With reporting by Julia Peterman and Kurtcia Collazo.
When you walk into the offices at 51 Cragwood Road in South Plainfield, you can sense it immediately. Wainer Finest Communications, the publishers of WholeFoods Magazine, is a standout success because of a focus on family. The walls are decorated with framed photographs of smiling faces. There’s the Wainer Family, of course—president Howard Wainer (Howie, to many), is seen smiling next to Sandra Wainer and his daughter Heather, who now serves as publisher, growing and evolving the company in the ever-changing age of digital.
That’s just one aspect of it, though. To Howie and Heather, “family” doesn’t just mean blood relation—it’s about a community of people working to accomplish a greater good. Walk through the office and you’ll also see pictures of former staffers hung with pride, and the bookshelves are home to thick photo albums overflowing with images of staffers at holiday parties, retailers accepting awards, industry leaders making speeches and all sorts of treasured memories, lovingly kept so the spirit of those who played a role in the success of the company and the industry at large over these past 35 years will never be forgotten. Flip through those albums with the Wainers and you’ll see their eyes light up as they walk down memory lane.
The walls are home to something else, too: Plaques and framed certificates, hung with the pride that comes from playing a role in something meaningful—in working to support the store owners who pour everything they have into the success of their businesses for the good of their communities, the store employees who enthusiastically spread the message of health, the manufacturers and suppliers who deliver the highest quality formulations, and everyone in the chain from the scientists who discover what works to the marketers who make it sparkle.
More than a magazine
Talking to Heather Wainer, the emotional investment is clear. Conversation about the industry is peppered with phrases like, “The family that owns that store is amazing;” “They are such good people;” “She’s very special to me.” Like every good businessperson, she aims to succeed, but her definition of success is greater than a bottom line. “With success, there’s happiness,” she says. “It’s about being able to sleep at night knowing that you accomplished your goals, that you have good in your life and you are doing good for others.”
That belief was instilled in Heather by her parents at a young age, when she got a new “sibling,” as she refers to WholeFoods Magazine. Her father Howie had been working at another magazine serving the industry, and WholeFoods, which was founded in 1977 by Steven M. Haines and bought by Larry Hester in 1980, was struggling. Then Hester made a move that payed off: He approached Howie and offered him the chance to buy a partial ownership of WholeFoods. Howie discussed the offer with his wife Sandy, who encouraged him to go for it. And years later, when Hester wanted to step away from his share the company and Howie was faced with the decision of whether to buy the company, Sandy was there, telling him to follow his dream. “She was so supportive. She said, ‘You have to believe in yourself. This is the opportunity you’ve been working so hard for.’ She knew—this is what I wanted all my life. Doing what I loved, with that support, I knew I couldn’t fail.”
Heather recalls the early days with pride. “As I was growing up, my father always was my hero. He overcame a lot and was successful. He wasn’t home a lot because he was working on WholeFoods, but I knew he was doing it for my mom and me.”
Even as a girl, Heather knew her father was involved in something meaningful. “He took me to a lot of trade shows, and I would give out subscriptions in the booth. That’s when he had free labor,” she laughs. “I would yell out to everyone, ‘Do you want a free subscription?’ and sometimes it probably came out ‘prescription’ but people would stop and I would just get everybody to sign up. When I would walk around the floor people would say, ‘Oh, you’re Howie Wainer’s daughter,’ and I was proud to be a part of that with my father.”
At that young age, it registered with Heather how caring the community was. “When I walked the show floor, it was like trick-or-treating. I was allergic to chocolate, so people would give me treats made with carob, which was big in health food stores back then. I also had asthma, and I remember my dad was given all these vitamins to help with my asthma from Enzymatic Therapy. That’s how much people loved my dad. They found out I had a problem and they wanted to give him something to help me.”
Still, Howie didn’t anticipate that Heather would be his next publisher. “I’m always a firm believer in let children do what they really choose to do. Because when you wake up in the morning and you’re doing something you love, which I do, you don’t feel like you’re working at all.”
Heather wasn’t sure either. “I thought I’d work in the industry in some way, but idealistically I thought, Let me do something on my own first, to prove to everyone that I can.” So, after graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in communications and a minor in public relations, Heather, who was living with her parents in New Jersey, considered offers from companies in New York City. “I did the math when I found out how much commuting from New Jersey to the city costs, and realized I’d end up owing them money. So I asked my dad if he still wanted me to work here.”
Howie, a “Brooklyn Boy” who got his start in publishing by selling magazine subscriptions and went on to have great success in advertising sales at Women’s Wear Daily and other titles before making the move to WholeFoods, isn’t the type to let anyone just slide into a position. His daughter had to demonstrate her skills. “He didn’t know what I was good at, but he knew he wanted to model my joining the company off of what the Skolnick family had done. When Rand Skolnick started at Solgar Vitamin and Herb—a family company, but one that is obviously a lot bigger than WholeFoods—he worked in every department for a time before figuring out what he was best at.”
The beauty of this training approach, Howie shares, goes beyond just gaining a knowledge of the company as a whole. “It does help people learn all facets of the company, but it also shows that even if someone has a minor job, they are important to the end product. And that was the lesson.”
For Heather, it led her to her calling. “We had a lot fewer departments than Solgar, so it didn’t take long to see where I fit,” she shares. “Accounting wasn’t for me; math is not one of my strengths. I’m not really artistic so the art department wasn’t right. My mom was working in circulation at the time, but I found it to be tedious. At one point I did want to be a writer but my skills were not that strong, so I wasn’t right for editorial.”
That left sales, but Howie wasn’t sure it was right for Heather. Then Ian Goldmunz, who was the sales manager at the time and a man Howie calls “like a son to me,” intervened. As Heather recalls: “After I spent a week with Ian, he said, ‘Hey Howie, I think Heather could sell.’ My dad was like, ‘Really? I didn’t notice that, but if you want to train her, go ahead.’”
Ian also wasn’t one to settle for so-so. He pushed Heather hard, and little by little, she started to sell—a pleasant surprise to Howie. “I’ve never been the best judge of sales people,” he admits. “I’ve hired many editors and other positions and I’ve done very well, but not with judging who would be great in sales. Here I am living in the same house as Heather and I didn’t realize she could be that good at this.”
Heather continued to train and grow with Ian’s guidance for a year, but then he fell ill. Tragically, Ian passed away in 1993 at the age of 33. It was a sad time for the company; Ian was like family and his death hit hard. But there was still work to be done, and Howie had to find a replacement. “Dad was trying to hire someone, but one day he looked at me and said, “Do you think we could do this together?’ Honestly, I didn’t know. I was young, I had no clue. But he said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”
Still, Howie knew running a family business can be tricky, and he wanted to make sure Heather was prepared. “My first show was Expo East, and my dad had me speak to people that work with their fathers. I spoke to Terry Lemerond and his daughter, and I had spoken with Rand from Solgar and a few others. My dad had me ask people what it was like to work with their father, because family business can either go really well or really bad. There’s no middle ground. Those conversations made the transition easier; they were important to me and something I’ll always pay forward. Now when I meet someone coming into the industry who is second generation I tell that story and offer to talk with them.”
The best advice Heather recalls from those talks: “I was living with my parents and was told that we need to talk about ‘normal’ things that families talk about at home. Keep work in the office. And I was told to respect my father even though we may not always agree. That’s something we do.”
Lemerond, who was with Enzymatic Therapy when he first met Howie some 35 years ago and now is founder and president of Terry Naturally, sees the payoff of those early talks. “It’s not easy for family to work together,” he says. “It’s very hard for children and spouses to work with one another. And to see how Howie and Heather came to work together, I think that has a great display of respect, professionalism and love between the two of them to make this magazine so successful over 35 years. What she has done and what Howie has taught her to do really shows what the magazine is all about. I think it really comes down to love. Love of each other, and Sandy as well. And love of the industry. It comes down to the family values that created a magazine that supports the industry.”
2nd generation success
From ad sales to ad sales manager, Heather increasingly took charge of the company’s growth. Her promotion to publisher, though, came as a bit of a surprise. “My dad has a thing—when he promotes someone, he doesn’t tell them. He puts it on a business card or on the masthead in the magazine. When I was promoted, he put an article in the magazine. I was reading the issue and that’s how I found out.”
The growth path WholeFoods’ new publisher saw for the company focused on building a greater digital presence. “We started off with one email address for the company,” Heather recalls. “We had one computer to surf the world wide web. It was in a hallway, and when people used it you’d hear it dialing up and screeching as it connected.”
It didn’t take long before everyone on staff had an email address and the company got its first website. “It was simple—a basic ‘here we are’ static page,” Heather says. “It wasn’t a lot of money, and my dad was for it. But most of the disagreements I’ve had with him revolve around investing more in the web. I knew we needed to take steps to bring us to the next level. We’re always striving to make improvements.”
Improvement came with help from Sean McCormick, who worked in advertising sales for WholeFoods. “When Sean joined the company in 2008, he was good at building websites and insisted on building us a new one,” Heather says. “It brought us to the next level. We could sell ads on it. My father got behind it. But that was short lived because we got to show him how this website, which was a million times better than what we had with that static page, still was not up to par. That’s when we actually invested the money and started working with Infoswell Media. It was a step up. We did a lot of work with them to create the site, and we are able to stay more current with our readers and update the news regularly.”
The next step was to respond to the fact that people increasingly surf the web on their phones. Bringing information to the readers in whichever way is easiest for them to consume it is what WholeFoods is all about, so a mobile-friendly site became a must. “The whole mobile thing three year ago was the biggest convincing job I had to do on my dad,” Heather shares. “Once we did it, though, he saw how our mobile climbed really fast. Now we’re 50/50. That was huge.”
The goal of it all is to do a better job informing and educating. “When you talk about the digital times, being a small company we always had a David and Goliath type of thing. Our competitors are very big publishing houses, and then there’s us. So the fact that we are able to stay on beat, and that we deliver so much information, is important.” Social media, from Facebook to linkedin and twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, became another way to exchange information with retailers and others in the industry, Heather says. “We also have our podcasts and videocasts as new ways to inform and educate.”
In addition to staying on the cutting edge with what’s new, WholeFoods has given its classic content a digital spin. “Our source directory is the most comprehensive in the industry and we knew we had to find an online counterpart to it,” Heather says. “With NaturalProductFinder.com, everything under the sun is available at the click of your finger. Yet if you still want to find that information in a book, the print edition is still the most comprehensive directory. We’re very dedicated to that.”
The Annual Source Directory is published in print each May, and there are more annual specials throughout the year. “The retailer survey has always been a big part of what we’ve done,” says Heather, who notes that it is done in a partnership with Readex Research and with Jay Jacobowitz, president and founder of Retail Insights. “People have told us the survey delivers the best numbers they get in the industry, and that they plan their business based on it.” Other specials added over the years include Product Profiles, Person of the Year, Natural Choice Awards and Retailer of the Year. “WholeFoods has been honoring retailers for many years,” Heather points out. “We have a long list of honorees and I’m very proud of all of them.” The aspect that makes the awards truly meaningful, Heather adds: “We believe in keeping all of these things special—we only do one retailer a year, and we’re keeping the Natural Choice Awards to 20 products. The idea is to keep the honor special, and not dilute it.”
Offering so much content and striving to continually progress comes with pitfalls though, and the push to be bigger and better hasn’t been without struggles. “The amount that we are able to accomplish at our size is amazing,” Heather says. “But we did realize our size when we jumped into the content marketing side. It was too much for our small staff. I was killing my editors, and because I appreciate them I had to find other partners. We brought on our first partnership, and I’m proud of what we do put out. When we established the new website, we knew we wanted a space for this content marketing, because it is an important place for retailers to get information. We saw it as a library, so we call it the retail content library.”
Being small is no excuse to cut corners, however—Heather is adamant about that, no doubt inspired by the efforts her own mother and father put into the success of this business. One area in which this is evident is her insistence on continuing to be audited by BPA. It’s the publishing industry’s version of transparency: BPA provides third-party audits of a publication’s circulation and verifies audience data that is used in advertising sales. Just as quality supplement manufacturers put in the extra effort to ensure consumers can see what is in their products, BPA-audited publications put in the extra effort to ensure their clients know how many people are actually reading the magazine. “We had a big decision to make about continuing to be BPA audited when our competitors did lose BPA,” Heather says. “We always felt that it was something we should invest in for our customers. To this day we are still BPA audited. Our main competitors are not. But I feel it’s important. Your readership is everything. If I can’t prove my numbers or who is actually reading the magazine to my customers, that’s a whole trust value there. Proof is everything, that’s why it was very important to be able to provide this to them.”
Connections are the key
Independent retailers know it well: To stay in business when faced with competition that has deeper pockets, the way to stay on par is to focus on connecting with the people you serve. Howie knew that from day one, and he instilled it in Heather and all his employees. That’s how this “mom and pop” magazine managed to start competing on a national level the day Howie signed on to help run things. “When someone lost a job or needed help with something, they came to me and I’d connect them with someone who could help,” Howie says. “I’m very good at networking, and Heather is even better at it.”
Those connections are so strong that they go beyond professional. “Growing up in this industry, people knew me for a long time,” says Heather. “In my personal life, things happened for me later, maybe because I was working a lot, building this business. But then I met my husband Lou, and so many people in the industry were so happy for us. It’s amazing how many people really felt for me. Some even came to my wedding.”
Marc Ullman and Steve Shapiro, partners with Ullman, Shapiro & Ullman, were there. “Heather finding Lou, and inviting us all to her wedding, those are the happiest memories.” The pair recall “growing up” in the industry with Heather, working together since their 20s, and now, as they put it, being the ones with gray hairs. “Being able to attend the wedding with the same group of people who grew up in the industry together, that was very special.”
Fast forward three years, Heather says, and there was another outpouring of love. “I started telling people about my twins, Scarlett and LJ, last year at Expo West, when it was the end of first trimester for our surrogate. People knew I was trying, and that this happened for us is amazing. Most of the people in industry knew before my close friends back home.”
With so many meaningful connections made over 35 years, it really would be possible to fill this entire magazine with the names of people, companies and associations that have made an impact on the success of this magazine—and vice versa.
Staffers that have moved on to new posts in the last five years are recalled with a smile—there’s Kaylynn Chiarello-Ebner, who lead the editorial team as associate publisher, working at WholeFoods from 2007 to 2016, and earns the highest of praise from her former bosses. “When I first started Dan McSweeney was our editor, and then Alan Richman came and he was so well respected. He helped guide me through my career, and when he decided to retire I never thought there would be someone like that, and then Kaylynn walked into our office. She did an amazing job from day one. Kaylynn was followed by Laurie Petersen, who worked with Sean McCormick to elevate the digital game. Others who made their mark include Tim Person (assistant editor, 2009 to 2015) and Sebastian Krawiec (assistant editor, 2015 to 2018).
The contributors who have added such valuable content to the magazine over the past 35 years are also a highlight. Three regular columns that have been must-reads for decades: Vitamin Connection, written by renowned scientist Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D., since 1984; Legal Tips, written by attorney Scott Tips, president of the Natural Health Federation, since 1984; and Merchandising Insights, written by Jay Jacobowitz since 1999. “I’m proud that Dr. Passwater is like part of the family,” says Heather. “He’s been here longer than I have, and that’s a relationship I really value, as I know our readers do. And Scott Tips I’ve known since I first started here. His outlook is different than anything else I read. It adds a depth to the magazine that is wonderful. Then there’s Jay Jacobowitz, who is a huge help in everything we do and delivers such enlightening content.”
The appreciation is mutual. “As a columnist for a trade journal, you live and die by your editor,” Jacobowitz says. “I’m fortunate that WholeFoods allows me to speak candidly. Heather has always understood that to provide true value to readers, an independent publication such as WholeFoods must allow the expression of strong, even controversial opinion.”
Newer to the magazine, but just as valued, are the columnists and bloggers who fill the website with content. There’s Daniel Lohman, CSPA, who contributes in print and online to help brands gain a competitive edge; Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS, aka The Nutrition Myth Buster; Steve Lankford, the man behind the HealthQuest Podcast, Nancy Trent and others who write bonus coverage on topics covered in print. Our latest: Good-Health Reads book reviews from top integrative practitioners.
Affiliations with industry associations are also a point of pride—certificates announcing memberships hang framed throughout the offices of WholeFoods. “We’ve always been NNFA members, and when they changed to NPA we kept membership there and will continue to be members,” Heather says. “We’ve partnered closely with CRN and AHPA. We joined UNPA and we’re very supportive of INFRA and are working with SENPA as well. We enjoy working with and having contributions to educate our readers from Organic & Natural Association, IPA, GOED, Trust Transparency and more.”
Debra Short, executive director of SENPA, welcomes that support. “I can’t remember many Natural Products Day events that Heather, representing WholeFoods, didn’t attend. Her dedication and passion in the industry is contagious. Always a smile and a hug to let you know you are important to her. A family trait I suppose, as we know her father is also a huge supporter of the industry and the independent retailer. A true friend and colleague.”
Frank Lampe, VP, communications & industry relations, United Natural Products Alliance, adds, “Considering the male-dominated landscape that filled the natural products industry—and sadly still does—when she started, as well as the ongoing challenges for bricks and mortar retail and all media outlets, Heather has been and continues to be a fearless pioneer. Year after year, she stands tall as an advocate for the independent retailer and the consumers they serve, always with a smile. To have leadership continuity at any organization in today’s business environment is a rarity, but she continues to work tirelessly to promote the vision and values of the industry.”
Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide, Sabinsa, also cheers Heather’s success. “As executives in family-owned businesses, Heather and I have a lot in common. We’ve shared those commonalities over the years we have done business together, and in actuality, it never felt like business…Media is a crowded space, but Heather is competing aggressively to bring the latest offerings to her customers. I look forward to the continuing leadership that Heather will bring to our industry.”
More kind words come from Eric Anderson, SVP global marketing and business development with NattoPharma: “Not only has Heather been considered an extended part of my family on a professional level for 20 years, but on a personal one, as she was there the day I met my wife. In 1994, going up the escalator at Expo East, Heather was engaged with both a PR rep and an advertising contact—as only Heather can do—with the company I was working with at the time. A beautiful and professional young woman reached out amongst the handshakes and introduced herself as Peggy Hillyer, associate editor of WholeFoods Magazine. Amidst it all, Heather made sure we were properly introduced.” After a courtship, Peggy and Eric were married. “I will always be grateful for the professional relationship I have with Heather, and how she has worked with me to ensure my organizations received a strong balance of editorial coverage to complement our advertising campaigns. But on a personal level, I’m eternally grateful she was so supportive as a friend.”
Every connection has meaning, but the one that will never fade from the hearts of those she touched, is Sandy Wainer. Retailers would gather by the WholeFoods booth to see her at shows, enjoying a moment of caring conversation to offset the hectic, harried pace of Expo. And Sandy would offer encouragement—loving, or, if the situation warranted, with the extra push that made one want to dig deeper. Heather knows that well. “I think of my mother almost every day and what she would want me to do. I’m sad that she never got to see me this happy. Never got to meet Lou, and see the twins. But I do believe that she sees everything that is going on. I try to live my life by making her and my dad proud of me. They both pushed me to be the best I can be. She was my biggest cheerleader.”
Howie, too, beams with pride at all Heather has become. He recalls the early days, when people at shows would see a little girl who mixed friendliness with a touch of ambition as she “sold” free subscriptions at the WholeFoods booth. Back then, people would point to her and say, ‘There’s Howie’s daughter,’” he laughs. “Today, they point to me and say, ‘There’s Heather’s father.’” And he couldn’t be happier about it. WF
Vitamin Angels: Lighting the Way
Being involved in an industry filled with caring people leaves a mark on a person’s heart, and Heather felt the full impact of that when she started working more closely with Vitamin Angels. “I treasure my involvement with Vitamin Angels. We can’t contribute the way the big companies do, but we’re very proud to contribute what we can, and to do what we can do both personally and as a company.”
What’s most special, though, is that what is gained from giving time and money ends up being far greater than what was given. For Heather, the experience was everything. In Heather’s words:
“One of my favorite experiences in my career was taking two trips with Vitamin Angels. Five years ago I went to Peru. It was life-changing. It made me think a lot more about things I purchase, and things I take for granted. The children...the children are the most beautiful. They have nothing, but they’re still happy. I’ll probably never see the people I met in Peru again, but they’ll be in my heart forever.
“For the past 5 years I’ve been longing to do it again. So this past year I knew that my babies were coming, and that I would not be able to travel abroad for a long time. I wasn’t pregnant—the babies were born through surrogacy. It’s not the same as carrying, and I knew this trip would get me there...to the emotional place women get when pregnant. Some people have a babymoon but I wanted to go with Vitamin Angels to be with the children. So I went to Honduras last June. The children are the most precious things. Spending time with the mothers, it got me there.
“The Honduras trip was bittersweet, though. I found out someone dear to me in industry passed while I was there—Ron Udell [founder of Softgel Technologies]. Mark Blumenthal let me know, and I was upset. Then, all of a sudden I got a call about my babies. Our surrogate was having labor pains; the twins weren’t due until August, and it was only June. It was a bit of a scare, so I was on this roller coaster—sad and then in panic mode. And these people I had just met in Honduras were so supportive of me. They helped me. Even though I only was with them for one week, we were very close. You go through a lot of emotions on these trips, here or abroad, and I hold those people in my hearts. I’ll never see those kids again, and they won’t remember me, but I’ll remember them.”
We’re just getting started!
It’s been 35 years and WholeFoods is not only still here—we’re just kicking things off! What’s on tap for the future? “By our 40th anniversary, I see us more digital,” Heather predicts. “Being that we’ve always been a huge content company, I see us doing more with our content. We pay close attention to publishing industry trends, just as we do with natural products.”
Howie, too, sees digital increasing. “I hope people realize the value of the WholeFoods website. We have more contributors and information on that site that is not in print because space doesn’t allow. If news breaks, within hours we have it online. When Amazon bought Whole Foods Market, our site nearly crashed. Everyone turned to us for the news.”
Being up on the latest news, product innovations and science, Howie continues, will be the key that helps retailers thrive. “In the future, I think retailers will face even more overlap with other big stores, so they have to stay knowledgeable. Knowledge is the edge we have over mainstream stores. Natural products retailers small and large need to have people who can talk about their products, and we’re working hard to deliver the information that’s needed.”
One thing about the future of WholeFoods seems certain to Heather: “With all the M&A, we do plan to remain family-owned. Hopefully the team I have here now is still here, because they are amazing. We are trying to keep up with the times but we don’t just jump on bandwagon—we look into potential avenues for growth , and if it’s right for us, we provide it. We are dedicated to moving forward in the future with everybody in this industry.”
Beyond the 40th, perhaps Wainers Finest Communications will become a third generation company. “The twins are precious, and they are fun, and I don’t get as much sleep as I used to but we’re loving every minute of it. And if they want to—if it’s what they choose—I would love for this to become a third generation company. We have a lot of years to go, so I have a lot of work to do to keep it going, but I do have hope for the future for them.”
As for Howie, he has one last prediction: “It’s hard to say what the twins will do, but Heather will likely go on in this industry and be walking with a cane in the aisles of the trade shows just like I do.”