By Perry Smith
Signal Business Editor
After starting out with a mission and a handful of employees working in about 8,000 square feet in 2007, Lief Labs CEO Adel Villalobos has grown operations to 325 employees at the company’s 260,000-square-foot operation in Santa Clarita.
His company manufactures many of the dietary supplements, botanicals, herbal products, vitamins, minerals, protein products, energy powders and these types of products you traditionally can find everywhere from GNC to Walmart, he said, although, unsurprisingly, eCommerce and emerging brands who seek quality manufacturing make up a growing portion of the business.
“I came from the nutrition side … the product-development side,” said Villalobos, “In college, I got a biochemistry degree (and) also studied nutritional biochemistry and also studied molecular biology and the cell.”
While studying biochemical reactions and the nutrients our bodies require, Villalobos said his interest in the topic became a “really strong passion,” and spawned his beginning in the industry during what he calls a “renaissance” period, around 1996 while he was still at CSUN.
While the industry saw tremendous interest and growth during the subsequent years, this time period consequently also saw a significant increase in FDA regulations, which was what spawned a valuable opportunity for Villalobos for which the CEO says he’s still grateful.
Villalobos’ education on the technical side made a perfect fit for Natrol, publicly traded, national company that sells vitamins, minerals and supplements, with manufacturing operations near CSUN in Chatsworth.
Villalobos said his mentor there, Natrol founder Elliott Balbert, provided not only an opportunity, but also a great chance to learn the industry from someone whom he considered a “pioneer” in his field. This allowed Villalobos to learn everything he could from the quality control lab to marketing to, perhaps most significantly, product development, legal and the industry’s nascent regulatory environment.
“(Balbert) was a driver in making sure our industry was recognized as an industry,” Villalobos said, mentioning the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, “and helped feed the early pioneers that drove the FDA to accept our industry, break it away from food and drug, and then became an industry on its own, which was the dietary supplement.”
One of Lief Labs’ roles, according to Villalobos, is being a source of health for its consumers. The company’s products aim to address the growing challenge in finding the time to make sure we are eating a balanced diet that includes all of the vitamins and minerals essential to good health, he said.
The recent pandemic has also made consumers more health-conscious, he said, noting that nationally, the industry has reported a 3% increase in the “daily usage of supplementation.”
After earning his undergraduate degree at CSUN, Villalobos studied executive leadership for an MBA program at UCLA, and then artificial intelligence and machine learning at Northwestern.
Villalobos said the company’s current footprint in the SCV will allow for some room for growth, and he’s now looking toward sharing what he’s learned with other leaders through his latest opportunity.
Villalobos was recently named to the newly formed L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Council, which was announced in November, as “an advisory group of top business leaders dedicated to bringing balance back to the state’s public policies, encourage the economy and promote a robust business climate,” according to a Nov. 4 news release from the organization.
The role of the council will work on everything from how the area’s workforce can stay ready and on top of the kind of technological growth Villalobos studied at Northwestern to legislative advocacy for the area.
“We want to make sure that we’re training the workforce of tomorrow, make sure that we have the right political climate that supports organizations that want to make sure that that technology is moving so fast,” he said, “that we are upskilling our workforce and making sure our community does not stay behind.”