Gerry Nicklas of Penns Hill Soap Company
Gerry Nicklas, President of Penns Hill Inc. in Quincy, Massachusetts knows how to create something out of nothing. He was in between jobs when he created his soap company that is 100% made from olive oil. It has been well received by customers around the area and in the United States that he continues to market his “passion” into a business.
Gerry shares his story with us:
Alpha: Tell us about yourself and your business.
Gerry: My name is Gerry Nicklas and I am a biochemist with an expertise in the development and manufacturing of vaccines and biotherapeutics. When the company I worked for was purchased by a large pharma company, I (shall we say) found myself home a lot and looking for things to do in between job interviews. I was spending time on the internet searching for openings in my field, and somehow came across an article and recipe about making castile soap. The process seemed easy enough (given my chemistry background) so I gave it a whirl using products I had on hand (water and extra virgin olive oil) and purchased food grade sodium hydroxide. The soap was the best soap that I ever used. I found it very soothing and soon noticed I managed to avoid my usual outbreak of winter dry skin. My family and friends raved about the soap so I enhanced my basic formula by adding natural essential oils and botanicals for variety. As is my nature, I researched the history of castile soap further and discovered the original formula dates back to the 11th century and was made from 100% olive oil. The soap was named for the Castile region in Spain. Today, you will find many brands of soap that call their soap “castile” but most make their soap from a blend of oils, and may have olive oil as an afterthought or trace element ingredient. Since my 100% olive oil soap was so well received, a decision was made to develop this hobby into a business, and the Penns Hill Soap Company was born.
Alpha: How is your business different from other businesses in the area?
Gerry: If by other businesses you mean other handmade soap businesses, there are several things that set us apart from other soapers. First, when I decided to create a business I decided to create my products by following the original basic formula and process. When I thought carefully about the era when castile soap was first made, the first thoughts that came to mind were the quality of the ingredients. Although they probably didn’t use terms like “organic” or “extra-virgin”, what else could they have used for ingredients? After all, in the 11th century, “green” was a way of life! I use only organic extra virgin olive oil as the carrier oil (instead of a blend) and use only organic essential oils and other organic botanicals like oatmeal, cinnamon, and vanilla for fragrance and texture. You won’t find ingredients you cannot pronounce, nor will you find detergent, alcohol, paraben or artificial softeners. Sure, the ingredients are more expensive than non organic, and essential oils are more expensive than artificial fragrances but I believe there are many folks looking for natural organic products that are made with high standards and less “corporate” than the mass produced version. Look at how farmer’s markets, organic clothing and environmentally friendly products have taken off. Consumers that buy those items understand and appreciate (and almost demand) the difference. Our soaps are made in small batches. Bar soaps are hand cut, trimmed, and wrapped. Liquids are hand filled and labeled. We can create custom blends as long as we can find the ingredients that meet our quality standards. I think the other thing that sets me and my company apart is my biochemistry backround. I understand the science behind the product and the importance in creating Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) and quality control measures. I take what I do very seriously and I am passionate about the quality of the final product. Our soap is not “melt and pour” and not as decorative as other hand made soap. Our goal is to provide a high quality product that is gentle and can be used by almost anyone, not necessarily something that is designed to be decorative and used as a bath accessory. We’ve seen many handmade soaps in our travels that are works of art and almost too pretty to use. Our customers tell us our soap is attractive, but our main goal is for them to use our soaps and enjoy the benefits we strive to provide. Because it is detergent free and the natural glycerin is retained, the soap is designed to moisturize your skin and hair.
Alpha: How do you see yourself in this business in the next five years?
Gerry: In the next five years, I expect the business to grow at a steady pace. I see myself focusing on developing new cleansing and personal care products. I expect the business to grow where we will need to hire several full time employees. No matter how much our company grows, our products will always be made with pride in the USA.
Alpha: Who or what inspired you to start this business?
Gerry: Being unemployed inspired me to start this business but my wife, Terri, encouraged me to keep it going. She has been my best advocate. We work together – I make the soap products and she makes recommendations for creating new varieties. She handles the details around marketing and sales and has been invaluable in developing the website, designing labels, photographing the soaps, creating gift baskets, and working on developing exposure on social websites.
Alpha: What are some of the greatest achievements that you’ve had in doing what you do?
Gerry: Finding something that I am passionate about, turning it into a business, and having fun along the way.
Creating a high quality product that we really believe in.
Rave reviews of our products
Requests for interviews about the company and it’s products
Orders from all over the USA and Europe from the website
Developing a wholesale as well as retail market.
Alpha: What are the most important skills that a woman needs in order to be successful in business – what are they?
Gerry: The most important skills that anyone needs to be successful in business are:
Have a vision, mission and plan for your business that is strong enough to give you direction, but flexible enough to be adjusted when necessary
Maintaining product excellence
Listening to customers
Patience (especially when working with your spouse!)
Understanding the difference between working “in” the business and working “on” the business.
Staying cutting edge. No company should sit back on its laurels if it wants to stay alive and thrive. You don’t want to end up in the brand name graveyard!
Get advice when needed. Ask good questions, listen to the answers.
Alpha: What are your next goals for yourself and for your business?
Gerry: The next goals are to expand the line further, improve social media and website exposure and be recognized as an advocate for toxin free skin, hair and body care products.
Alpha: What is your definition of success?
Gerry: My definition of success in business is producing high quality products that either solve a problem or create enjoyment and having fun in the process.