Industries of the Month

Next time you’re over in Wentworth, be sure to stop into the Governmental Center lobby to see our Industries of the Month display.

This month we are featuring three Reidsville-based businesses:

  • Reidsville Precision Machine: a high precision machine shop that has been in business for more than 30 years.
  • Heafner Knives: maker of custom hunting, skinning and tactical knives that are sold worldwide.
  • Carolina Catfish Yachts, LLC: manufacturer of custom catfish boats.

Focus on Innovation Spurs Growth of Charlie’s Soap

By Mary Burritt, News & Record

A small white house beside the Mayo River and an oversized metal building down river belie the import of what’s inside: Charlie’s Soap, the best selling laundry powder on Amazon.com.

The modest buildings, however, characterize the unconventional management and creative thinking fueling the company’s success.

“Laziness drives us to do way more innovation than anything else,” says James Sutherland, flashing a mischievous grin. James is the son of Charles Sutherland, the namesake inventor of Charlie’s Soap. James and his brothers, Taylor and Morgan, between them hold several vice presidential titles in the family owned enterprise, while their sister Jenny is chairman of the board.

“Every improvement we have came from somebody wanting to have more time to waste.”

Huh?

Skepticism is quickly quelled by the latest symptom of the company’s success: its January purchase of a 120,000-square foot warehouse in Stoneville.

By June, the company’s distribution operations and sales workers will join the packaging operations, already in Stoneville, and leave the 30,000 square feet of warehouse space it has rented in Mayodan for nearly a decade. The production and corporate office of Charlie’s Soap products will remain in Mayodan.

The Charlie’s Soap Retail Outlet is independently owned by local merchant Ann Stewart and will remain at 105 S. Second Ave.

Growing sales created the need for more space. Charlie’s Soap is in 80 Lowe’s Foods locations and about 18 Kroger stores in Roanoke and Raleigh as of last month. A rollout into 230 Food Lion stores began in December.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s working.

James Sutherland believes that, in addition to the high quality of the product, success stems from the company’s emphasis on continuous improvement.

“We’re looking for efficiency everywhere we can find it,” he says.

To motivate employees to find improvements, Sutherland dangles a mighty sweet carrot: Half of the time an employee’s innovation saves the company, the employee gets to use however he or she sees fit.

“If we’re doing something that takes 30 minutes and if they figure out a way to do it in two minutes, then they’ve saved me 28 minutes. I’ve told them they can sit on their butts for 14 minutes, if that’s what they want to do, but then they have to spend 14 minutes walking around their station looking and really thinking about how to improve things.”

He points out two results of this unorthodox incentive plan: a cord dangling from the ceiling that pulls a drop hammer on the floor above, saving a trip upstairs; and a fan made of junkyard finds that keeps workers at a mixing tank cool without cranking up the air conditioner.

How do employees react? “Their time management changes,” Sutherland says. “They want to be considered smart, too. They want to be a building block for the company.”

Continuous improvement is emphasized in every area, “from the chemistry to the paperwork processing to the production line,” Sutherland says.

“If it broke down in three months, we want to get four months out of it next time. We’re continuously trying to get more and more out of the money that we spend.”

A case in point: the new packaging of its soap.

About six months ago, “our flagship product went from a plastic jar to a plastic bag,” Sutherland said. The plastic bags are “more readily recyclable, use less plastic and cut back on our re-ships because they don’t break during shipment.

“It’s our goal over the next two years to change all of our packaging to readily recyclable,” he says. “Everything now is fairly recyclable, but we want to maximize that as much as we can.”

Being green — not so coincidentally the color on all Sutherland product packaging — is good business.

“Being sustainable is great from a biological perspective, but from a business perspective, it’s better,” he says. “It’s cheaper than throwing things away.”

The company uses only biodegradable and natural mineral ingredients and eschews fillers that would dilute quality and require disposal.

“We don’t believe customers need the excess raw materials that companies use to lower the price of their goods,” Sutherland says. “Crap materials are really cheap, and not just in the monetary aspect. They add residues that can cause harm to users and the environment, and in the long run, harm to the pocket book with harm to machines.”

Such a relentless focus on efficiency could create an austere atmosphere, but a walk through the facilities and conversations with the casually dressed employees reveal the opposite.

One employee keeps his custom-built motorcycle, a work in progress, parked inside, and sometimes brings his puppy to work.

Another employee is one of Mayodan’s volunteer firefighters. He’s the only firefighter whose employer allows him to go on every call.

The company’s growth prompts speculation about the future, particularly the potential purchase by a bigger company. This was attempted last summer by an entity Sutherland doesn’t want published.

“They talked about outright buyouts, partial buyouts,” which obviously didn’t happen. When asked why, Sutherland replies, “When somebody is talking about (purchasing) your ability to work in your field for the rest of your life, they best pay for it.”

The opportunity was still flattering and a bit of a thrill.

“I got to meet the owner of a large corporation in our market,” he says. “He’s a titan in business in general. To be able to go head to head with him and explain why we weren’t willing to be bought out, it was a cool point in our career. We told him, ‘No thank you … we’re going to do it all on our own.’ “

That decision is characteristic of Sutherland Products.

“It was a reasonable offer, but we’re not reasonable people,” Sutherland says, that mischievous grin flashing again. “I don’t think he understood where we’re going to be in the next five years. It’s not reasonable to think that growth is going to be here, but we think so.”