There’s good reason Lee Labrada’s nickname is the “Mass with Class." He holds 22 major professional bodybuilding titles and was inducted into The International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness (IFBB) Hall of Fame in 2004, yet he comes across as one of the most humble and genuine guys around.
It’s this combination that has contributed to his success in business.
Shortly after retiring from competitive bodybuilding in 1996, Labrada founded Labrada Nutrition in Houston. He has grown the company into one of Inc. Magazine’s top 500 fastest growing privately-held companies in the United States. The 52-year-old CEO, who still looks to be in competition-ready shape, focuses the majority of his time on developing innovative nutritional supplements for the fitness industry and keeping his company ahead of the competition.
“I knew that I could do a better job than most companies were doing with the design of the products because, coming from the trenches, I knew what bodybuilders and athletes really needed and wanted."
Originally from Cuba, the Labrada family moved to the United States when Lee was just a child. They initially settled in Chicago and then moved to Jacksonville. His family relocated to Houston when he was in college.
“My father was a civil engineer and was transferred here for work and I while I started college at Northwestern I transferred to UH where I got my degree in civil engineering," Labrada says. "Houston has been home to my family and my business for a long time."
Labrada first got introduced to bodybuilding after he got injured playing football in high school and went into the weight room to get stronger and recover.
“I quickly realized that I was a much better bodybuilder than a football player," he says. "At 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional football player. But I found out that I could be a very good professional bodybuilder and so the first four years I focused on putting on as much muscle as I could onto my frame.
"After I won the Mr. Texas Championship, it became evident that I had the potential to move on to the national level and beyond.”
It was during his bodybuilding career that he was first introduced to some of the largest supplement companies in the world, Weider and MET-Rx.
“I knew that I could do a better job than most companies were doing with the design of the products because, coming from the trenches, I knew what bodybuilders and athletes really needed and wanted," Labrada says. "Secondly, I knew that I could produce products that were true to label so that the customer was getting what they paid for and that tasted better and worked more efficaciously.”
The company’s first product was the Lean Body Meal Replacement, which is still the company's top-selling product.
Labrada Nutrition now has more than 30 employees in Houston and about the same number spread throughout the country as reps. The company ships all over the world; products are distributed through stores like GNC, Vitamin World and Vitamin Shoppe.
While the company's roots started in bodybuilding, Labrada is committed to expanding the audience. He has participants from such sports as football, tennis and soccer.
“Our focus going forward is developing products and education that can help people reach their goals. Whether you’re a cross-fitter, an MMA athlete or any other, there’s a product whether it’s to lose weight, gain mass, recover etc . . .
"We want to position ourselves as the go to source both for the education and the products.”
Greg Scheinman is creator of the PBS show, PROFILE with Greg Scheinman, and an associate at Insgroup Inc., Houston's fourth largest independent insurance agency.