Thymes co-founder Stephanie Shopa, left, is handing over the reins of the Minneapolis-based maker of soaps, lotions and body products to Anne Sempowski Ward.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Bath and body company Thymes changes hands

  • Article by: JANET MOORE
  • Star Tribune
  • June 22, 2012 - 4:59 PM

In the past month, a torch was passed at Thymes, the Twin Cities company known for its upscale bath, body and home-fragrance products.

After an exhaustive search that took nearly two years, Thymes named consumer products veteran Anne Sempowski Ward as its chief executive officer, only the third in the Minneapolis-based company's 30-year history.

Sempowski Ward assumes the helm of a company whose products are beloved by patrons for their fresh, unique fragrances. Think: Lavender, Eucalyptus, Kimono Rose and Frasier Fir. Thymes products are fixtures in Patina and Bibelot gift shops, as well as online and in specialty boutiques across the country and world.

They appeal largely to women (as well as gift-seeking men) who happily fork over $25 for a bottle of Agave Nectar body lotion.

Sempowski Ward's ascension comes after Thymes co-founder and CEO Stephanie Shopa retired.

"Part of my love for this company involved creating a unique infrastructure and corporate culture. Now I can move on," Shopa said in a recent interview.

Shopa plans to move to Florida to be close to family, although she remains on the Thymes board and continues to own an undisclosed stake in the firm.

An alum of consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, Sempowski Ward promises the future of Thymes will be "all about growth to unprecedented levels."

It's difficult to compare those exalted goals with the company's current financial footing -- Thymes is privately held, and executives steadfastly decline to release any balance sheet figures. Shopa will only say, "We've always been profitable."

By any measure, Thymes is still a tiny player in the behemoth beauty products industry. Research firm Ibis World estimates the size of the industry to be $53 billion, but that includes a polyglot of products that Thymes doesn't dabble in, such as cosmetics and salon tools.

Either way, the fragrance market remains strong, even in a tough economy. "The majority of women, almost 80 percent, use a fragrance body product," said Karen Grant, global beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group, of Port Washington, N.Y. "That's one reason the category is relatively stable because it has such a high level of usage."

"We've been carrying them since we opened in 1993, and it is one of our strongest bath and body lines," said Katie Curran, office and property manager of Minneapolis-based Patina stores, which has six shops in the metro.

A different kind of business

Thymes was started in 1982 by Shopa's pal, Leslie Ross Lentz, who retired in 2007. "We knew each other in high school, we even dated the same boys," Shopa said.

Shopa signed on and pretty soon, the two huddled over a book on herbs and were stewing bath products on the stove, in the bathtub, in "trash cans from Target," culling natural ingredients from their kitchens and gardens.

In the go-go 1980s, fragrance meant bold perfumery. (Remember Dior's Poison?) The notion of a clean botanical scent seemed quaint.

But coupled with the duo's insistence on artful (and environmentally friendly) packaging, the Thymes concept caught on. "In the beginning, we were just so happy if someone bought something," Shopa said. And throughout the '90s, "we had to figure out that mass-production thing."

Beauty product stores Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret -- divisions of retail giant Limited Brands -- had exploded onto the scene. Today, the two concepts have some 2,600 stores in the United States alone.

Thymes chugged along. In 2002, the company moved to a former pallet factory in northeast Minneapolis. The site's modest exterior hides a vast operation within that, not surprisingly, smells really nice.

Thymes has an in-house research and development department staffed with five chemists who hold 11 patents. Maintaining quality control has been a long-standing passion of the company's founders. "We hired our first chemist in the early '90s, even before we hired our first sales rep," Shopa said.

Today, Thymes employs about 60 people, not including 100 independent reps who sell the product throughout North America. The company prides itself on its employee-centric culture -- Fridays, for example, end at noon.

Building on heritage

Enter Sempowski Ward, a mechanical engineer with an MBA. "I'm not a chemist, but I did take a lot of chemistry classes in college," she said.

The Detroit native began her career at P&G, where she led the baby care, feminine care, beauty and home care categories as well as the integration of the Clairol Herbal Essences acquisition into the corporate fold. At Coca-Cola, she launched marketing strategies targeting the African-American market for Coke, Sprite, Powerade and Dasani water. And as the president and chief operating officer of Johnson Publishing, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, she also headed its Fashion Fair Cosmetics division, the top makeup brand for women of color.

But her new stint at Thymes will likely prove challenging, said Linda Hall Keller, entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Hall Keller, the former CEO of MinuteClinic, isn't associated with Thymes, but she's well versed on the challenges of entrepreneurs.

In order for an entrepreneurial company to grow, "the organizational plumbing needs to be put in place. That's not glamorous or particularly interesting to the entrepreneur, but it needs to be done." That includes strategic plans, goals and metrics, even something as rote as job descriptions, that need to "either be put in place, or further refined by the new CEO.

"It's very difficult for a new CEO to come in when there's such a family atmosphere," Hall Keller said. But, she says, it can be done.

Sempowski Ward hopes to build on the firm's heritage by growing sales through "omni-channels" -- whether online, on phones or tablets, or through social media such as Facebook and Pinterest. "People want to find and buy the brands they love wherever they are," she said. Customers "have a real passion for the Thymes brand.

"The opportunities are really endless."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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