Dr.Frank Gravlee by Harold Howe
Pioneer is a word that tends to be utilized rather loosely in the horse industry but there can be no denying that it is totally appropriate when assigned to Dr. Frank Gravlee, the founder of Life Data Labs. It all began with a galvanized tub and a canoe paddle.
Cherokee, Alabama is difficult to find on the best of road maps. The closest community of any size is Florence (pop. 140,000) located on the bank of the Tennessee River. It’s not really famous for anything other than perhaps Life Data Labs. That name may not readily jump to mind for horse people but its principal product, Farrier’s Formula, certainly would. The familiar pelleted nutritional supplement has been on the commercial market for two decades and its followers swear by it although very few would know the story behind its creation.
In meeting Dr. Gravlee the first image that comes to mind is of the late Colonel Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Clearly there is not even a remote connection but he exudes that gentlemanly southern charm of a bygone era. He has that knack of putting one instantly at ease starting with a powerful handshake that belies his 76 years.
This interview took place at the company headquarters which is as modern as modern can be. It’s a far cry from Life Data’s origins. Rural Alabama is where Frank was raised on a farm which his father operated after serving as a farrier in the Calvary during World War I. Thus it comes as no surprise that horses and shoeing were integral parts of his life. This was a time when people depended on horses. They were an important part of their lives and by necessity they knew a great deal more about general horsemanship than today’s horse owners.
“People like my father had to know how to deal with horse problems because there were not the number of veterinarians like today. In fact after World War II the general thought among school administrators was that many of the veterinary schools should be closed down because technology was taking over and what need would there be for veterinarians? Remember this was long before the pet industry took hold and horses were not yet being used for recreational purposes,” he points out.
Born in 1931, young Frank was not old enough for the war effort and was left behind to help run the family farm.
“I was pretty much on my own to maintain 200 acres but it was there I developed a love of farming. I set my sights on doing that after graduating high school. In 1949 I started on a degree in agricultural science. I hitchhiked to Auburn with one suitcase and $50 in my pocket,” he fondly recalls.
It was not long thereafter he came to realize that no matter how much education he had, the farming opportunity would never come his way because of his lack of money.
“Modernization was coming but there was never going to be any way a young man such as myself could come up with the funds to get involved. I then decided that if I couldn’t do that, but still wanted to be involved with animals, becoming a veterinarian was the answer and I could still work for myself.”
Interestingly, his university advisers did their best to steer him toward human medicine.
“They really pressured me to go the human medicine route because they really believed that veterinarians were a thing of the past. Finally I said I would if they promised me that it would make me a better veterinarian. That settled the issue,” he remembers.
For the next eight years he toiled in academia without any of the financial assistance students now have. No grant or loan money was available other than those on the GI bill (World War II vets) so he maintained part-time jobs throughout those years.
“One thing in my favor was that I realized the existing veterinarians were getting older and someone would be needed to take over the work. There were only three practicing vets in my region that I knew of and they were getting close to retirement. It was also about that time that Thoroughbred racing and the Tennessee Walking horse industry were taking hold in northern Alabama.”
In 1956, fresh out of school, graduation diploma in hand, 25 year-old Frank Gravlee set out to make his mark in veterinary medicine. He interned for three months in Little Rock, Arkansas with Dr. Ted Mason, one of the founders of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and his interest in horses was fuelled.
"When I did graduate those vets I knew of were still carrying on so there wasn’t a practice for sale. I had no choice but to open my own which I did in Florence which back then had a population of only 25,000 or so. I dealt with large animals but truthfully would take whatever I could."
His business started in an old shack that had been used by a local vendor to store crates. For the grand total of $25 a month he was given access to a building with the front porch caved in and newspapers stuffed in the walls to keep the wind out. The major component of the new veterinarian’s business was testing cattle for Brucellosis for the government. It was not as easy as it sounds but it did provide for many stories that Dr. Gravlee cherishes today.
“You had to be 90 per cent cowboy back in those days because you were left to wrestle and rope these animals yourself. Through that people got to know me because I was not from the area and that led to getting business but there wasn’t a lot of money around. There were more than a few times that I got paid with produce or maybe the odd bottle of white lightning,” he chuckles.
“There were many times that I got called out to tend to a sick cow. I’d get there, smell her breath and have to tell the man that old Betsy had gotten into the neighbour’s store of mash and was just drunk. Of course, it was always the neighbour’s mash because there was no way this man would ever have one. That wouldn’t have been legal.”
If Dr. Gravlee paints a rather nostalgic notion of the veterinary trade that’s because it was at that time.
“It wasn’t just here or with me, it was very typical throughout the United States and I imagine in Canada. When Dr. James Herriot came out with his books about his years as a veterinarian in England, I said he’d stolen my life story. That’s hard for people to understand today but that’s the way it was. We all had to survive and make the best of a tight economy for a lot of years.”
During the first 10 years of his practice, horses made up only 10 per cent of the business. By the time he retired from it, that component had grown to 70 per cent. It was during this time he saw first hand problems with horses he could not explain from a disease standpoint which he had been taught. Gradually, he came to the conclusion that these had to be nutrition related which was very avant garde thinking at that time.
This revelation haunted him to the point that in 1965, at the age of 34, he made the decision to return to school. This was a major decision because by then he was married with three children.
“My friends thought I’d lost my mind. I was well established with a good practice but I just felt a need to know more on this and something needed to be done, but I didn’t know what.”
What he did was return to graduate school at the renowned MIT, taking a three year residency in nutritional pathology graduating with a masters degree in nutritional biochemistry and intermediary metabolism.
“What all this was about was learning how to determine the requirements for properly feeding horses. The answers were only to be found at the molecular level and I needed the training to do that. This was cutting edge stuff for the time and led me into the field of research.”
It still wasn’t quite what he was after. He spent a total of seven years in a semi-commercial chemical laboratory doing research but on people-related projects. He reflects that it also evolved into more administrative work than actual research and left him frustrated. I decided that the only answer was to go back into veterinary practice in Florence and through that avenue set about developing a nutritional source for horses.
“That was 1975 and I began by developing a database from horses owned by my clients which allowed me to determine what was normal for horses. I was a scientist now but the veterinary practice allowed me to self-finance my research.”
It was shortly thereafter that fate intervened with a client who had Thoroughbred horses and an abiding interest in nutrition. Frank profiled each horse and set about making the dietary supplement that was needed.
“I was a one man band. I had to weigh all the ingredients and mix them myself each night. One horse had terrible feet problems and the supplement got him back into work. It was from this experience I realized what was needed was the development of a commercial product that focused on feet problems. This was the light bulb moment and that led me to realize that focusing on improving the hoof of the horse was my best shot for commercial success.”
In 1983 Farrier’s Formula first saw the light of day. Actually that’s not entirely true because it was originally called Hoof And Hair.
“It was called that because it not only dealt with the feet but also dermal tissue. The name was changed when I realized that the best selling tool for me would be the farriers. No feed company was interested in manufacturing and it was a farrier friend in Texas who after trying it told me to make it and we’d sell a truckload. During those early years the only reason the company survived was because of the farriers.”
Like so many small businesses, Life Data Labs was anything but flush with cash.
“No banking institution would lend me money including my local banker. They did not want to be involved with anything remotely connected to gambling so I had no choice but to pay as I went. It has taken me 25 to 30 years to accomplish what a well financed company could have probably done in five but I had no other option.”
The name Life Data Labs came courtesy of Frank’s oldest son who is an ophthalmologist. He focused on the obsession with data his father had and his goal to make life better for horses.
By 1984 Frank had decided to give his veterinary practice to his son Scott, who had just finished veterinary school, and focus solely on developing Farrier’s Formula. He worked out a portion of the Florence veterinary office until 1986 when he relocated to the present site near Cherokee.
He gradually developed a network of farriers, tack shops and veterinarians to distribute the product. Growth was slow but steady. He proudly proclaims that the company has shown growth every year since day one with the exception of one when production remained unchanged. Today, it is a multi-million dollar operation with an enviable base.
“Throughout most of my adult life I struggled with payments. When I turned 62, which was 14 years ago, I decided that for just one day I did not want to owe anyone anything. I wanted to feel what it was like to be in that position.
“So what I did was pay every note owing, every vendor, every utility and anyone else in between on that one day so I did not owe anyone in the world a thing. That was the greatest feeling you can imagine. From that time on I never owed any amount that I could not write a cheque for if I had to. That way no one would ever own me.”
With growth came competition. There were, and still are, plenty of challengers for the block of business Life Data Labs has acquired.
“They came from everywhere. We were basically the first significant supplier of horse supplements and some people thought it would not take much to do better than this goofy veterinarian who operated from under a shade tree in Alabama.”
They were wrong.
Today, Life Data Labs sits on a 10 acre property that houses an ever growing manufacturing and warehouse area. It is as streamlined as one could imagine and the entire complex is operated by just 13 employees.
Several years ago it received the coveted ISO 9001 certification which is recognized worldwide as a mark of excellence. Only 10 per cent of all manufacturers in the United States have this certification.
“We were very proud of the quality and control assurance of our product but going this route gave the public proof of what we were doing. The procedures that ISO demands are an asset to the operation of the company so it was not a marketing ploy.”
Gravlee is quick to credit his wife Linda with being a steady hand in guiding the company’s direction.
"Linda retired from teaching after 25 years of service and I more or less tricked her into coming on board. I asked her if she could come in Fridays and sign the cheques. Well, that led to three days a week and then five and now she is the Chief Executive Officer. She’s full time and let me tell you she is tough in business. Anyone who knew her before would have never thought that but she is invaluable to us.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Life Data Labs is that it remains virtually a one product company and in the ownership of its creator.
“I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to create a high tech product in a very niche market and have it grow to this size. History has shown that dreamers with original ideas seldom ever benefit from those ideas. Sooner or later inventors who do not have the skills to manage a business end up losing their ideas or selling them to someone else. I suppose I have the banks to thank for my situation in not being willing to lend me any money so I had to pull it up by the bootstraps.
“We’ve made a major investment in a new laboratory which has over $1 million in equipment alone. My son Scott is in charge of the research and development now as we look to diversify and be less vulnerable with only one product.”
Six years ago the firm made a big investment when it decided to buy a vacuum packing machine and follow the coffee industry effort of providing product as fresh as possible.
“That machinery is made in Italy and cost $1 million to buy. It uses nitrogen flushing to vacuum seal the product to maintain quality and freshness. This is offered in addition to the pail containers we’ve used for some time.”
How is it though that the company was never sold to a larger entity?
“There have been plenty of opportunities over the years. But you have to understand that this is what I wanted to do. My work was also my hobby and my recreation. I never learned to golf or fish so if I sold out what would I do with myself?”
Life Data Labs appears to have an intimate relationship with its employees, which is another oddity in today’s world.
“The staff is like an extended family. We have a multi-million dollar facility here but the truth is that our greatest assets walk out the door at 4:30 and come back the next morning. Everything else is just a pile of scrap metal,” says Frank noting that Linda’s 87 year-old mother continues to work in the plant.
Farrier’s Formula has achieved worldwide distribution but Frank maintains a particular fondness for Canada.
“One of our very first customers outside the United States was Winfield’s Farm in Ontario. It was their business that first made us think that this could be global and kicked off the effort to make it happen. Since that time our business in Canada has steadily grown and while it is not our biggest market it is important to us and I’ll always be thankful for what it did.”
If Dr. Gravlee sounds a bit evangelical in the promotion of his supplement, he is. No one could be more enthusiastic about the benefits of Farrier’s Formula and he makes every effort to educate his customers to that fact.
“Education is such a part of what we have to do. The truth is veterinarians receive very little education on nutrition; their craft is more predicated on dealing with crisis situations. Some try to wing it on the subject of nutrition but at the end of the day they really don’t know.
“I try to write articles and show research that provides hard data to back up claims. Listen, we’re still learning about nutrition and truthfully we’re still at the crawling stage in learning what needs to be known. There is so much more to nutrition than having a coffee can for measuring out feed.”
Frank and Linda have also become involved in Thoroughbred ownership with 15 head. It allows him to keep a handle on the racing industry’s needs and remain exposed to its biases.
“For the most part racehorse people tend to make decisions based on what they see going on in other shed rows. All they want to know is whether or not something will make their horse go faster. They are a tough sell on the value of products like this.”
He points to the fact that so many are quick to accept products that use descriptions like natural, organic and herbal without any data to back up their claims. They also tend to be trendy and quick to jump on fads.
There can be no debate that Dr. Frank Gravlee maintains an ongoing curiosity for the plight of horses and their nutritional needs. It’s doubtful that will ever stop. He’s rightfully proud of what he has achieved but in no shape or fashion sees an end in sight.
He admits he derives a great deal of satisfaction from proving the bankers wrong.
“I told you about paying off all the debt I owed that one day. In the last 10 years I’ve only been into a bank once. It hasn’t been necessary. For some reason they seem to keep coming here to talk with me. That makes me feel good.”
That’s a long way from the tub and canoe paddle days.
Originially Published as "Making Sense of the Idea" in The Harness Edge, February 2007