It took years, but Restore Products CEO Laurie Brown, a persistent entrepreneur, has proven you can gross $1 million selling soap in refillable bottles at the store.
She's not yet exactly Procter & Gamble. But some big, unspecified brands also are ordering her patented "Restore Refill Stations" to test their own products, amid rising manufacturing costs for throwaway bottles and public clamor for industry to help consumers reduce, reuse and recycle.
What's more, Brown projects at least $5 million to $10 million in annual revenue in two to three years from her Minnesota-made technology, detergents and soap. But Brown, 55, has yet to land her big payday. She still pays herself less than the $85,000 salary she made peddling computers in the late 1980s. But the truly great entrepreneurs are more about the journey to a better mousetrap than fast money.
Consumers at several dozen Whole Foods, Cub and Festival Foods stores, among others, use the nifty technology, which also has kept tons of plastic out of landfills. She sells thousands of gallons of Restore plant-based cleaners made under contract by Kapra Cosmetics in northeast Minneapolis, which produces it in sizes from 22-ounce bottles of surface cleaner to 75-gallon bulk containers.
"I love the products and that we close the sustainability loop," Brown said. "We make the detergents, the equipment, the 75-gallon containers and boxes. And now we're starting to make equipment for some big brand names in the industry. The value of this company lies in the patented intellectual property."
Restore has several employees and creates jobs for another 35 folks locally through contract manufacturers, designers, engineers and cabinet makers. It is one of 25 finalists chosen from a field of hundreds nationally to make the finals of the Business Week Social Entrepreneurs contest in reader voting that ends Saturday as Earth Week draws to a close.
Brown, daughter of a printer from Waseca, Minn., knows something about hard work and patience. She watched Wayne (Bumps) Brown, now 84 and retired, work six-day weeks as he grew a one-man shop a half-century ago into one of the Midwest's largest magazine printers by the 1970s. The Brown kids worked weekends and vacations.
Her parents built the family home out of used paving bricks and reclaimed lumber and furnished it with restored furniture.
She decided 20 years ago to build a business that would combat the throwaway mentality peddled by manufacturers and retailers who left the cleanup expense to the taxpayers. She quit her sales job to start Restore in Minneapolis' Uptown. She refilled customers' bottles by hand.
She built a loyal following and worked herself to exhaustion. She also showed little profit. Brown closed her retail store in 1998 to develop a technology that retailers could use to sell her products and others in refillable, original bottles.
"I was a little ahead of my time," Brown said. "Now, I'm on time. My father always said you make mistakes and learn in the first business [those] things that can make you successful in the second. The value of this business will be the intellectual property."
The "Restore Refill Station" is a patented in-store kiosk that refills returned bottles with one of Restore's five nontoxic cleaners and detergents. The machine reads the bottle's bar code, mixes the right product, refills the bottle -- say a $10.99, 64-ounce dose of highly concentrated laundry detergent -- and prints a discount coupon for the next purchase.
One machine at a Whole Foods Market near Lake Calhoun displayed a readout thanking consumers at that site for refilling 6,139 bottles. That also spared local incinerators and landfills 2,455 pounds of plastic. That's a lot of waste.
Brown recalls several times when, as she was developing the technology, she almost ran out of money. She relied on savings and cut pay. Repeatedly. She couldn't find a banker or venture capitalist to back her in the early years, although she did have loyal, patient investors, mostly like-minded women.
"Laurie is a visionary and she had a number of very loyal individual investors," said Joy Lindsay, president of StarTec, which typically invests up to $500,000 per company in its venture portfolio. "We invested in 2006. We were very interested in that refill station. She was ahead of her time. Things are moving her way now.''
Lindsay said Brown is talking to large national and European companies "who see the value and who are testing the refill stations."
Countless consumer surveys that show Americans want to reduce pollution, oil consumption and lessen their environmental impact. Most don't want to give up convenience. The dispensing machines are convenient, taking only a few seconds.
Retailers such as Whole Foods like it because the growing-ranks of environmentally minded consumers favor their stores partly because of it.
The Container Recycling Institute estimates that only one third of the plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans sold annually in the United States are recycled.
"This is an opportunity for manufacturers to save on packaging and for consumers to feel good and take an action to improve our environment by refilling their bottle," Brown said. "Imagine if a large laundry brand were to install Restore Refill Stations in all of the Wal-Mart locations across the country. We estimate that it could save 22.5 million pounds of plastic from reaching the landfill each year."
Now there's a thought.
Neal St. Anthony • nstanthony@ startribune.com • 612.673.7144
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