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ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

6.22.98  
Health Food: An Emu in Every Pot?
Strange bird, but the business problems are oddly familiar

In 1993, entrepreneur Anne Geller thought she'd found the bird that laid the golden egg. Geller was going to make her fortune breeding the emu, a cousin to the ostrich that has long been prized in its native Australia for its low-fat red meat and the reputed therapeutic properties of its oil. Although most Americans wouldn't know an emu from an egret, Geller was convinced that her emu business would soar once people realized they could wolf down a juicy red emu steak for less fat and calories than an equivalent serving of chicken.

Indeed, Geller was so persuaded of her idea's potential that she used profits from her and her husband's drywall construction business to start Thunder Ridge Emu Farm on her 27-acre property in Manassas, Va. She plunked down $25,000 for a pair of breeders and $30,000 for some pens. Back then, top breeding pairs could fetch up to $50,000, and fertilized eggs up to $1,000. If Geller's pair hatched about 22 chicks annually--the average birth rate--she figured she'd break even in a year. The rest was pure profit. ''Everything looked very, very good on paper,'' says Geller, 53. ''I was looking for short-term big bucks.''

Like most business schemes that look foolproof, this one wasn't, and there was no magic spell to help. While Geller's quirky business may seem nothing like your own, her mistakes were classic: getting blinded by enthusiasm, failing to do her marketing homework, and plunging in without a plan.

First, inexperience tripped her up. Geller's happy avian couple, purchased at the market's peak, turned out to be two males, and yearlings--too young to mate--at that. The breeder then sold her two more emus, supposedly females but actually males. ''For $50,000, I had the world's most expensive stag party,'' she says. Geller wound up suing and buying more birds elsewhere. Then, in 1994, before Geller could cash in, the emu market crashed. Amid the clamor of eager speculators, no one had noticed the consumer's stifled yawn. Birds that had fetched thousands could barely be given away. In Texas, the emu industry's American hub, some fed-up ranchers turned their birds loose or starved them to death.

Given that bleak scenario, you'd think Geller would've flown the coop by now--or should have. Instead, she has persisted, becoming a tireless promoter of all things emu. (Of the 6,000 American Emu Assn. members at the 1994 peak, just 1,768 remain.) No longer a quick-buck speculator, she's focusing on long-range growth, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is helping her draw up her first business plan.

''THIS IS OUR YEAR'' In Geller's favor, she's a survivor who knows how to network and hustle--and takes rejection in stride. Her stubborn refusal to consider the possibility of failure is her strength--and potentially her Achilles heel. ''This is our year,'' she says, despite the lack of any strong evidence. ''I have a gut feeling.''

Geller always has been a quick study, going from a career as a flight attendant in the 1960s to one on Wall Street, where she learned the arcane business of lending stock to short-sellers. Later, in 1984, she opened a quaint country store in downtown Manassas and, in 1986, she invested in her husband's drywall business as a silent partner. She wound up running it, despite knowing no more about a blueprint than that ''it was supposed to be blue.'' Then, in 1994, Geller launched ReliaCare, which distributes medical supplies and equipment, such as gloves and wheelchairs, for home healthcare.

Thunder Ridge's flock, meanwhile, has grown to about 1,500 birds, hatching an average of 300 chicks a year. Besides Geller, there's one part-time employee who makes $15,000 a year. Most of the farm's modest $19,000 in revenue last year came from Geller's sales of prime cut emu steaks to about a half-dozen restaurants, with a fraction more coming from the sale of emu oil. When the blue-green speckled eggs don't hatch, she sells them to decorators for $12 apiece.

It's an uphill battle, and Geller is loath to consider how much money she has lost. In an attempt to build some demand for emu products, Geller became a representative of the Virginia Emu Growers Assn., but egos and turf wars hampered marketing efforts. Then, on her own, she approached area chefs such as Marc Fusilier of the pricey Chez Marc in Manassas. He serves peppered emu medallions with white mushrooms. ''It's not the most popular thing yet,'' says Fusilier. ''It's good, though.''

Geller also tried to cultivate more plebeian palates by selling emu steaks at Price Club, but the warehouse chain pulled the product after a few weeks--the meat moved only when Geller personally cooked up samples in the store. Now, Geller is trying to reach distributors more efficiently through trade shows, such as an international food show in Chicago that generated ''hundreds of leads.''

But it is likely to take more than persistence and blind faith to make a success of Thunder Ridge. Emus have no name recognition with consumers, and the drive to buy low-fat foods has waned, according to Robert M. McNath, president of the New Products Showcase and Learning Center Inc. in Ithaca, N.Y., which studies why new products succeed or fail. Then, too, emu can be one tough bird if you don't cook it properly.

''What you need to do is to get every cooking column in America talking about emu, and that's hard to do,'' says McNath. Geller is contacting advertising and public-relations agencies for help, but her budget is tight.

Besides selling emu for burgers, steak, and jerky, Geller and others reserve their greatest hopes for the oil, long used as a folk cure by Australia's aborigines. Two recent studies at two university medical centers indicate the oil may promote healing. (One was done with mice.) But the oil may help only ''the 20% of the people who lack for the essential fats,'' says Leigh Hopkins, a professor at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science and an emu farmer.

Despite her difficulties, Geller dreams of the day when she's the Frank Perdue of the emu business. To get there, she wants to expand her farm to 500 acres and do her own processing and slaughtering. But wooing investors won't be easy unless she can demonstrate there's a solid business there. ''It's a mystery how quickly, if ever, this market will develop,'' concedes T. Robins Buck, a project manager at the agriculture department, who's advising Geller, ''but listening to Anne Geller, you'd believe it's any minute now.'' And who's to say that her unflappable optimism won't be the fairy dust that does the trick?


By Roy Furchgott in Manassas, Va.

This article was originally published in the June 22 print edition of Business Week's Enterprise.

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TABLE: A Fledgling Company Struggles

COMPANY
Thunder Ridge Emu Farm, Manassas, Va.

BUSINESS
Breeding Australian emus for meat, oil, and decorative eggs.

OWNER
Anne Geller, also partner in husband's drywall business, owner of a country crafts store, and a medical supply business.

GOALS
Expand market for emu products; find investors to develop vertically integrated operation, from breeding to slaughtering and packing.

PROSPECTS
Iffy, considering lack of strong consumer interest, limited funds, and lack of industrywide marketing efforts. But Geller is fervent about emus and willing for now to support the venture with her other businesses.



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