The botanical industry lost a leader and a tireless competitor on Friday, October 3. Natalie Koether, president of PureWorld Botanicals, died at age 63 at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York, after battling heart disease. Koether had led PureWorld Botanicals as president since 1995, steering that company through good times and tough times with determination and a keen sense of market opportunity.
The daughter of a pharmacist, Natalie was born in Wilmington, Delaware. She attended University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated with high honors in 1961. In 1995, she graduated from Penn Law School. She later served as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania for 13 years, and was Vice Chairwoman of the U. Penn Trustee’s Executive Committee at the time of her death.
Natalie’s contribution to U Penn was summed up by Samuel Preston, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, "We’re devastated in the School of Arts and Sciences. She … saw us through some tough times."
Natalie Koether led a life of generous giving, beginning in childhood. In elementary school, she sometimes gave her lunch money to poor students. Later, she paid workers at PureWorld Botanicals while they attended English language classes. "She didn’t speak to anyone any differently, whether you were a prince or a maintenance person at her plant," noted her sister Marilyn Todisco.
In 1971, Natalie married Paul Koether, an investor and businessman with a history of financially successful ventures. The two went into business together, and carved out a powerful niche on Wall Street with a strategy known as "greenmailing." Employed by business titans such as T. Boone Pickens and Carl Icahn, the practice involved buying stakes in undervalued public companies, and threatening to take them over. The Koethers’ venture, Shamrock Partners, grew a financial warchest of $20 million, derived from companies who paid them well for their stock, and to go away. In 1985, Natalie Koether was featured in Fortune magazine for her financial savvy and prowess in these efforts.
In 1995, Natalie and Paul Koether acquired Madis Botanicals in Hackensack, New Jersey. A financially weak company with a long history of service in medicinal botanicals, flavors and fragrances, Madis required capital investment, upgraded facilities, and a new business strategy. The Koethers re-named the company PureWorld Botanicals, and Natalie assumed day-to-day leadership for all aspects of operations. Under her leadership, PureWorld became the largest botanical extraction company in North America.
Under Natalie’s leadership, PureWorld Botanicals scored an early, significant victory in the kava trade. Catching the wave before most of its competitors, PureWorld Botanicals became a leader in kava science, extraction, and marketing. Kava propelled PureWorld Botanicals into prominence, and the company garnered high-profile visibility in numerous media venues, including features in The Wall Street Journal and on ABC’s television newsmagazine 20/20.
Natalie radically re-vamped the production facilities at PureWorld, expanding manufacturing capacity, funding state-of-the-art laboratories, and initiating several novel botanical projects. Under her leadership, PureWorld scored other significant market successes with maca, resveratrol, black cohosh, St. John’s wort, valerian, and a number of other botanicals.
Qun Yi Zheng, PhD, who assumed the role of chief operating officer of Pure World when Natalie went to hospital just prior to her passing, had worked with Natalie to help her build Pure World into the leading extractor it is today. "Natalie left me a way to live that is dedicated to hard work, not to be afraid of challenges, to love and care for others, and to be fair," he said, honoring the woman who was his primary mentor for the past seven years.
Natalie’s passing has left a gap, not only at PureWorld Botanicals, but in the botanical industry as well. During the past few years when numerous other companies went out of business and fell into obscurity, Natalie’s hard-driving spirit of competition kept PureWorld alive and well. She also kept competitors on their toes, pushing a level of science and product integrity that set a high bar of achievement for the rest of the industry.
She and Paul also were active in other areas of the botanicals and natural products industries. They invested in Natural Business, a magazine dealing with business aspects of the natural industries. Cofounder of Natural Business Communications and former editorial director of Natural Foods Merchandiser Steven Hoffman recounts, "Paul and Natalie were very supportive as original investors and advisors in Natural Business. I learned much from them both about business, investment, finance, and the ways of Wall Street. They saw a great opportunity in the herbal products industry and in promoting health through business, and through PureWorld and their support of other industry initiatives they have contributed much to the growth of the market. Paul is a friend and a mentor and I look forward to interacting with him well into the future. I’m sure I speak for an industry in expressing heartfelt sympathy to him and his family." Hoffman is now president of Compass Natural Marketing of Boulder, Colorado.
The Koethers also invested in Gaia Herbs. Gaia founder Ric Scalzo said, "We will always remember Natalie as a vital, focused, and energetic leader – as well as a true ally and a woman of elegance and deep integrity. We will strive to honor her memory." Scalzo said that Natalie always conveyed insight into the industry that was coupled with an unwavering receptivity to new perspectives. She stood tall on principle and conviction and executed with passion and integrity. "We will deeply miss her heartfelt passion that she brought to her work and shared with us here at Gaia," he added.
Natalie Koether is survived by her husband Paul, her daughter Jennifer, granddaughter Danielle, her sister Marilyn Todisco, and more than 100 employees at PureWorld Botanicals.
–Chris Kilham Explorer in Residence University of Massachusetts at Amherst