By TIM COOK
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Four years ago Eric Young started growing his annual fall beard for the upcoming winter months. Achieving some sprouting success, he explored buying some conditioning ointment to pamper his facial hair.
But Young, a father of three working what he called a low-paying job at the time, found that his household budget couldn’t justify the splurge. So, he began to make his own conditioner.
“I started doing it in my kitchen,” he said.
Today that kitchen experimentation has evolved into a business with 22 people generating $4.5 million in sales of all-natural body-care products for men. The products range from mustache wax to shaving cream and hand salve.
More products from Young’s imagination are on the way. His company, now operating from a commercial space after its third facilities expansion, is planning to hit $8 million in sales by the end of next year.
“It’s just a very hot market right now,” Young said.
His company, Mountaineer Brand LLC in Martinsburg, is among the elite list of successful Eastern Panhandle companies that have joined the global economy by selling their West Virginia-made products around the globe.
Mountaineer Brand sells its products in about 100 boutique retailers across the country, including a shop in Shepherdstown. But it’s over the internet through platforms such as Amazon and eBay, where the company regularly sells it products in countries ranging from Australia to Sweden to the United Kingdom. And thanks to a distributing arrangement with a Swedish wholesaler, the company’s products are beginning to make major inroads in that country.
“The whole business in general just kept bigger and bigger,” Young said.
Over the past 15 years the West Virginia Department of Commerce has annually recognized Mountain State companies selling their products overseas in 179 countries. Several Eastern Panhandle companies are making those international sales:
— Washington Homeopathic Products, in Berkeley Springs, sells homeopathic medicines from Columbia to Serbia to South Korea.
–Schonstedt Instrument Co., in Kearneysville, sells instruments to locate underground pipes and cables as far away as Nigeria and South Africa.
— Dr. B’s Beverage, in Inwood, sells bottled handcrafted teas in Canada.
About four miles from Mountaineer Brand, another Eastern Panhandle stand-out company is selling high-tech loudspeaker systems to many government clients including Japan, Columbia, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Started in a Martinsburg garage by four Eastern Panhandle residents in 1997, Power Sonix Inc. makes and sells compact, but specialized voice amplifier systems used by military, police and public safety departments.
The company’s complete systems, which cost about $10,000 to $35,000 per unit, allow human voices to be heard clearly through disruptive background sounds and distortions, explained Patrick Grady, a co-owner of the company and its vice president of sales and marketing.
Power Sonix’s special technology in speaker systems project human voices loud, clear and far away, Grady said. Its systems are mounted on ships, aircraft and police vehicles. Many of its systems are mounted on helicopters to allow public safety officials to speak clearly through the noise of rotating helicopter motors, Grady said.
“We put more power in a smaller package,” he said.
The U.S. Coast Guard is a client of the company now, but its first client was the Taiwan Coast Guard. Grady said the pool of customers for Power Sonix’s specialized systems is small but spread out across the world.
“We just happen to be in a very specific niche,” he said.
Power Sonix operates with four employees, keeping its staff low by outsourcing the manufacturing of its systems’ parts, which are assembled at the company’s Martinsburg office.
Early on, the company worked with the state commerce department to refine its product systems, Grady said. Afterward, it promoted its products at industry trade shows, before assembling a team of agents to sell its systems in various countries.
Selling online from the start
Another West Virginia exporting success story includes Bars and Booths.com Inc. in Charles Town. With a showroom filled with 1950s-era nostalgia that stands out on Washington Street, the company builds customized retro-looking diner booths, bars and other furniture and memorabilia. It also refurbishes jukeboxes, vending machines, advertising signs, gasoline pumps and other mechanical items mostly from that same mid-20th period.
Bars and Booth’s clients tend to be affluent people who want top-quality Americana, said G.W. Smith, the company’s founder and owner. His company once sold about 30 restored jukeboxes a year for $7,500 to $15,000 a piece.
“We give them the best quality product we can possibly give them, and we stand behind everything we sell,” Smith said.
Lots of 1950s Americana-themed restaurants around the world have come to Smith for their diner furniture and decorations. He recalled one international order for a New Zealand restaurant that needed $250,000 worth of furniture and retro memorabilia, and another from a dealer in Australia involved a $500,000 sale.
Bars and Booths also furnishes residential kitchens and recreation rooms. Children’s daycare centers, hospitals and hospice homes have used the diner decoration theme to either delight or calm their customers, patients and visitors, he said.
During its first year in business, Bars and Booths sold to its first international customer–a refurbish jukebox for a man in Italy. The company’s second international sale involved a refurbished slot machine for another man in Italy.
Since then, the company has sold to clients in Denmark, Japan, Norway and Saudia Arabia.
Various international customers used to occasionally stop by his Charles Town showroom in person, but the internet has since made such visits much less frequent, Smith said.
Smith started Bars and Booths when the internet was in its commercial infancy. It was before eBay was a force, and before Amazon became an online retail juggernaut.
“When I put the website up, I didn’t even take credit cards,” he said. “People had to mail me checks. I was by myself.
“There wasn’t a lot of (online) competition,” he added of his early pioneering into internet sales. “If you did a search for diner booths, we would come up number one. Those days there was nobody paying (for high-placement internet search positions).”
By the mid-2000s, internet sales drove 90 percent of his business sales volume, Smith said. Today, with greater internet competition and exchange rates boosting the value of the U.S. dollar, that statistic has mostly flipped. Now his company’s sales are mostly in the United States, he said.
And like other Eastern Panhandle companies successfully exporting their products, Bars and Booths would never have succeeded in the first place without a global sales platform of the World Wide Web, Smith said.
Rise of social media
Today, social media is essential to Mountaineer Brand’s marketing efforts, Young said. When his products landed on Amazon’s retail website, that’s when sales took off, he said.
“eBay was the first couple of sales. Then Amazon,” Young said. “Then Amazon got pretty big, pretty fast.”
However, Young said getting Amazon to accept a product to promote is more difficult now than when he first did so. Today, there are more rules and restrictions.
“I don’t know if I could do it again like 2013,” he said. “It was pretty hard then and it’s gotten just more complicated over the past few years.”
Smith said selling and shipping products abroad has become more complicated and bureaucratic. Smith said the exchange rate for the U.S. dollar is an unpredictable affordability factor.
Shipping heavy, bulky products overseas as Bars and Booths does has also become more complicated with additional regulations and security measures, Smith said.
“It’s gotten a lot worse in the last 10 years,” he said.
Once federal homeland security officials visited him to review how his company packs its products for shipping, he said.
“Today, we know what we’re doing,” he said. “Dealing with shipping companies is not an easy deal. … We have this thing down to a science.”
Successful exporting depends widely on the product offered in the country being targeted, Young and Smith agreed.
Grady said the West Virginia Commerce Department has programs that can help reimburse companies in the state for certain exporting-related expenses. But overall, he said, sending new markets overseas to sell isn’t difficult. Products can be shipped to other countries by common carriers such FedEx and UPS, he said.
The most important aspect for any successful exporting is a fundamental one–providing a product, or a better product, that international customers want and can’t easily obtain in their own countries, Grady said.
“You have to have a compelling sales argument that it is worth importing your product over something (customers in other countries) can get domestically or regionally,” he said.
Despite efforts involved, exploring, Grady says exploring the international market may be worthwhile for many Eastern Panhandle companies.
“It’s worth the effort,” he said. “There’s nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
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