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Tom Chappell: Sweet Success From Unsweetened Toothpaste



Tom Chappell has zero patience for business publications. Most of their stories, complains the chairman and founder of Tom's of Maine Inc., "are all about ego and material power and who's being screwed by whom. They're just boring."

That said, Chappell's story is actually pretty interesting. The recent recipient of a master's degree in theology from Harvard University, Chappell, 48, sells "all-natural" toothpaste and beauty products. Although he marketed his goods mainly through health food stores at first, in the past couple of years he has gone mainstream with distribution in big supermarkets on both coasts.

Heightening his visibility further is a radio ad campaign starring his mom, Virginia, who regales listeners with a tale about how she persuaded him to go into business because he hated sweet-tasting toothpaste. "That isn't a true story," Chappell concedes. Here's what really happened: Bored, the graduate of Connecticut's Trinity College quit his job at Aetna Life & Casualty Co. some 20 years ago and started making a phosphate-free detergent called Clearlake. One problem: "It didn't clean so well," says Chappell. So, aided by his wife and a chemist friend, he switched to toothpaste and soap.

With "green" goods more popular than ever, Tom's sales have surged to around $17 million--and are still growing about 20% a year, he says. Politically and environmentally correct, Chappell gives 10% of his pretax profits to charity. Still, some of the health food stores that sold Tom's of Maine at first now accuse him of "selling out" by going into supermarkets, he says, and a few have stopped carrying his products. Wouldn't you know it? Ego and material power just had to make their way into this story.EDITED BY PETER FINCH Laura Zinn in New York

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