Picture This, April 2013 — Cleaning up

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Picture This, April 2013 — Cleaning up

Cleaning up

Why some shoppers are all in a lather about Charlie’s Soap.

It’s a yarn that began with yarn. In 1976, Charles Taylor Sutherland III’s grandpa ran a division of Madison Throwing Co. in Mayodan that developed an oil that made boxcar-size spinning machines twirl like tops. But the lubricant accumulated lint and grime that gummed them up. He was told to find something that would clean them. His son, Charles Jr., and his son’s brother-in-law, Ron Joyce — both worked for him — retired to the barn on his farm and, after tinkering with formulas, came up with one that worked. When the mill owners finally figured where the soap was coming from, they promised to keep buying it but demanded it be sold to the public. Employees liked what they called Charlie’s soap so much that they had been pilfering the mill’s supply. It seemed to clean almost anything.

Today, Charlie’s Soap products have more to do with green than machines. They’re sold in specialty chains such as Greensboro-based The Fresh Market Inc., Fletcher-based Earth Fare Inc. and Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc., as well as some mainline grocers such as Winston-Salem-based Lowe’s Food Stores Inc. That’s not counting Sutherland Products Inc.’s own Internet sales and being Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc.’s top-selling cleaning product. While Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. and other multinational consumer-goods giants have squeezed mom-and-pop soap-makers out of much of the market, Charlie’s Soap is cleaning up where it can. Revenue is expected to reach almost $4 million this year, up some 1,500% from 2002. “We hope to fill the niches the big guys have left for us, so we can come biting at their heels,” says Taylor Sutherland, the CEO and third Charlie in the family soap business.

Charlie’s Soap has evolved into a 13-employee, four-building enterprise that includes a 60,000-square-foot warehouse for six products shipped around the world. Its heart is a four-level plant in downtown Mayodan that began life in the 1950s as the firefighters’ meeting and dance hall. In 1983, Taylor Sutherland’s father left the textile company’s oil division, which had been acquired by a German chemical company two years earlier, and bought out his brother-in-law. That left him about $60,000 in debt, and what could have been disaster struck immediately: The mill began moving production to China. However, thousands of machines needed cleaning before they were shipped overseas. So for nearly a decade, sales thrived, especially after he invented a laundry detergent the quality-control department used. Then the mill was sold, and 75% of the soap business went down the drain.

For the next 10 years, the company ran almost as a family hobby. It opened a local outlet store, but marketing was mostly word of mouth. This was not the kind of business plan they taught at Appalachian State University, where Sutherland got his MBA in 1999. When he joined the family business three years later, the company branded itself Charlie’s Soap and ventured out of the outlet. It tried to get into Winn-Dixie stores. “The local manager said no, but his wife loved the stuff,” Sutherland says. “We delivered a pallet, and it was picked clean the next day. It outsold Tide 4-to-1.”

What’s so special about the stuff? The basis of any soap, Sutherland says, is a surfactant or detergent that breaks the surface bonds of liquids that attract and hold dirt. Charlie’s Soap products use a coconut-oil-based detergent, plus soda ash and other ingredients common to many brands. Depending on whether they’re general-purpose cleaners, kitchen and bath soaps or laundry liquids and powders, they contain solvents, sodium silicates and other substances. All are nontoxic and biodegradable, but beyond that, Sutherland only will say that the formulas are proprietary. What they don’t have are the additives found in many competitors’ products. “Most have perfumes, fabric softeners, brighteners, even oils to keep washing machines from breaking down.” Charlie’s Soap is unscented, and it won’t leave a residue.

While leaving its mark on retailing, the business is not departing from its past. Sutherland’s father is no longer involved in the company, but brothers James and Morgan and sister Jenny are among the family members who work there. The company motto comes from what his grandpa, who died in 1994, told his dad and uncle when they came up with the original formula: “Cleans everything from false teeth to diesel engines.” 

— Edward Martin