Vermont Soap finds silver lining after fire
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | July 14,2014
Bruce Edwards / Staff Photos
Larry Plesent, owner of Vermont Soap Company, was forced to relocate his business when a fire last month damaged his leased Exchange Street building. Plesent salvaged some inventory and equipment, including several large kettles used in the manufacturing process.
MIDDLEBURY — For Larry Plesent, last month’s fire that seriously damaged his Exchange Street business turned into an unexpected opportunity to expand his organic soap company sooner than expected.
At the time, Plesent thought that despite the more than $1 million in damage — caused by a short circuit in an iPod speaker — Vermont Soap Company would be back in business in about a month.
But that didn’t happen.
“What we didn’t understand was the pervasive nature of soot,” he said. And for a company that makes organic products, he said it was a particular challenge to move back in.
Instead, Plesent cast about for a new location and found one on Industrial Avenue — a warehouse-size building that was previously occupied by Specialty Filaments. It represents a significant upgrade from the old location on Exchange Street.
“We’re going from 10,000 to 25,000 square feet,” Plesent said last week during a tour of the new facility.
Since the fire, Plesent has kept his 23 employees on the payroll, cleaning, moving and setting up at the new location.
Last week, Vermont Soap began shipping again: three tons of bath salts to a commercial customer. Plesent said his goal is to have the company running at full speed in 60 days.
Until then, it’s going to be a burden on his customers but in the end the company will be a lot bigger. “We’re taking the insurance, the replacement insurance money, and the borrowed money that we’re throwing into the pot on top of that,” Plesent said, “and we are using this as an opportunity to increase our capacity, significantly increase our capacity.”
He said he had plenty of help in getting the personal care products company back on its feet, including his Industrial Avenue landlord, Tony Neri, and Key Bank, which extended the company a line of credit. Neri was also the company’s landlord on Exchange Street. Also playing a significant role was Plesent’s insurance agent, Shelie Richardson, who put together a kind of Rolls Royce insurance policy that included business disruption insurance.
The move to the new location is still very much a work in progress. Cardboard boxes, pallets and assorted equipment are scattered on the concrete floor. Plesent’s makeshift office is tucked away against one steel wall with a computer on a folding table. Nearby, there’s a small office where employees take orders and track sales and inventory.
Plesent said before the fire he had plans to expand the business, but the forced relocation accelerated the timetable.
Showing a visitor around the 5,000-square-foot manufacturing floor, he said the additional space allows the company to increase production with five, 1,750-gallon liquid soap kettles for mixing product. That’s three more stainless steel kettles than the old location. Plesent said the long-term plan is to have seven.
Across a long steel dividing wall, another 20,000 square feet is set aside for an assembly line, packaging and storage.
Plesent didn’t start his working career making soap. He was a professional window washer when he developed a skin rash from the cleaning compounds. So he developed a soap that wouldn’t irritate his skin.
Today, Vermont Soap (vermontsoap.com) makes a variety of certified organic bar and liquid soaps, moisturizers, organic toothpaste, organic deodorant and non-toxic cleaners.
In addition to its own Vermont Soap brand, the company manufactures private label brands. About two-thirds of the company’s business is private label and bulk manufacturing.
Plesent calls his company the “un-detergent company,” serving the countless number of people across the country allergic to basic household soaps and cleaners.
“We manufacture for people who do not want to use or cannot use the detergent chemicals that are the main foaming base of our civilization,” he said.
The company’s mission, more simply put, Plesent said, “is to replace yucky stuff with yummy stuff.”