Owner takes it with a grain

Runner-up

CELTIC OCEAN INTERNATIONAL INC.
Headquarters: Arden CEO: Selina DeLangre Employees: 30 Founded: 1976 Projected 2008 revenue: $5 million Business: Food distributor

Selina Guerra was just 17 when she boarded a bus for the West Coast, eager to see the world outside her hometown of Indianapolis. In Chico, Calif., she and a friend were carrying a couch from a Goodwill store to their tiny apartment when a guy pulled up and asked if they needed help. Two years later, she and Philippe DeLangre wed.

The following year — 1979 — she began working for her father-in-law, a pioneer in macrobiotics, a dietary regimen that eschews processed foods. He had started The Grain and Salt Society to sell its Celtic Sea Salt, harvested on the coast of Brittany, France. But he ran the mail-order business as more of a passion than a moneymaking venture. She saw more potential in it. That same year, she bore a son with cerebral palsy, causing her to embrace her father-in-law’s ideas about nutrition as she explored alternative treatments. After he died in 1993, she and her husband bought the business for $150,000.

French-speaking Philippe became its president and coordinated the salt purchases. As vice president, she focused on marketing, networking with influential people in the health-food industry — nutritionists, doctors, chefs and authors. “I promoted them in my newsletter and catalog, and they promoted me in their product lines and ingredient formulations. We grew together.”

She tired of California and, after researching other places, took a shine to Asheville, where they moved the company and incorporated it as Celtic Ocean International in 1996. It continued to grow, shipping salt to stores across the U.S., including the Earth Fare, Whole Foods and Wild Oats chains. They expanded the catalog to include organic grains, healthy-lifestyle books, green teas and skin-care products.

But as the company grew, their marriage crumbled: Working together and raising a handicapped child had taken its toll. Divorced in 1999, they engaged in a long, nasty battle over the business, reaching an agreement four years later. She bought him out for $600,000, borrowed from her father, who owned some service stations. “To this day, I feel a little guilty because it was his father’s business. But I needed the company’s resources for my children.”

A year later, she moved its headquarters to an 18,000-square-foot building in nearby Arden. A few weeks before the move, rain caused flooding that destroyed $487,000 of equipment and inventory, including 24 new computers. A friend let her use some storage space. “My staff managed to contact all the vendors and had them overnight as much inventory as possible to help us fulfill our orders. Somehow we did it. I almost had a heart attack, but we pulled through.”

But the trials of a small-business owner continued. During the last five years, DeLangre, now 50, has spent more than $300,000 to fight brand infringement. Her most costly battle came last year with Clinton, Mich.-based Eden Foods, which contended that Celtic sea salt is a generic term. “That case cost me $92,000,” she says. Finally, they settled. “But it showed other companies that I will spend money and fight to protect my brand.”

Last year, the company began doing business as Selina Naturally, which she feels better represents the range of products it now offers, including salt from Portugal and Hawaii, herbs, almonds, olive oil and beauty products. Celtic Sea Salt still generates about 70% of revenue. Growth has slowed in recent years as large retailers such as Wal-Mart have gotten into the natural-food business. “The market has reached a saturation point. But this just means we’ve got to work harder to stay ahead.”

— Sam Boykin