Natural skin care company Sensible Organics is growing in Beaver Falls


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After he arrives at Sensible Organics' headquarters at 7:30 each morning, Rob Robillard, the company's chief executive, convenes what he calls a "production huddle" on the factory floor.

During that session, he meets with the workers who mix and package the Beaver County company's line of organic and natural skin care products. Together they set goals for the day and Mr. Robillard is briefed on what was accomplished the day before.

"That's one of my favorite things to do ... to be down there with them," said the 41-year-old who came to Sensible Organics following a career working on marketing and strategies for such high-profile brands as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and L'Oreal Paris.

With his consumer products background and a steady stream of financing over the past two years from private investors who now include Hollywood actors Ben Stiller and his wife, Christine Taylor, Mr. Robillard is confident he can grow the tiny enterprise into a top name in the natural and organics personal care category.

"Beauty is in my blood. I know everyone in the beauty industry. I can always get a meeting," the energetic CEO said during a recent Monday morning tour of Sensible Organics' facilities in West Mayfield, next to Beaver Falls.

The modest buildings that sit in the shadow of a former Babcock & Wilcox steel plant about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh don't look like they house a government-certified organic manufacturing operation that turns out such items as Fresh Fig Organic Hand Wash, Spiced Citrus Organic Body Lotion and Almond Vanilla Body Butter.

Raising Sensible Organics' visibility is among the goals Mr. Robillard has set since becoming CEO in August. He has already overseen creation of a new corporate logo that features several shades of green and that will soon hang on the outside of the facility.

Up until 2011, the company was named Sensibility Soaps. It was a business founded in 1996 in York, Pa., by husband and wife Thomas and Lynn Betz, who moved it to Beaver County to be closer to family. In 2001, they obtained a $175,000 loan from the Beaver County Corporation for Economic Development to construct the current facility, and they lived in part of it while they ran the business.

"It was [a] nontraditional loan for us, but it worked out," said Bob Rice, vice president of the Beaver County agency. "The Betzes were organic before organic was cool. They were well ahead of the curve."

The company manufactured products for a number of private-label brands before launching its own line of lotions and creams, Nourish, in 2005.

In a move Mr. Robillard considers to be a landmark in the company's history, the Betzes in 2003 obtained organic certification for their production process from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The designation means Sensible Organics' products contain no chemicals and are composed of all food- and plant-based materials that are 95 to 100 percent organic.

"That was momentous," Mr. Robillard said of the USDA seal that is carried prominently on the Nourish brand. "[The Betzes] realized natural and organic products were becoming mainstream and they were the first personal care manufacturing plant to get the certification. Consumers recognize that seal."

Besides the all-organics seal, Mr. Robillard and current investors who bought the company in 2011 and changed its name are banking on growing demand for all things green and sustainable.

In 2010, U.S. sales of nonfood organic products rose nearly 10 percent from 2009 to $1.97 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association's most recent industry survey. All organic sales, including food, totaled $28.7 billion, the survey said.

A 2012 study by Kline & Co., a research and consulting firm based in Parsippany, N.J., said the global market for all natural personal care products -- which includes organics -- should continue to grow by 10 percent annually through 2016.

Besides changing the company's name, the new owners redesigned Nourish packaging so that it features bright colored fruits and plants on the labels and is "very feminine because many natural products don't look pretty," Mr. Robillard said. "They look hippie or crunchy."

The owners also made a strategic decision to keep the price for most of the line under $10.

Since last year, Nourish has been available in the Whole Foods Market chain and Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance stores.

It is also sold in Wegmans Food Markets, and Mr. Robillard expects it to be available in O'Hara-based Giant Eagle supermarkets as soon as July. The company also sells and ships directly from its website, http://nourishorganic.com.

The company will receive more national exposure in mid-July when Mr. Robillard appears on the QVC home shopping network to promote Nourish as a result of the brand winning the 2013 Eco-Beauty Company of the Year Award in the Cosmetic Executive Women's annual trade group competition.

Among Nourish's biggest competitors in the organic skin care category, Mr. Robillard said, are the Hain Celestial Group brands Avalon, Jason Natural Products and Alba; and a skin care line from W.S. Badger.

Other big names that are marketed as "natural" -- but which may not be certified as totally organic-based products -- include Johnson & Johnson's Aveeno products, Estee Lauder's Aveda line and the Clorox Burt's Bees brand.

Mr. Robillard had been chief executive of Living Proof, a hair care line in which Jennifer Aniston holds an equity stake, from 2007 to 2011. When the Betzes decided to retire in North Carolina, he was part of an investment group that bought the Beaver County business.

"They had 400 different product formulas that were certified organic. I was very intrigued."

Paul Richardson, chief executive of Vancouver, Canada-based Renewal2, the major investor in Sensible Organics, said the company "has had very nice growth for a brand and fulfilled our expectation that if you created a brand that is nice and healthy and inexpensive for people, consumers would respond positively. ... You don't have to be wealthy to be healthy."

Though he would not disclose annual sales, Mr. Richardson said he expects Sensible Organics to double revenues each year for the next several years.

Renewal2 and its affiliate, Renewal Funds, invests exclusively in businesses that promote the environment or social missions. Among its other portfolio companies is Seventh Generation, which makes nontoxic cleaning products. Renewal2 led a $3 million round of financing that closed recently and also led $5.3 million in prior investment that included funds to buy Sensible Organics.

The recent round will be used to expand production, warehousing, research, and further develop the Nourish brand possibly into baby care and hair products, Mr. Robillard said.

Ms. Taylor, the actress, is not only an investor along with her husband but has served as brand ambassador for Nourish for the past year.

"We weren't looking for celebrity endorsements," Mr. Robillard said. But when another investor who had connections to a member of Ms. Taylor's and Mr. Stiller's staff sent along some Nourish samples, the actress became enthused because of her passion for healthy and environmentally friendly products.

"And she's from Allentown, Pa., so she likes that we are Pennsylvania-based."

Under the current investors' ownership, the private label business will be maintained -- "It fills the factory and pays the bills," Mr. Robillard said -- while the Nourish brand becomes the focus of marketing efforts.

In the existing 8,000-square-foot plant leased from the Betzes, Sensible Organics has four kettles in which ingredients such as coconut oil, lavender, mint and aloe are mixed and then separated into batches before being stored in a quarantined environment prior to testing.

After the batches pass inspection for yeast and mold, they are poured into tubes and bottles and packed in cases that are shipped from the plant or warehoused at an 11,000-square-foot, underground facility 10 miles north in Wampum, Lawrence County.

Mr. Robillard plans on expanding production to an adjacent building and adding a second shift by year's end, which would boost the current workforce from about 30 to as many as 40 who earn between $9 and $15 per hour. He hopes to recruit employees from local towns to reduce their transportation costs and also will reach out to regional technical schools for skilled workers.

Though he commutes to Sensible Organics from an apartment in Cranberry and maintains his home in Connecticut, he and the other investors said there are no plans to relocate the company.

"It is off the beaten path, but the people who have been there have been there awhile and know what they're doing. It's a unique workforce, and we think it's a great place to do business from," said Renewal's Mr. Richardson.

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Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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