A Clean Break with Workplace Tradition

Thriving soapmaker Sandy Maine explains why her emphasis on the things that make a company good to work for reduces employee turnover

Sandy Maine's SunFeather Natural Soap Company makes soaps, lotions, and insect repellent that it sells both retail and wholesale. Based in Pottsdam, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains, the $1 million company is also a private-label supplier to Oprah Winfrey. With only 14 employees, SunFeather is not required to comply with the Family Medical Leave Act, but Maine offers her mostly female staff an innovative leave policy. SmallBiz contributor Jill Hamburg Coplan recently spoke with Maine about her business and the social goals it embodies. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How did you launch SunFeather?


I started in 1979, when I was 22. My hobby was growing medicinal and other herbs and I began making soap in my kitchen. Soap-making was a dead craft. I got the basics from a neat little book that explained the chemistry in simple terms. I made soap out of olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, and different butters and herbs. I had an initial investment of $15 and youthful exuberance. I was passionate about sharing the beauty of nature with people. Then the business just grew. In five years, I had sales of $900,000 and my house had turned into a factory. We moved, and then we outgrew that space.

Q: What were your goals for SunFeather?


I wanted to run a business that really enlivened its workforce and was going to do something good for the world. Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop were my role models. Through the organization Business for Social Responsibility, I tapped into their thinking about stakeholders in a business and how they should be treated. I got to thinking about systematizing the things that make a company good to work for.

Q: How did you become a consultant to other cottage industries?


Perhaps because I've written four books on soapmaking, people heard about us and began to come. We've had visitors recently from Japan, New Zealand, Greece, and South Africa. Most of them are working on setting up companies like this. So I began a mentoring and consulting business. People come for one or two days, and I spend hours and hours with them, helping them develop goals and plans. Soon, I'll be working with some international aid organizations, including one in Colombia that has a soapmaking project that needs help. Another is called Aid to Artisans. Some months, I make almost as much from consulting as I get in my paycheck!

Q: Describe your paid time-off policy.


I give paid time off (PTO) in lieu of vacation, holiday, sick, or personal time off. Our full-time employees receive it at various rates determined by their manager. We give it as a gift, or if we have a big order and people work extra hard or fill in for somebody. Employees start getting PTO after they've been here a full year. People can use up to 200 hours -- five weeks -- of PTO per year. If anybody quits without notice, they forfeit their PTO. If they resign with notice, they get paid what they saved up. We encourage people to take time off to refresh themselves. Everybody does a better job when refreshed. We don't look at the program as a liability, but as an asset.

Q: How do you account for SunFeather's very low employee turnover rate?


I have people who've been here for 15 years and 20 years. Partly, it's because we're in a poor, rural area and there's not much opportunity. Also, employees at SunFeather are really challenged to meet their potential. I can't afford to pay a lot of money, but I do offer profit sharing, and a really dynamic work experience. Some employees recently went to California for computer training, and it was the first time they'd ever been on an airplane.

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