By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Soapworks officials hope to move the growing business from its current Exchange Street headquarters to a building on Industrial Avenue that will double the company’s production space and allow it to potentially double its workforce during the next two years.
Vermont Soapworks President Larry Plesent launched the manufacturing company in 1992 in a 1,700-square-foot farmhouse in Brandon. A steady increase in business prompted Plesent to look for larger accommodations, which he found in 1996 in the Neri business incubator building at 616 Exchange St. Vermont Soapworks initially occupied around 2,500 square feet in the 31,000-square-foot structure, but has gobbled up additional space during recent years as production demands have grown. The company now occupies 10,000 square feet of production space and 1,000 square feet of retail space in the Neri building.
But once again, Vermont Soapworks finds itself at an enviable crossroads. Now producing hundreds of soap-related products that it markets to thousands of firms, stores and lodgers in 43 countries, the company has been growing at a rate of 25 percent per year. It again needs more room.
“Now we have totally outgrown our space here,” Plesent said, watching some of his 26 workers trim bars from large soap blocks, pack products into huge boxes and tend to the small store that offers locals and tourists a sample of Vermont Soapworks’ wares.
Plesent wants to stay in Middlebury, relocating into 20,000 square feet of space in another Neri-owned building at 183 Industrial Ave. That location will soon be vacated by Monahan Filaments, which is transferring its toothbrush bristle division from Middlebury to Illinois. Monahan officials said they are not cutting any jobs but have simply used employees working at the company’s Case Street plant to make toothbrush bristles at Industrial Ave. when the need arose. The company continues to maintain a staff of about 140.
Plans call for Vermont Soapworks to gradually move into the Industrial Avenue space, beginning with its liquid soap making equipment. The company initially will lease the 20,000 square feet and possess an option to buy the entire building, which is 30,000 square feet. Along the way, he hopes to double his employee base within two years.
It’s a conservative expansion plan, according to Plesent, who does not want his company to over-extend itself — particularly in today’s economic climate.
“We set modest, attainable goals,” Plesent said. “We are setting up for a best-case scenario where we are going to triple our business over the next two or three years. On a more modest scale, we are setting ourselves up so that if we double our business over the next two or three years, that will certainly be acceptable, too.
“We have to be prepared for the big jobs, but we have to survive if we just have modest growth,” Plesent added.
Monahan Filaments is scheduled to move out of the Industrial Avenue building on Dec. 1. Vermont Soapworks will begin moving in equipment shortly thereafter.
“We are anticipating six months to make the transition,” Plesent said.
There may come a day when Vermont Soapworks needs more than the 30,000 square feet of space available at 183 Industrial Ave. With that in mind, Neri is seeking Middlebury Development Review Board permission for a 12,000-square-foot addition onto the building. At the same time, he is seeking a permit to build a new, 12,800-square-foot, steel structure next door that could house the Neris’ U.S. Department of Agriculture kitchen and additional incubator space for new home-grown enterprises.
Neri plans to recruit new, up-and-coming small businesses to replace Vermont Soapworks at 616 Exchange St.
“I’ve got some prospects,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vermont Soapworks officials are enjoying the exhilarating shower of accolades and business orders that have come their way in recent years.
Vermont Soapworks is the largest producer of handmade natural bar soaps in North America. In addition to their handmade soap, Vermont Soapworks also produces a line of Castile liquid soap-based products, certified organic soaps and cleansers, fruit and vegetable wash, pet and horse shampoos, foaming hand soap, bath and shower gels, yoga mat wash, and nontoxic household cleansers.
The company manufactures its own products and designs others as a contractor for private labels. Vermont Soapworks imports palm and coconut oils from places like Brazil and the Philippines. The company uses Vermont maple in the making of its soap dishes, as well as local herbs and flowers in some of its soap products.
“We just keep developing new products and the interest in what we do just keeps on growing,” Plesent said. “Now, demand for organic is going mainstream, so the demand for what we have is absolutely huge.”