By Anne Geller
When starting a new business it's normal to be unsure of yourself and want to take things slowly. Not me, says Anne Geller, President of Thunder Ridge Emu Products. I was blinded by enthusiasm and knew in my heart how wonderful this bird was so I set out to change the world. I thought it would be so simple.
My plan was to supply health conscious Americans with the low fat red meat as an alternative to traditional beef products. To my surprise it turned out that the oil from the emu was the real prize.
In 1993 not even having a farm, just knowing I wanted to raise emus, I bought 2 pairs of birds for $50,000 from a farmer in Wisconsin. After that my husband, John Johnson, and I bought a farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains outside Manassas, VA and we finally got our birds delivered. The birds were beautiful and seemed to love their new home. However as it got later and later in the season and the birds were still running around taking it easy and not doing what 2 year old birds should be doing in the late fall I started to get this sinking feeling in my stomach. A local vet confirmed my fears – I had 4 male birds or as I like to say the worlds most expensive stag party. My husband was becoming less and less enthusiastic about my new venture.
I finally found an honest farmer in PA who traded one of my males for a female and sold me 2 lovely females (for another $25,000) so I ended up with 3 pairs of emus. Unfortunately by now it was late spring and the breeding season had long passed; unfortunately so did the breeders market where I was hoping to re coop my initial investment. Undeterred, I thought, well, I'll be ready for next year!
I met some buyers from Price Club (Costco) at a Virginia Agriculture Show that I had attended. Since I had yet to slaughter I bought meat so I would have something to cook in my booth. They loved it and set up an appointment for me to meet with them the following week in their office. I was told at the meeting that they wanted to introduce the meat at their 4 biggest stores in the Washington DC Area and as an added bonus I could do the food demos until their staff became familiar with the meat. I was told if the meat did well they would give me all the stores east of the Mississippi. Perfect – How could it not do well?
Since I still had nothing to process, I ordered a load of meat from California. This was expensive and I was just breaking even with shipping, etc. but I thought at least I'm laying the ground work. I then got the wonderful idea of buying a feed lot since it would be at least a year until I would have birds ready to process. I found 1000 birds in a feedlot for sale in California and had them shipped to our farm in Virginia. We were going through a ton of feed a day. My husband was beside himself with joy.
Everything was progressing and I thought I might even start making some money. Then I got a call from the office at Price Club and I was told that it was time to turn over the food demos to their staff. You know the rest of this story. I never got the big contract, we lost the 4 stores we were given and I had a lot of mouths to feed.
The birds that I had paid thousands of dollars for were almost worthless, emu farming was considered a joke and my husband and I were barely speaking.
Whether it was to prove John wrong, fear of failure or my Irish stubbornness, I decided I was not going to throw in the towel.
The first thing I needed to do was to stop the bleeding and get rid of as many birds as I could. I processed as many as I could afford, took lots of them to auction where I got $5 a piece for them and gave some away to FFA and 4H kids for farm projects. After that I literally hit the road. If there was a farmers market, a health fair or a craft show, we were there passing out samples and talking, talking, talking emu. I spent 90% of my time explaining to people what an emu was, where it came from and why it was good for them. It was exhausting doing and saying the same thing over and over but I figured unless we educate the public, it's like smiling in the dark - nobody knows but you. That year, l996, I had $17,000 in sales. A humble beginning but I've never looked back.
It wasn't long after that people started seeking me out at shows and the phones occasionally rang. People called requesting products like moisturizers, bath products and sport rubs. Since I had no connections to the cosmetic industry, I feel blessed to have been introduced to Edna Hennessee, owner of Cosmetic Specialty Labs.
What an amazing woman and what a champion to have in your corner. Whenever I got down she would give me a pep talk, invaluable advice and the belief that this is what I was supposed to be doing. I remember her telling me that emu oil was where Aloe Vera was 30 years ago. She would personally handle my orders (minimum at best), thank me for dealing with them and tell me what a valuable customer I was. I knew she was doing me a favor but she always made me feel important.
In 1998 two amazing things happened. I had applied for a show in Washington DC called 4 Your Health which is sponsored by NBC News. Believe it or not, the news team actually came to the booth and asked if they could do a piece on us. They came and filmed both at our office and at the farm. When it aired on TV I felt like a rock star. It ran here in Washington DC, in New York and on other NBC stations. My phone was ringing and we were actually selling to stores.
Later that year I received a phone call from a writer for Business Week. How he heard of us I will never know. He came to our office in Virginia and to the farm with a photographer and we had this big write up in a national publication. For two years after that I would get a phone call from different people at Business Week just calling to see how we were doing. They finally stopped calling. I guess they figured we were here to stay.
For the past 10 years I have done trade shows all over the United States, Singapore and have even made 2 trips to Dubai in the Middle East. I jokingly say that I'm the only American woman selling oil to the Arabs. Thunder Ridge has 16 products currently on the market with 3 more coming out soon. We have a new label coming out for our natural products line and Mundara, a brand new line with upscale packaging for the mass markets and spas.
I've reduced the number of emus at Thunder Ridge to about 300 which is a bit more manageable. In addition to the emus, John and I adopt rescue animals. We have 3 mules, llamas, a miniature horse, too many goats to count and a donkey that is a Grand Canyon rescue. I think the other animals make it more interesting for the children and other groups that come out to the farm. We charge a bag of carrots or grapes for admission so the kids can feed the animals.
All of our fat is currently being processed by LB Processors in Tennessee. It is all AEA certified and fully refined. I believe we work with the best producers in the industry. Our products are the best because we only work with the best.
Thunder Ridge Emu Products are currently being sold through national and international distributors, health food stores, medical professionals, salons, spas, catalog, and internet sales. We have had an annual increase of 25% in factory sales almost every year since we started and are constantly working on finding new niche markets to take a bigger percentage of sales.
Because of this growth, we are constantly in search of raw product suppliers and are looking for contract growers we can partner with and support. This industry will never develop unless we are all there working together.
When I look back on the rocky road we've traveled I am amazed to see how far we've come. Early on some people told me that someday I would look back on it all and laugh. I've never done that but I do sort of chuckle when I overhear my husband talking to people telling them about the benefits of emu oil and what a wonderful idea WE had.
Editorial Notes: Anne Geller, owner of Thunder Ridge Emu Products in Manassas, VA, offers the professional beauty industry 16 natural personal care products made with 100% Emu Oil from the American Emu. For more information call Anne at 800-457-0617, email Anne@Thunderridgeemu.com or visit their website at www.ThunderRidgeEmu.com