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Lee Benson, deseret news
Steve Tew is president of the natural supplement company 4Life.

SANDY — Fifteen years ago this January, David Lisonbee and his wife Bianca sat in their living room in Orem with his mother and her sister and made their pitch.

In searching through the Internet, David had discovered this new product, called Transfer Factor, that he and Bianca believed strengthened and supported the body's immune system.

They had mortgaged their house in Orem to purchase an office building in Utah County and a machine to put Transfer Factor into capsules. Now they needed someone to sell the pills.

That's where Louise, David's mom, and Rita, Bianca's sister, came in.

How about it? What could they lose?

This was family. Louise and Rita couldn't say no any more than they could grasp the enormity of the business wave they were about to launch.

Tomorrow, the Utah company started by Transfer Factor – 4Life – will get an early jump on commemorating 15 years in business with a grand opening party for its new world headquarters building in Sandy.

In a mere decade and a half – less time than it takes to wear out a Mercedes – 4Life has become a worldwide company that has offices in 22 countries, does business in more than 50 countries and has in excess of 300,000 distributors.

In the world of direct selling – also known as network marketing or multi-level marketing – 4Life is already approaching legendary status. The publication "Direct Selling News," which keeps track of such things, ranked 4Life as the world's 71st largest direct-selling company in 2009, 62nd in 2010 and 45th in its most recent rankings in 2011.

By comparison, Avon ranks No. 1 with $11.3 billion in annual net sales and Utah-based Nu Skin ranks ninth at $1.7 billion. 4Life has annual net sales of $250 million.

Three-quarters of that $250 million comes from outside the United States. 4Life is a bigger deal in places like Puerto Rico, Colombia, Russia and Malaysia – the company's top-producing territory – than it is in Utah. Thousands of people show up at the conventions it regularly hosts throughout the world.

With its wealth, the company has set up a charitable foundation that builds schools and orphanages and helps feed the poor. At Christmas, 4Life is a regular on NBC's Today Show, presenting sub-for-Santa gifts that collectively add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Every day, the Lisonbees see the results of what they have wrought, but they still can't quite believe it.

"We had 18 straight months of losses when we started," David says. "We really didn't know if we would make it. We thought about retail sales, but it's a product that's slightly difficult to explain and I envisioned it on a shelf, just sitting there. So we just kept talking to people and talking to people."

At the two-year mark in 2000, a big boost came when 4Life merged with Shaperite, a direct-sales company located in Sandy, and Shaperite executive Steve Tew became company president. The Lisonbees knew the health and wellness business. Tew knew how to manage a company. The marriage took. 4Life has grown every year since, with and sometimes without the Lisonbees. Two years ago, David and Bianca were called on an 18-month LDS mission to Milan, Italy. They left Tew to run the place alone, and the company never lost a beat.

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But while marketing is the most obvious answer to 4Life's runaway success, David and Bianca believe the underlying reason is the effectiveness of Transfer Factor.

Government regulations prohibit them from making medical claims, but their anecdotal evidence convinces them that Transfer Factor effectively does what they say it does: allows the immune system to function at its very best.

"Everybody wants to feel better," says Bianca.

It's the same pitch she and David gave to his mom and her sister in their living room back in '98.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

email: lbenson@desnews.com