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Moving from pushing vodka to pushing candles might seem like a strange jump for some, but for Ecoya’s Craig Schweighoffer, it’s the natural result of going where the business is.

It’s a silly stereotype, but when Dynamic Business caught up with Craig Schweighoffer, managing director of Ecoya home fragrances and beauty products, we were expecting someone a little less corporate, perhaps a little more alternative. What we got, however, was an experienced, decisive, clearly articulated business vision from an adept professional.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise however, considering Schweighoffer’s business heritage. “I guess I’ve got a varied background, mostly on building businesses to be honest,” he says. “Before this I was involved with a vodka business called 42 Below; we built that up in Australia and then Bacardi bought that out. That’s when I started Ecoya.”

After noticing the gradual domination of the American candle market by all-natural candles, he saw an opening for something similar in Australia. “There was nothing like it here so we saw an opportunity to explore. After a few years’ research and development, we came up with a candle that was made from soy wax that offered all of the benefits of a natural candle,” Schweighoffer says. In true entrepreneurial style, he started Ecoya in 2006. After selling the first range to a few stores, Schweighoffer found that people were coming back for more, ensuring his business hunch paid off.

The importance of R&D

When working with tricky substances such as the careful mix of fragrances that go into candles, it’s important to spend a good amount of time on the R&D to ensure the final product does everything it’s meant to and satisfies customer needs. “We spent a couple of years in R&D when the business was born,” Schweighoffer says. “We made the candles ourselves, researching best practice and formulations, basically through a lot of trial and error. Candle-making is both a science and an art. There’s a whole stack of science to it but there’s quite a bit of trial and error as well. It’s quite an artesian industry.”

While it’s easy to imagine a room full of flowers and various scented oils in stoppered jars in a candle design factory, Schweighoffer says that the reality is a tad more scientific. “You try and get a broad cross section of fragrances like fresh, floral woody fragrances and then identify what the market wants and what the consumer wants in terms of scents.

“The most important thing for us is that you don’t get the situation that when you smell a candle in the shop they smell great but when you take them home they don’t work. So for us it’s quite a comprehensive process; we want to make sure that what you smell in store is what you smell at home. It does take quite a while to get the right fragrance but you want to provide a product that works.”

After the initial light bulb moment and the creation of the first range, Schweighoffer waited for the reaction from the Australian public. “It was quite positive,” he says. “Though we did have to educate the public about the benefits of natural wax, such as cleaner and longer burning time; that’s been a slow process. But it’s been quite positive and that’s what’s encouraged me to keep going. We had some really loyal followers early on, so I thought if we could duplicate that then we’ll be ok.”

Keeping the international fires burning

As sales started to pick up nationally, the team from Ecoya started to look overseas for export opportunities. “We started exporting in 2010,” Schweighoffer confirms. “Today, the focus is on a few key markets internationally, obviously New Zealand is quite important as it’s our biggest export market, and then we’ve got two or three other key areas, one is Asia, two is the UK and three is the US.”

Schweighoffer acknowledges that competing in the US means facing the competition that originally inspired the product. “It’s a tough market. Obviously the economic climate over there is tough, but the competition is also quite intense. But we’re satisfied with our performance there so far. We’re in stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s.”

In order to deal with its international trade, Ecoya has established offices in Wellington, Auckland and New York, but the company is also working with distributors in the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. “There’s benefits either way,” Schweighoffer explains, when talking about using a distributor or setting up your own office. “With a distributor, they know the local market and they’ve got their own infrastructure in process already so it’s quicker to get to market. But with your own people you can react and change to the market accordingly, as well as focus on long term results.”

Ecoya has also established a strong relationship with neighbours across the ditch, with the brand commanding a loyal following among Kiwi customers. This even led to the company raising capital in the country by listing on the NZ Stock Exchange. “We wanted to refresh our brand and invest in some manufacturing equipment to open up doors internationally,” Schweighoffer says. “We needed some cash, and so we decided the best way forward was to list in NZ.”

Despite listing in NZ, Ecoya is determined to stay true to its Australian heritage. “What we are trying to do is grow our business and have an Australasian-based home fragrance and body care business to sell to the world,” Schweighoffer says.

Push for success

While the company finds its feet with international success, it’s simultaneously developing a dedicated following of customers seeking out its product. Customers were, in fact, responsible for the company starting a body care range to complement the home fragrances. “We found that our stores were having requests from their customers, who were saying they really love the fragrance and does it come in a hand cream or soap. There was a push from our market to develop body care products, so we started that in 2008 and released it in 2010,” says Schweighoffer, adding, “There has been a really good take-up.”

But is that a regular occurrence in business, that the market leads the company’s next direction in products? “You do get that,” Schweighoffer admits, “but I guess you have to be careful and try not to be all things to all people.”

While Ecoya is starting to reach more people by establishing an online store, Schweighoffer says it isn’t the company’s main priority at this time. “We don’t have a massive focus online. It is important for us, as it’s a way we can talk to our customers directly and find out what they like. But retail is where our focus overall is.”

Despite the retail downturn, Schweighoffer is convinced that Ecoya will survive the bumpy times ahead. “It’s a tough climate. We’re holding our own right now but I think people are watching what they spend. Fortunately our product is a small luxury, so people might not be spending money on a new television or lounge but they still want their homes to smell nice so they’re still buying items like ours.”

Tackling the candle industry with a clearly defined business plan has clearly served Ecoya well. Schweighoffer maintains that the same business attitude that he employs with any of his businesses applies just as well to the serene world of candles. “I’ve been involved in a number of fast growth businesses; it’s what I’m used to now. My tip is to have three top priorities and focus on what’s important.

“There are a lot of balls in the air at any one time, and these priorities might vary every six months as a result. For example, you might choose to focus on developing a new product so your top priorities will be product-related and getting the product right. Another six months might be growing the business into new channels and identifying what those are.”

With turnover doubling each year, and 75 staff employed globally, Ecoya has taken one idea: to create a natural candle range, and turned it into an internationally recognised business, stored on the shelves on some of the world’s most famous stores.

For Schweighoffer, this is exactly what he was hoping for. “It’s nothing to do with the financial aspect. For me, it’s about seeing a product on the shelf in the store that you’ve had some part in developing. So seeing the product in Harrods, which is a benchmark globally for a department store, and knowing you’ve been part of the team that has created that product, is quite satisfying for me.”

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Rhiannon Sawyer

Rhiannon Sawyer

[NB: Rhiannon Sawyer no longer works for Dynamic Business]. Rhiannon Sawyer is the editor for Dynamic Business online. She also looks after online content for Dynamic Export. She loves writing business profiles and is fascinated by the growing world of homegrown online businesses and how so many people can make money in their pyjamas.

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