Vermont Soap: Replacing the Yucky Stuff

03 Nov, 2013

by Bruce E. Boyers

You may have heard of Vermont Soap, makers and sellers of popular crafted organic soaps and personal care products. What you may not know is that the company’s very first products were made for one person: founder Larry Plesent. Over time he just happened to leverage his discoveries and formulations into a very successful business.

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Impact of Everyday Cleaning Products

Larry began his professional career some distance from the natural body-care products industry. “I used to be a window cleaner,” he told Organic Connections. “I jumped off buildings. My license plate said ‘Spidy’ (short for Spiderman). I got damaged by using the cleaning chemicals that we cleaned windows with—and everything we used you could find at your supermarket in the cleaning aisle.”

That injury led to further bodily intolerance. “I got really sick and I became intolerant of everything in the mix, which meant detergents, fake colors, fake fragrances and all detergent chemicals—my body rejected them all,” Larry continued. “Suddenly I couldn’t use soap; I couldn’t use shampoo; I couldn’t use underarm deodorant.”

No Help from Doctors

Larry did what anyone in his position would do: he consulted his physician. “I went to the doctor and I said, ‘I have these allergies,’” Larry recalled. “So they tested me for allergies and said, ‘Whatever is going on, these are not allergies; you are not having an antibody reaction to a protein invader. This is not a histamine response; this is something else.’”

Larry continued his attempt at treatment with a specialist. “I had contact dermatitis, so I went to a dermatologist,” he said. “I waited a month for an appointment, got a 30-second interview, and he wrote me a prescription for cortisone. I said, ‘Hold on; I wait a month to come talk to you and you write me a prescription for some cortisone lotion and send me on my way?’

“‘Well, what do you think it is?’ the doctor asked me.

“I said, ‘It’s products. If I use products, I get this. If I don’t use anything—if I don’t wash, I don’t bathe—I’m fine. So what do you think it is?’

“He goes, ‘Oh, it’s stress. It’s always stress.’

“I said, ‘Doc, I’m stressed out because this is what happens when I use products!’ I ended up handing him back his prescription and saying, ‘I’m not playing. I’m going to go home and figure things out.’ I never went back.”

Leveraging What Worked for Him

The above all happened in the early 1990s—and it was the catalyst for what was to become the Vermont Soap company. The first thing Larry needed was bar soap, so he did some research with handcrafted pure soaps. He made one particular discovery that totally ended his eight-year battle with dermatitis: he found he could use soaps that didn’t go through a particular manufacturing process that commercial soaps were subjected to. “I wanted to call up the dermatologist and go, ‘Hey, Doc, I just put you out of business with a bar of farm soap,’” Larry related, laughing.

He realized that he was most likely not alone in his needs. “I looked around and I said, ‘This is fantastic!’” Larry continued. “‘The world needs this. And certainly you don’t have to have my kind of sensitive skin to appreciate it. That’s it; I’m going to be the guy who took handmade soap and brought it into the general marketplace.’

“So I started doing that. At that time we were the third company in the United States to make handmade-style soap, and it’s still a huge part of our business. After a few years I began working on liquid soaps. We’ve had a whole line of firsts: we invented the first certified organic shower gel. We had the first certified organic pet shampoo. We do oral care products now, and we even do cleaning products.” Most Vermont Soap products are food-grade certified organic.

Personal Attention

Larry learned that a certain level of quality was required to make his personal care products work well—and he has dedicated himself to hands-on quality control. “When I can I meet my farmers,” Larry explained. “I like to smell everything all the time. I walk right to the factory. I’m always smelling; I’m tasting; I’m using my senses the whole time.” He also does quite a bit of personal interaction with customers.

Larry feels that the hands-on approach is the only way to run a business such as his. “It’s just like a really good restaurant,” he asserted. “What really good restaurant doesn’t have the chef, owner, manager, looking and smelling and tasting, even if they’re not cooking every dish? It’s the same thing. My wife has a restaurant and she’s there every day, and that’s why it’s so good. People ask me if they could franchise or lease my technology, and the answer is no. It wouldn’t be the same.”

Pursuing Passion

Larry will tell you that despite his dedication to quality and his passion for his products, bringing Vermont Soap to its current successful state has not been an easy ride. “I attribute my success to, first, not giving up,” he remarked. “I once won an award from the Handmade Soap Makers Guild for the person who suffered the most pain for handmade soap,” he laughed. “I was really proud of that; it was very hard earned.

“In the first three years, I paid to go to work—that was the joke. It was five years before I took anything like a salary. I was technically bankrupt every day of my first ten years in the business. I lost a house; I lost a marriage. I’d get on the phone and beg suppliers to send me another round of ingredients so I could stay alive for another month. If you want to succeed, you have to have that kind of dedication, no matter what your business is.”

But it has paid off, and today Larry stands proudly by his product line and the impact he’s having on the personal care products industry. “When my middle daughter was four years old, I came home and she asked, ‘Daddy, what do you do?’ I looked at her and I said, ‘Honey, your daddy replaces yucky stuff with yummy stuff for little girls and boys.’ That got me more mileage than anything else I did or said her entire life.

“That’s what we do,” Larry concluded. “We provide truly nontoxic, sustainable alternatives for the products that you use every day. We do it most often with USDA food-grade certification, which means audited natural, farm to bottle. We don’t work through distributors; as a result, customers buy directly from us and save money. So that’s what we’re doing: we’re in the business of replacing yucky stuff with yummy stuff.”

For more information, please visit www.vermontsoap.com.

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