also a hotbed of the music industry.  First known as a center for the blues, consumers in the city were starting to embrace new styles as Shelton was coming of age.

“My early career was in the music business.  I worked at a record store and did radio in high school and in college,”​ she said.

“I worked as a disco DJ in the late ‘70s but I really hated the music,”​ she said.

Leading figure in Chicago music scene

Shelton’s love for the then nascent styles of punk rock and new wave helped her get in on the ground floor of the new musical movement. She was involved with the founding of one of the longest-running mainstays of the Chicago music scene.

“I talked some guys who had a failing disco into rebranding it as a punk rock/new wave club we called Neo,”​ she said.  That was 1979, and the club went on to a more than 30-year history at its original location in Lincoln Park with Shelton serving as head DJ in the early years.

Neo was for a time in the 1980s the most popular club in the city​.  Artists and bands like David Bowie, the Clash, David Byrne, Iggy Pop and U2 were frequent drop-in visitors.

“It was influential within the industry. It was probably the first goth club, among other things,” ​Shelton recalled.

New meaning for new phase of life

As exciting as that ride was, Shelton said the life of a nighttime DJ didn’t fit with her changing family circumstances.  But the driving rhythm of punk rock continued to set the tempo for her future endeavors.

“After my twins were born I wanted to do something that felt more meaningful,”​ Shelton said.

She landed a job with one of the first manufacturers of natural products for children, a company making natural, chemical free disposable diapers.  Promoting Neo had given Shelton a natural flair that saw her rise to become VP of marketing for the company.  But frictions with other members of the management team left a sour taste and drove Shelton to strike out on her own.

“I decided if I was going to work for a crazy person, it was going to be me,” ​she said.

Fortunate choices in early clients

Shelton started attending trade shows within the natural products industry to promote her business, now branded as The Shelton Group.  She cut her teeth with one of the early herbal products companies as a client, a company that is no longer in business.

“And early on someone introduced me to Sabinsa, and I’ve worked with them for more than 25 years now,” ​Shelton said. 

Sabinsa, based in Bengaluru, India, won NutraIngredients-USA’s Industry Initiative of the Year award in 2018​ for a reforestation project involving the Indian kino tree (Pterocarpus marsupium​). More than 160,000 trees were planted in Madhya Pradesh State as part of the effort.  The company is also know for best practices in traceability, transparency and in its relations with the thousands of small holdings farmers who grow the raw materials for its long line of herbal products which include industry leading curcumin ingredients.

Another long time client is NOW, based in Bloomingdale, IL, a western suburb of Chicago.  NOW is one of the older—and one of the larger—finished goods manufacturers in the industry.  The family owned company was founded by Elwood Richards, who pursued a model of operating on lower margins than was common at the time.

“NOW started by just wanting to do some trade publication PR about their quality. They used to be demeaned by their competitors who would say their products had to be garbage because the prices were relatively low,”​ Shelton recalled.

“The whole thing for founder El Richards was health should be affordable for everyone, not just for rich people. I helped them tell their message about their quality,”​ Shelton said.

In the years since NOW has become known not only for the high quality of their own products but also for advocating for quality throughout the industry.  For instance, NOW recently released the results of tests it had conducted showing the shoddy quality of many CoQ10 and SAMe products​ for sale on Amazon.

Working for better health

Shelton said the clients she chose early on, companies that were doing well as well as doing good, gave her a firm foundation that enabled her to be choosy about who she worked with.

“I feel so fortunate in the clients I do have.  Over the years I have declined to work with some companies because I didn’t feel good about their business practices.  And in some cases I’ve worked with companies for a month or two and then declined the account because it had become clear to me that what they really wanted was for me to collude with them in misrepresenting their products,”​ she said.

Shelton said what makes her work meaningful, the thing she was searching for in the first place, is knowing that products and services her clients provide work together to help improve the lives of the end users.

“Even during those weeks where I’m working 14 hours a day, six days in a row I love it because it’s all about making things better.  I really do believe we are doing things that contribute to better human health, and better animal health for that matter,”​ she said.

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