Herbalife, a global MLM scheme also prevalent in India, is believed to be worthless according to hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, who made a detailed presentation on why consumers should avoid buying the company’s products and stay away from the MLM. This is first part of a three-part series
On a warm Sunday afternoon, you may encounter a group of young and old people coddled together in, say, Café Coffee Day, listening to a very animated team leader, motivating and making a very passionate speech. Move closer, you will hear the team leader motivating all the members of the group to generate leads to create more ‘business’ and at the same time ‘educate’ them about various (dubious) products to sell. What is this ‘business’ that they talk about? You approach and enquire. They will tout a nutrition powder, which you have not seen anywhere else and supposed to make you buff and strong. But there’s more to this than the nutrition supplement. This is Herbalife, a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme prevalent not just in India but all over the world. Along with QNet and SpeakAsia, Herbalife has been cast in the spotlight recently. Herbalife only sells its dubious products here. In the US it is a listed stock. If you believe the well-known hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, the company runs one of the largest pyramid schemes. Herbalife is just one of the hundreds of pyramid or MLM schemes. All of them will impoverish you. Pay attention to what the billionaire activist-hedge fund manager and his outstanding team of researchers have discovered.
After a whole year of research, Bill Ackman and his team at Pershing Square Capital Management have come to the conclusion that Herbalife is worthless as a company and one big “pyramid scheme” and “caused and continues to cause enormous harm to the most vulnerable communities in the US and around the world”. He gave a lengthy presentation (a whopping 342 slides were shown), at a conference in Manhattan recently, listing out reasons why Herbalife is worthless a company and warned investors and consumers alike to stay away from the company. He has shorted the company and believes the company is worth $0. He has even put up a website warning consumers about Herbalife.
Regular readers may recall Moneylife is the only publication that has been single-handedly campaigning against MLMs and pyramid schemes for the past three years. Moneylife Foundation has hosted several financial literacy seminars (click here for one such seminar in which we warned discerning public last year itself) which has pointed out the dangers of such MLM and pyramid schemes, including Herbalife. We the first to blow the whistle on Speak Asia and also on stockguruIndia.com, apart from many other dubious schemes.
To read what Moneylife has written about Herbalife in the past, click here.
Herbalife is an MLM scheme, which ‘sells’ nutritional and weight-management products, in as many as 84 countries and has been doing this since 1980. It makes money not by selling product directly to you and me but by recruiting sales people, which recruits more sales people, which in turn recruits more sales people. The moment you buy its product, you become the sales person. In order to qualify for rewards or bonus, consumers (who become distributors automatically) must recruit (or ‘sell’ Herbalife’s products) so that they meet a stipulated target every month. Not many consumers or distributors get back their money’s worth. It is estimated that failed sales people, those at the bottom of the pyramid scheme, lost as much as $3.8 billion since 1980!
According to Ackman, Herbalife, at a total enterprise value of $8.1 billion is reportedly more valued than other well known brands such as Energizer ($6.7 billion) and ChurCh and Dwight ($7.2 billion) . Its flagship product Formula1, sells more than Palmolive, Betty Crocker, Clorox, with nearly $2 billion in sales, bringing in 29% of the revenues.
Herbalife sells six times more nutrition powder that Abbott Labs, Unilever and GNC combined. What is the reaosn? Is it cheaper than other products, or is it too good to resist?
Neither. Indeed, Herbalife’s Formula1 is the costliest nutritional powder among six other brands. Formula1 power comes at $2.87 per 200 calorie serving, while all other powders are available between 88 cents to $1.74 per 200 calorie serving. This is just an example. All other products from Herbalife are overpriced compared with similar products.
So, how can Herbalife justify the premium pricing of its products, asks Ackman. How is it that Formula1, a $2 billion brand company that no one has heard of? This is because its lifestyle and nutritional products bypasses retail channels and instead sold through “distributors” and consumers in the pyramid. No one outside of the pyramid has heard of Formula1. Herbalife puts itself at par with Nike and Disneyland in brand recognition that too when its advertising expenses are miniscule compared with the other two giants.
In addition, Herbalife spends its budget on promoting itself and not the brands it is so proud of!
Yet despite the “big brand name and high sales, strangely it spends little on R&D too. Both are minute compared to total sales. Herbalife, claims to have the “highest standards in R&D” (another way of saying “lots of money spent on R&D”), but Ackman found out that it does not spend much “materially” on R&D.&nbs. Herbalife spent just 0.2% of its net sales on R&D.
Moreover, it claimed to be a ‘product innovator’ when it actually pays royalty to the patent owner—Unither Pharma—for its nitric oxide products. Herbalife owns just one patent in the healthcare/nutrition area!
How come it is able to sell a commoditised product that is rarely marketed at three times the price of its competitors. Why would consumers buy it when there are cheaper products out there? The answer lies in its ‘distributors’ and the way it sells a dream. It recruits ‘distributors’ in over 80 countries to buy its products and bundles it with a "business" proposition. More of this is explained in the second part of our story.
To lure distributors to buy its products and “business”, Herbalife needed a savior—a famous person. Typically, companies like Amway, Gold Quest, etc use film stars and have political connections, and they tie up with NGOs to gain popularity and legitimacy. In Herbalife's case, endorsements were made by a Nobel laureate. Louis Ignarro, the 1998 Nobel Laurete in medicine is used to create an invincible aura around Herbalife and thus legitimize it. Louis Ignarro, PhD, is a member of the editorial board of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute and a member of Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board. He and his consulting companies have been paid more than $15 million to promote Herbalife’s products.
So, Herbalife’s commodity products priced at three times its competitors is merely a guise for recruiting more sales people, a hallmark of a pyramid orMLM scheme. In our second part, we will discuss the ‘business’ part of the Herbalife MLM/pyramid scheme and how it make people lose their life savings in pursuit of a dream.