Sunday, December 14, 2003

Old Thyme Herbs' growth only natural


Enterprise insight

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Old Thyme Herbs founders Melinda Wolf (left) and Beverly Varney built their business to be self-contained, doing all the manufacturing, marketing and retailing themselves.
(Thomas E. Witte photo)
BATAVIA - You could call Old Thyme Herbs a natural phenomenon.

Natural, because all its products contain only true plant materials. A phenomenon, because owners Beverly Varney and Melinda Wolf have built a successful mass merchandising business from the ground up, doing literally everything themselves.

"Old Thyme Herbs is the only true aromatherapy seller in the mass marketplace," said Geoffrey Ficke, a toiletries specialist and consultant who has advised the company owners since last summer. "The problem is that the mass market has abused the term 'aromatherapy,' so that most people think it means anything that smells good."

Ficke and his wife, Nancy, a former beauty products buyer for retail stores, have analyzed Old Thyme Herbs' product line and operations. Insisting that their soaps, oils, spritzers and bath salts contain no chemicals or alcohol is only one way in which Varney and Wolf differ from other aromatherapy producers, he said.

"They are fully self-contained, doing all the manufacturing, marketing and retail themselves, which makes them fairly unique," said Geoffrey Ficke, who operates Duquesa Marketing, Inc. with his wife in Fort Thomas. "As artisans, they stand out in the mass marketplace. They are a one-of-a-kind presence in a sea of cookie-cutter products."

The two women's entrepreneurial journey is remarkable. Wolf, a stay-at-home mother of two, found great enjoyment in herb gardening and used her herbs to make home remedies. Varney was an herb gardener too, but focused on culinary herbs. The two met through an herb club in Clermont County, and combined their interests to create a few natural products in 1997.

"We made soaps, some creams and lotions, which led to the development of bath and skin care aromatherapy products," Varney said. "We also made lots of candles, which we later phased out."

"We sold our products as fund-raisers for the club, and saw that there was a demand for them," Wolf added. "We tried to improve our products, selling them through home parties and getting comments from customers at those parties."

From the start, the two used only essential oils (meaning oils derived from plant essences). They refined their ingredients and processes in Wolf's kitchen until they were satisfied that they could replicate their products exactly.

"There are all different grades of essential oils, and it's taken time to find the best sources," Wolf said. "Everything we make is literally hand made. We have to deal with variations in temperature, in humidity and in the oils themselves."

In May of 1998, the women began selling their wares through their own shop in Milford. By Christmas of that year, they had opened another shop in the Tri-County Mall. Although neither had a retail background, the two researched the retail world as shoppers, gathering ideas for effective marketing, packaging and display strategies. They deliberately thought through their enterprise from a customer perspective.

"They are totally self-taught," Ficke said. "Their knowledge of herbs, their product development, their business skills. And they're up against all these mall chain companies that have their own marketing managers and retailing specialists."

In the company's Batavia headquarters, Wolf works closely with a production staff of eight, whom she has educated about the benefits of aromatherapy and trained in Old Thyme Herbs' precise manufacturing processes. Varney manages the business side of the company, scouting prospective locations and hiring staff that share the company's beliefs and are passionate about the products.

Expansion has been rapid because demand is strong. Old Thyme Herbs outgrew its Milford store and moved to Kenwood Towne Centre, closing the Tri-County store to concentrate its local sales efforts in one location. Since then, it has focused on opening new locations in so-called "lifestyle centers" in Lansing and Columbus, as well as in suburban Chicago and Cleveland. The partners think that the clientele of upscale shopping centers understand and appreciate the benefits of their natural aromatherapy products.

"We opened the Cleveland store Oct. 24, and it's going wild," Varney said.

In fact, the company has seen demand triple. Three new stores -- two in Ohio and one in Illinois -- are planned for 2004. Steady traffic at Old Thyme Herbs' stores is supported by strong online sales, mostly from repeat customers.

Since launching their company, Wolf and Varney have worked hard, often taking work home to complete after their families have gone to bed. Old Thyme Herbs' growth brings a crop of challenges: finding just the right people to operate the stores and learning to delegate responsibilities, pinpointing just the right locations, developing new products to augment its line. But there are some built-in limitations, too.

"Because their products are 100 percent natural that limits what they can make," Ficke explained. "For instance, they have no shampoo or shower gel, because to make those products you have to add chemicals.

"They have identified a niche. The problem is getting the word out there. They have very loyal users, but the key now is they have to do more and more, shouting their message at the top of their lungs. They are facing the point at which they have to either bring in a partner or secure more capital for expansion. Everything they've done to this point has been out of their pockets."

Old Thyme Herbs' products range from lip balms to bath crystals to exfoliating scrubs to "inhalant" vials of aromatic liquids. Some of the products, notably those with floral fragrances, are popular because of their scent. Others are compounded for a more specific purpose: to relieve stress or PMS symptoms, to help a person relax or feel more energetic, to soothe sore muscles or to help the body rid itself of poisons.

Information: 800 260-2290 or www.oldthymeherbs.com.

E-mail jcallison@zoomtown.com



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