Alexander Heller is from Austria and runs the family company HELFE. HELFE has been producing natural body care products and bath salts since 1927, and over the years, the company has grown significantly and, of course, changed in many ways. Among other things, the plant extracts are now produced in-house, including the hay flower extract. The HELFE company purchases the hay flowers and the oat straw directly from the farmers. The hay flowers come from rough meadows – this is where AlpBioEco comes into play, because the "seed project" offers farmers with rough meadows a second source of income. This is ideal for Alexander Heller because it secures his resource in the long term.
AlpBioEco: Thank you for taking the time for an interview with AlpBioEco. Would you like to shortly introduce yourself and your company?
I first studied Marketing and Sales in Vienna, and then Management and International Business in Barcelona. Then I decided to take on the family business. The HELFE company has been run in family tradition for over 90 years, since 1927. Originally, the company was founded because of a cream that my great-grandfather developed in a pharmacy. This cream can still be found in almost unchanged form on the Austrian market to this day. From the 1960s onwards, we began to produce plant extracts ourselves, including hay flower extracts – that also brings me to the AlpBioEco project. The company itself is mostly active in Austria. The quality of the products has always been very good, but when it comes to marketing, public relations, or other product development, I brought new momentum to the company.
AlpBioEco: What other major changes have been there in the 90 years of company tradition?
We have actually adapted every recipe, which means that we only use coconut surfactants as surfactants as washing-active substance, so that baths or shower gels are milder to the skin. In addition, we have changed all the colors of the products, now we only use food colors for production instead of azo dyes. Over the past 90 years we have moved twice, at the very beginning the company was really in a pharmacy, the cream was made in the pharmacy’s laboratory. Then we moved to a small production hall, and in 2000 we moved to our current location, with a large hall with around 950m² of production space.
AlpBioEco: Where do you get the herbs that you use in your products?
We purchase hay flowers and oat straw directly from the farmers. The hay flowers come from natural meadows, i.e. rough meadows. We have contracts with different farmers in Vorarlberg, now one more has been added in the Bregenz Forest. We obtain the oat straw from an organic farmer in Carinthia. You also have to be careful with the harvest time, because the main ingredient silicic acid has a higher proportion in green oats, which is better for extraction. Otherwise we purchase most of our plants from an Austrian company in Vienna.
AlpBioEco: Do you pay attention to sustainability, and if so, how?
I have not yet changed to organic production – although we are in contact with the Austria Bio Garantie, but it not easy from a scientific point of view. For example, water is an ingredient that certain certificates see as an unnatural ingredient. The certification guidelines are mostly based on dry extracts, this cannot be transferred 1 to 1 to our extracts. But an organic certificate and a natural cosmetics certificate are being planned for next year, so that at least one product can be made organic.
In general, we have very little outer packaging. We are also in the process of changing the bottles and replacing them with sugarcane-based plastic. We have now been testing this for over a year, as the risk of the new bottle interacting with our products first had to be ruled out. Glass is not ideal for us because of its weight, a higher proportion of returns because of broken goods and because glass is of course not suitable in the bathroom or shower.
AlpBioEco: How did you collaborate with AlpBioEco?
I found the project on the internet by chance because we looked up hay flower suppliers. I then took part in a workshop on rough meadows and got to know the project. For us it was an ideal project to collaborate with: On the one hand, I am in direct contact with my suppliers and, on the other hand, I can directly influence the value chain. The project helps the farmers because they can earn a second income with their poor meadows, and it helps nature, for example by preserving biodiversity. It is just a great value circle.
The project is very interesting, also because the participants are so different, in addition to farmers, for example, book authors or representatives of the chambers of commerce also take part in the project. For me it is particularly important that there is not only discussion, but that you really work on the project and that decisions are made and implemented. For example, instead of creating our own website, we very quickly linked our project to the website “natürlich bunt & artenreich” (English: “naturally colorful & biodiverse”) so that a basic online presence could be achieved as quickly as possible.
AlpBioEco: Why is the cooperation with AlpBioEco beneficial and important for you?
So far, I have not yet received a specific benefit, but for me it is important to look to the future: the raw material is secure in the long term and I can continue to work with hay flowers. Because when the farmers realize that you can make good money with unfertilized hay flower meadows, then I am sure that this will continue to exist. So, my raw material is secured in the long term and something good is also done with it!
AlpBioEco: What do you wish for the future of regional herb production and processing?
There are two sides to this: on the one hand, I would like to be able to purchase more products directly from Vorarlberg. On the other hand, I would like to make the hay flower, a not very well-known ingredient that is only available in the region, bigger and better known. The hay flower actually comes from rheumatism therapy but is registered as a cosmetic – a bath in the hay flower extract is a real miracle for sore muscles or tension. And next to it, it smells very good too!
AlpBioEco: Thank you very much for the interview!
Alexander Heller collaborated within the AlpBioEco project for the development of the business model Alpine hay seeds. If you need more information about this collaboration and the business model, please read the AlpBioEco Best Practice Brochure.
Photos: © HELFE