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ViSalus marries ‘Biggest Loser’ with new-age Mary Kay to gain fans

The scene Saturday at AmericanAirlines Arena looked like the Heat’s NBA Championship celebration reprised exactly one month later.

Hip-hop music thumping hard enough to be felt as much as heard in the arena dressing rooms. Celebratory chants from a frenzied, bouncing, fist-pumping crowd of around 16,000. Tight bodies in tight shirts, women in skimpy skirts. Spotlights continuously sweeping the packed stands between moments of the crowd getting their rah-rahs out.

All the noise wasn’t in celebration of near-superhuman athletes, but a bunch of regular folks who used, bought, sold (or all three) products by health supplement company ViSalus. Thanks to its “90-Day Challenge,” social media emphasis and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Hulk Hogan and Alfonso Ribeiro, ViSalus claims to be one of the fastest growing multi-level, buy-and-recruit marketing companies.

Not to mention the black BMWs its top salesmen can win. (Remind you of Mary Kay’s pink Cadillacs?)

ViSalus reported sales of nearly $137 million for the first quarter of 2012, a huge increase compared to a year earlier, when sales were $20 million. Majority owner, Connecticut-based Blyth, Inc., does not break out profits for subsidiaries.

Blyth, which designs and markets products including candles, photo storage and chafing fuel — primarily through direct marketing — bought a stake in ViSalus in 2008 and increased that share over time; it now owns nearly 75 percent.

Counting on additional growth, ViSalus has named four new executives since June, including a president, chief brand officer, chief technology officer and general manager of Latino markets to help penetrate the Spanish-speaking customer base in preparation for an eventual expansion to Latin America. Currently, ViSalus is sold only in the United States and Canada.

At the end of the first quarter, ViSalus reported 92,000 promoters — or sellers — of its weight loss shakes, energy drinks and nutritional supplements, up from 16,000 during the same time a year earlier. While customers who refer three friends to take the challenge can earn a month’s worth of products for free, promoters earn a percentage of the products they sell, namely kits that run from $49 to $249 for a 30-day supply.

Promoters can be occasional dabblers who earn a couple hundred bucks a month or, at the other end of the spectrum, high-volume movers who bring in more than $200,000 a month, said co-founder and chief marketing officer Blake Mallen.

He pointed out that top number is “not the norm.”

The company was launched in 2005 by Mallen (now 30); Ryan Blair, 34, and Miamian Nick Sarnicola, 33.

Then, they offered weight-management items but focused more on an anti-aging product. When the recession hit, Mallen said, “we watched our revenue just get shredded.”

The founders had to pour money into the business just “to keep doors open” before they revised their model, said Mallen.

After former longtime Louisiana State University men’s basketball coach Dale Brown challenged Blair in 2009 to do an hour workout a day for a year, Sarnicola said the company’s power group hit on an idea.

“What if we rolled the whole company out under the umbrella of a challenge?” Sarnicola said. “And 90 days seemed the right number. One hundred twenty days seemed too long in terms of people committing to something. And 60 days is definitely too short.”

Plus, “We figured out the true power of social media,” said Ashley Riggs, Sarnicola’s wife. Sarnicola said the popularity of Facebook and Twitter has made it easy for challengers to connect with one another. “Now, it’s just make a post and 20 people can say, “I want to lose weight, too” or “I want to run the 5K with you.”

That shared experience made Saturday sounded like an almost evangelical gathering at the arena. It was the company’s largest national celebration.

“It’s the fact that we only have to focus from 90 days to do something and the amount of support we get from everyone and anyone from social media keeps you going,” said former University of Miami tennis player Audrey Banada, a member of a winning weight-loss group from Miami-Dade that appeared on stage.

Also in the spotlight: Eric Rose of Lafayette, Tenn.,with former pro wrestling star Hulk Hogan. After seeing Hogan tweet about ViSalus, Rose accepted the challenge, losing 265 pounds from his 600-plus-pound frame over the past 18 months.

The crowd roars; the celebration continues, Price is Right-style. Daytona Beach’s Lakeisha Bryd’s jumps up and down with her family, then races toward the stage to receive her prize from a random drawing – a $500 credit for more ViSalus product.