Eclectic Nathan Zassman always on lookout for new challenges, new fields to conquer

Nathan Zassman

By MYRON LOVE Aviva Natural Health Solutions on St. James Street is not your typical health food store just as Aviva’s founder, Nathan Zassman, is not your typical entrepreneur.

“What is unique about Aviva is that we take a holistic approach to achieving optimum health through a healthy lifestyle,” Zassman says. “I do a tremendous amount of research in a constant quest for finding solutions to people’s health problems. Many of our products were discovered from research I’ve done working to resolve my own health issues.”

As an example, he cites a brand of footwear from Switzerland, kybun, which was recommended after he tore up some knee ligaments four years ago. Doctors told him he would have to have both knees replaced. He tried the shoes – which claim to repair cartilage and, after ten days, he was walking without pain, after having had to use a walker.

“A physiotherapist who shops here was amazed,” Zassman says. “As a result of my own experience, I can advise people about how properly designed footwear can eliminate knee, hip and back pain.”

At Aviva, Zassman focuses on promoting healthy eating (through food products, healthy food preparation, and dietary supplements) and liquids (as in water filtration systems). A healthy living space requires clean air, for which he recommends air purifiers and humidifiers that can improve any environment. He promotes the importance of getting a good night’s sleep (with organic latex mattresses and coverings that facilitate healing while reducing the time it takes to fall asleep), sitting on active health-promoting chairs, and wearing therapeutic footwear.

One of Aviva’s air purifier brands – Blueair – from Sweden – was recently featured on CBC’s Marketplace – which tremendously boosted Aviva’s sales of the products.“We sold more than 300 units in just two weeks after the Marketplace feature,” he reports, and Aviva continues to sell them in large numbers.“We sell our products worldwide, through our website avivahealth.com.”

Aviva’s eclectic mix of products closely mirrors Zassman’s own lifetime of careers and pursuits. The lifestyle guru began life in Beverly, Massachusetts, which is about 20 miles northeast of Boston. In high school and beyond, he studied trombone and voice at both the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and, later, at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He was performing regular concerts in Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra when he was only 19 years of age.

In Chicago he performed in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony, and was a member and soloist with the North Side Symphony of Chicago. Nathan’s first experience as an entrepreneur also occurred in Chicago, when he founded The Zassman Brassmen, a brass quintet that performed educational concerts in schools, as well as formal concert performances.

In 1974, after six of years of study in Chicago with the famous brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs, Zassman won the audition for second trombone in the Winnipeg Symphony. In addition to his role as a trombonist with the WSO, he joined the faculty of the University of Manitoba, teaching the brass instruments, conducting brass ensembles, and teaching “Brass Techniques” at the Faculty of Education, outlining the basics of all the brass instruments to music education students.

But Zassman has never been defined by just one category. Concurrent with his career in music, he trained as a professional photographer at the Winona School of Professional Photography in Indiana, earning 20 diplomas and Certificates of Merit in a wide range of photographic disciplines. “I became interested in photography while in Chicago,” he recalls, “and spent my summers studying at the best schools and with famous photographers, to refine and improve my craft. I approached photography the same way I did music, seeking out the finest photographers who shared their unique techniques, either privately, or through classes.”

While in Chicago, Zassman developed an interest in Eastern philosophy, studying yoga and astrology at the College of Occult Studies in Chicago. In Winnipeg, he later founded Celestial Interface, producing astrological birth charts for those interested in learning how astrology can improve their lives. He was also appointed CBC Official Photographer, appearing on about a dozen radio and TV spots with CBC Radio and Television, preparing and discussing astrological birth charts on political candidates running for local and national elections.

Zassman founded a photography business specializing in architectural, portrait and commercial photography, creating magazine covers and illustrations for local and national magazines. He also became the Winnipeg Symphony’s official photographer, doing portraits of all the musicians for the symphony programs, as well as taking the annual photo of the orchestra. For many years he taught photography at a school he founded in Winnipeg while the symphony was in session from September to May, and taught professional photographic techniques at the Winona School of Professional Photography, the University of Saskatchewan Department of Art, and the Saskatchewan School of the Arts during the summer months. Zassman also founded The Heliograph Gallery, the first gallery that specialized in photography in Winnipeg.

Now, one would think that teaching photography, performing with the Winnipeg symphony and teaching at the University of Manitoba School of Music would be more than enough to keep someone busy, but Nathan Zassman is a cut above average. He further added businessman to his resumé when he got into computer sales on the ground floor in 1982.

“I had always been interested in cooking and nutrition,” he recalls. “In the early 1980s, I was hired by a local book publisher to write a cookbook with an original idea. I was planning to write the book on my IBM typewriter, but a friend recommended I use a word processor, as he told me that no one used a typewriter anymore for writing.”

One of Nathan’s photography students worked for a local company, Westsun Media. They were selling the Kaypro, which had been rated the best value brand of computer that could be used as a word processor. Nathan purchased a Kaypro with two floppy disk drives for $4000, and couldn’t believe the freedom it provided, allowing him to edit his work, and even check his spelling.

Zassman was so enthused with his computer that he encouraged all his friends to buy one as well. “I was sending so many customers to Westsun to buy a Kaypro computer that I asked the owner, Marc Raymond, if he would allow me trade mine in for a new model with a built in hard drive, which was revolutionary at the time for a portable computer. Marc acknowledged that all his sales were thanks to Nathan and offered him the job as sales manager for the computer division of Westsun. After a short time, Nathan decided he should start his own business and left Westsun.

Thus, in 1982, the musician became a businessman with the founding of Aries Microsystems. “Our business grew rapidly,” Zassman recalls. “By 1986, Aries ranked as the fastest-growing business in Manitoba.” But in 1988 he found that the added responsibilities of running a computer business were interfering with his musical career, so he decided to sell Aries to one of his employees. However, Zassman retained his passion for computers and after his three year non-competition clause from the sale of Aries came to an end, in 1991 he started a second computer company – Opus Computer Solutions.

Zassman retired from the WSO in 1995 to devote himself full time to his new company. “In 1997, I bought the former Winestock’s Wholesale building at 52 Adelaide in the Exchange District and moved my computer business into the downtown marketplace area,” he recalls. “In 2001, I decided to set up a gym on the third level for my computer technicians. I wanted to encourage my technicians to include exercise in their lifestyle. I did my research and bought the best fitness equipment available.”

After a short time, he decided to also sell the fitness lines he purchased for the Opus gym, and Aviva Natural Health Solutions was born.

Zassman then went to the United States, studying Nutritional Therapy in Medical Practice with Jonathan Wright, M.D., and Alan Gaby, M.D., and obtaining certificates in 2003 and 2007. By 2005, Aviva was bringing in enough revenue to stand on its own, so Zassman sold Opus Computer Solutions in 2007 to focus entirely on his new venture.

“I seem to change careers every 20 years or so,” he says.

He moved Aviva to its current location, at 1224 St. James Street, in 2010. And, while still very active in the operations of Aviva, true to form Zassman continues to grow and explore other fields. A bass/baritone, he’s returned to singing and was studying with Mel Braun at the University of Manitoba, as well as singing in two choirs – until Covid forced a pause. On top of all that, a few years ago, began taking acting classes with the Prairie Theatre Exchange. He became a member of Shoestring Players, and has appeared in three plays so far.

He continues to indulge his passion for healthy cooking and baking bread. While running Opus, he became well known for offering his customers and staff free loaves of bread, made from freshly ground organic grain, and is still doing so at Aviva. These days though, he concentrates on sourdough bread. He offers his starter to anyone interested in baking sourdough bread, for free.