Keeping It ‘Absolutely Natural’
By Ashley Blanchard
Charley Richards has never taken a business course. And yet, in 20 years he has taken a product line consisting of two sun care products and grown it to more than 200. He reflects, “Mine is a classic example of ignorance is bliss, trial and error. I just had the attitude that I wasn’t going to fail.”
Richards began selling suntan lotion 41 years ago on a pool deck in Daytona. It was the summer between his junior and senior years in college and Hawaiian Tropic had been introduced the year before. Little did he know that his life path would lead him into the micro niche market of sun products with his Absolutely Natural label.
In 1990, Richards wanted to produce something unique to the sun care industry. He studied all the natural products he could get his hands on. “Finding the raw materials was not as hard as I thought. The biggest challenge was getting the formula together without using harsh, chemical emulsifiers,” explained Richards.
Making It On His Own
Growing up in West Virginia, Richard’s dad worked in a factory and his mom worked in a grocery store, so family venture capital or even financial support to see him through the developmental phase was not in the equation. “I didn’t have the luxury of a few years to develop something without making a profit,” he reflected.
Having enough capital to forge ahead in an area no one had ever been before was challenging. Richards thought it would take 5-6 years to build a solid customer base; it actually took 10-12 years. He did consulting work to stay afloat. In 2003, the business moved into a new building and is currently located there at the NASA Commerce Park near Melbourne International Airport. With the move, his operation grew from 10,000 square feet to 30,000, and from five employees to 30.
Richards noted that the move changed their capacity and their revenues. “Having everything done under one roof allows for quality control from start to finish.” The local facility includes in-house manufacturing, labeling, coding and distribution for over 200 formulas including their core sun care products and spa line.
“In 2008 [during the economic downturn], people were afraid to expand but we took advantage of the opportunity,” commented Richards. Providing private labeling in the resort spa industry really helped skyrocket sales. Landing important private label customers such as Sandals in the Caribbean, Aria Resort and Spa in Las Vegas and Envy Organics helped their business grow in a new market.
Recognize Your Strengths
Richards recalled that 15-16 years ago, Coppertone unsuccessfully tried to launch a brand that was only sold to resorts and not traditional retail outlets. The lesson learned is to sell what you know. “I don’t know how to sell Walmart, Target or mass market. I have a unique business model and bring extra attention to my customers,” he explained. Richards prides himself on extensive and personal training for salespeople and long-term relationships with distributors.
Absolutely Natural is sold at poolside kiosks by his sales team, which works on commission. Service is a key element to the retail sale of his products, which average $50 per transaction. Representatives are highly trained and in addition to their sales role, Richards also gives them the title, “Vacation Savior.” He remarked, “a bad sunburn could end up with you in a hotel room.”
The company has a freestanding store in Hawaii at the Anchor Cove Shopping Center in Lihue, Kauai as well as a poolside store at the Kauai Beach Resort. In July, they opened a store at their Melbourne location called the Factory Fresh Store. They are in the process of searching for other locations in Florida.
Lessons Along the Way
Richards did not have a mentor, but he has mentored others. His basic advice is to be realistic, passionate and make sure everything is explored. “People come with a product idea, but what I ask them is, ‘What is your distribution?’ I encourage them to peel away a few layers so they can really see it. When I began, I didn’t start with Google; I talked with people on the ground and really learned about business.”
Richards advised, “The ability to write well is paramount.” Richards taught high school English and had a stint as a journalist so it wasn’t hard for his staff to convince him to write a blog. He noted that it is a way to write with a purpose and he enjoys connecting with customers in this way.
April 16, 2012 marked Absolutely Natural’s 20th anniversary. Interestingly, it was not Richard’s first entrepreneur venture – he patented Maui Jim sunglasses, which he sold in 1988 before coming to Indialantic.
Richards said, “I told my wife we could live anywhere, but I wanted to go to work in shorts every day!”