Zef Eisenberg, the entrepreneur behind the sports nutrition brand MaxiMuscle, and motor-cycle speed record breaker, wants to return to the brand he founded.
This time last year Zef Eisenberg was lying in hospital following operations to fit a titanium hip, three titanium bolts in his ankles, and plates in his collar bone, shoulder joint and pelvis.
Medical opinion was he would be lucky to walk again, let alone get back on the turbine-powered motorbike that he’d just crashed at over 200mph in a high-speed race.
But the 44-year-old UK entrepreneur and bike fanatic already had a plan in place.
As founder of the MaxiMuscle sports nutritional supplements business, which became a multi-million dollar success story more than 10 years ago, he was convinced he could eat and train himself back to health.
So Zef began working out the few parts of him that were still mobile, and adopted a strict diet of raw vegetables, fruit and protein powder. Even when one of his relatives turned up with sympathy and a box of chocolates, he didn’t eat a single chocolate.
One thing he didn’t have to worry about was how his business would get on without him. That business no longer includes MaxiMuscle, which he sold to pharmaceutical giant GSK in 2011. But his new venture, MaxiCorp, based in Guernsey, which has a property arm and a racing and engineering arm, continued to run like a well-oiled machine.
“We had a disaster recovery plan covering every single part of the business,” he says.
Every member of the team had a job to do: one fetched the damaged bike, one dealt with the insurance companies, an engineer was tasked with sourcing alternatives to hospital food for Mr Eisenberg, and the paperwork was in place to ensure staff wages were still paid on time.
“Everything worked like clockwork,” he says proudly. “I’m a realist about what can go wrong and I plan all my businesses that way.”
“I believe that’s why I’ve continued to be successful. Not because I’m a genius, not because I’ve got some telepathic foresight, but just because I’m always looking at the negative sides as well as the positive.”
The desire “to always cover your backside”, he thinks, stems from the sudden insecurity he felt seeing his parents divorce when he was just seven, leaving the family strapped for cash.
He had several part-time jobs as a teenager in north London and left school at 15, taking a job in a health food shop, so he could get a discount on nutritional supplements to help feed his passions: competitive weightlifting and bodybuilding.
He also spent hours in the British Medical Library trying to figure out the science behind sports nutrition, keen to move beyond the myths and exaggerated marketing claims he says were common at the time.
Aged 18, he began sharing his new-found expertise, publishing a book and monthly newsletters, and supplying whey-based protein supplements to other bodybuilders. The product range gradually expanded from drink powders to edible gels and protein bars, and evolved into MaxiMuscle.
The growing fashion for bodybuilding pumped up the business at a rapid rate. By 2010, 15 years after it was founded, it was selling £80m worth of products a year.
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But it was Zef’s decision to have all of MaxiMuscle’s products screened under World Anti-Doping Agency rules that set the brand apart.
That move, says Libby Gibson, a partner at private equity firm Piper, was “essential to ensuring consumers felt 100% reassured that products were safe to take”.
It was another way to make sports nutrition seem acceptable as “a natural part of people’s everyday fitness routines”, she adds.
By 2004 Zef had decided he wanted to take some cash out of the business, which also needed an injection of business expertise. He was worried about new health food regulations that might hurt the business. “It felt sensible to take some chips off the table to reduce risk,” he says.
Piper came in as an equity partner. Ms Gibson who worked closely with Zef describes him as creative, energetic, inspirational, and “prepared to take calculated risks”.
He sold another stake to Darwin Private Capital in 2007, then in 2011 relinquished ownership of MaxiMuscle altogether.
The pharmaceutical giant GSK had made him an offer “he couldn’t refuse” of £162m.
Zef stayed on in an advisory capacity for four years but he was also ready to move on to new challenges, he says.
He toyed with the idea of opening a chain of gyms but decided the market was already saturated and focused instead on his already successful real estate portfolio, which has bought and sold properties worth around £210m in London, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.
He also set up Maxicorp Autosports, a four-strong team of engineers in Guernsey, where he lives, building bespoke high-speed vehicles for customers prepared to pay between £250,000 and £1m. The firm doesn’t make a profit but it allows him to pursue his passion for racing. He holds the world land-speed record on a turbine bike.
Now GSK has put MaxiMuscle back up for sale as the pharmaceutical conglomerate slims down its portfolio. And Zef is in discussions to buy back the firm he founded.
“For the brand to continue to be the best it can be, it needs to be led by a more nimble entrepreneurial-type mindset that has direct links with the industry and the consumer,” he says.
In the intervening years since the sale the nutritional supplements sector has seen consistent double digit growth. But it has also changed.
“There is a growing demand,” says Carolina Ordonez, head of consumer health at market research company Euromonitor. “But there is also a lot of competition.”
If Zef is to succeed with MaxiMuscle a second time round, she says he will need an army of social media “influencers” to reach the products’ specific target market.
She also suggests he introduce vegetable-based protein products, since increasing numbers of consumers are avoiding dairy. And looking further ahead, she thinks the current focus on protein will fade in favour of new trends.
There will be plenty of challenges, then, if he does return to the driving seat at Maximuscle.
So for now he’s enjoying being back on the bike. A year after the accident he made another attempt to break his own land-speed record. He didn’t manage it – but he says he’s inclined to keep on trying.