Necessity Led to Invention

FOR BOB & SYLVIA CALDWELL

Necessity led to innovation for Bob and Sylvia Caldwell, the founders of Grace Management when they were working diligently to grow their business in South Carolina.

The period was the mid-70s, and the Caldwell’s were running Greenleaf, a successful green-house business, supplying bedding plants to companies in the region.

“Greenhouses are full of beautiful plants,” Sylvia said. “As greenhouse owners, the most beautiful thing is an empty greenhouse, knowing that you have sold all of the plants. In the spring, it was great because people buy plants in the spring, so we were fine in the spring, but the rest of the year we were starving.”

So much so, that many times during the year, the Caldwell’s remember, they not only could not pay themselves, but they often could not pay their workers for stretches of time. “We would have to tell our employees we would not be able to pay you,” Sylvia recalled.

“Because we were not paying our employees, we did not draw a salary either. I taught smocking lessons, made and sold children’s clothes, clipped every coupon I could find, and we did not go out to eat. We just knew the Lord would not have us borrow any more money.”

“Those were difficult times,” Bob added.Rather, inspiration came from Sylvia’s trips to a local craft fair.”

One day, I was going to Greenville to a craft show with a friend and Bob asked me to bring back an idea, something we can do in the off-season,” she recalled. “I noticed there was a booth that was very busy, so I went over to see why there were so many women around this one particular booth. There was just this small packet of fragrance product, so I bought one of those and brought it home.”

Bob, who had earned a chemistry degree from the Citadel (U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam war), asked Sylvia if she knew what it was.”It’s vermiculite,” he said, a product used in soil and in bed-ding products, something the Caldwell’s knew a lot about.

He thought they might be able to replicate the concept, but one of the key challenges was finding ingredients. “There was no internet where you could Google where to buy fragrance oils,” Bob said.The library was the source for information, then, so Bob found an old Thomas reference book, and located companies that sold fragrance oils.

“I found several companies that carried fragrances, and I remember talking with a New Jersey company. He did not want to talk to me when I told him I wanted to get some small samples.”

Not to be deterred, Bob did find a supplier eventually, and Bob and a friend grabbed Sylvia’s Sunbeam blender and began experimenting with various fragrance mixtures, eventu-ally settling on their first offering called “Spices”.

The year was 1983, and Bob said “There wasn’t anything going on as far as fragrance products,” at that time, and all of them were sold in poly bags. So, the Caldwell’s invested $25,000 in start-up funds, packaged Spices in poly bags using an inked description, and found a willing first customer in Winn-Dixie, the southern grocery chain, which was one of their current green-house clients as well.

“We had no idea that fragrances would react with headers, with the ink,” he recalled. “We shipped the first order and the ink was all runny. It was not a good start, and we almost gave up on the product.”

Instead, one of the Caldwell’s Winn-Dixie customers, came up with the suggestion of using small paper envelopes as packaging, and so they did. At about the same time, Bob began taking an interest in direct-mail marketing.

“Somewhere along the way, Bob had read a book about direct marketing,” Sylvia recalled, “and he realized the product we developed might work with direct marketing.”

The Caldwell’s put a small envelope of Spices inside a larger envelope, with an order form, and sent out 2,150 pieces of mail.

A few days later, Sylvia arrived home to find a rather large box tied to the top of their home mailbox, and she thought the mailman had sort of gone off the deep end.

“I thought he didn’t want to deliver his mail and that he had set it all on top of our mail-box,” she recalled, but when she investigated further she discovered that all of the envelopes were addressed to our business and I realized it was a box full of orders.”

“I was beside myself, and I could never remember being that excited,” she revealed. “It was a delight and joy to every day go out and check the mail.

“The Caldwell’s purchased a larger mail box, of course.Meanwhile, they keep at it with Greenleaf.

“We had been in the greenhouse business for eight years by then, and we lost money for eight years,” Bob recalled. “We tried a lot of different things throughout the years from Cactus Critters to alfalfa sprout kids and baby product. I can’t even remember all of the things, but it was a lot of innovation.

“I was afraid to turn loose of the greenhouse because that’s what we knew,” he added, “but once we figured out (the fragrance business) would work, that Christmas season we pretty much bet the farm” on their new endeavor.

The business continued to grow, and one of the key advances was when an employee’s (Ben Barker) mother-in-law began designing four-color packaging for their fragrance products.

Sounds pretty basic today, but at that time, Bob recalled “When you went to the grocery store, everything was two-color, and it was kind of boring. We continued to do direct mailings as well and now we had four-color and that really took off. We were shipping to stores all over the country, and that’s when the specialty chains started taking notice.”

But eventually the couple began to pray and wonder “Lord, how long can you bless us with this one product,” Sylvia said. “We started adding fragrances and eventually we got into candles … Bob was like candles seem to be kind of popular, how hard can it be to do candles, it’s just wax and a wick.”

In the mid 90s, they purchased a candle manufacturing company, and started making candles.

“We had no idea how complicated it was with wicks, fragrances and colors,” but eventually they figured that out as well, and today Grace Management is the parent company for Bridgewater Candles Company, Greenleaf, Votivo and Willowbrook Fresh Scents.

“The reason we selected the name is that we felt it was only by the grace of God that some-one could take a pack of vermiculite and manage to make a living selling fragrances,” Sylvia explained.