Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wick, wax and wonderful

As you walk up to the factory, the smell hits you immediately. Thoughts of plump pumpkins come to mind, and cool mornings and leaves that crunch beneath your feet. This on a day more suited to sunscreen and shorts.

Inside, this factory looks like anything but a manufacturing plant. There are marble floors, chandeliers and a gleaming wooden staircase that curves up to the offices where Karen and Curt Waisath are waiting.

At a time when jobs are scarce and people are scrambling, it seems a good time to talk to Karen, who, with her husband, Curt, built all this from a ruined set of pots and pans and her need to earn $400 a month. That, and a fierce desire to stay home, raising her daughter.

"If we would have listened to our friends and neighbors, this wouldn't exist today, because there were so many people telling us that we couldn't do it, that we were crazy," Karen told me. "We just kind of blocked them out, because we knew. We followed our dreams and knew we had something."

Actually, these days it's more like a 100 million somethings, not to mention the chance to keep a promise to God. But, back to the beginning. Stories are best told that way.

Karen and Curt met in Salt Lake City in 1988, at a department store. He was a Wyoming boy, going to the University of Utah and selling men's clothes. She was a local girl who had just started in the women's department. They met one morning by the time clock, and by the end of the day he had asked her out. They married 14 months later and wound up in Arizona, where he landed a job as an accountant and she as a travel agent.

Then came Whitney. Karen and Curt tried for years to have a child and eventually they did, adopting an infant daughter in 1995. One look and Karen knew she couldn't return to work, but she had to bring in $400 a month to meet the bills.

She started a day-care business out of her Gilbert home, but it was a job, not a passion. That's when she remembered the candles. She'd always loved scented candles, so she started experimenting.

"The plan was to sell them out of our house, to the neighbors," she said. "I knew I would buy a strong-burning candle, and so if I could, make something that I was proud of."

How hard could it be, right? Wax, wick, a little fragrance.

Make that waxes, as in thousands of samples, wicks, every sort you can imagine, and an ocean of fragrance as Karen set to work, learning as she went, searching for a scent that would burn strongly and a wax that would burn evenly.

It took months and months of trial and error, one ruined set of pots and pans and an oven no longer fit for food. But finally that day arrived, when she came home to the scent of fresh oranges.

And a business was born.

Karen would work for nearly two years to perfect her candles. Mothers, picking their babies up after work, would become her focus group. One declared that she would quit her job to sell Karen's candles.

By 1997, it was time. The thing about a business, Curt says, is it's a leap of faith. You have to commit or it'll never really take off. His boss was astonished when he returned after adopting their second child, CJ, and announced that he was quitting to make candles.

"Everyone thought we were absolutely crazy," Karen said.

They got a loan from a family member and rented 2,500 square feet in a strip-mall in Mesa. Every morning, Curt would get ready for work and, stressed about the decision he had made, throw up. And every afternoon, Karen would bring the kids to their "factory," where they would nap while she supervised the pouring.

By October 1997, they had their first candle ready. That day-care mom who had pledged to quit her job to sell candles? She did. She started holding parties for her family and friends. And then their friends and their families. Every time she held a party, someone else signed up to sell Karen's candles.

By the end of 1997, Curt and Karen had independent demonstrators in six states.

If it sounds easy, it wasn't. Karen worked the Arizona State Fair those first few years, to spread the word about her candles, and Curt hired his neighbor to help make them - meaning that he had to succeed, not only to support his family but another family, too.

The next few years would bring along two more children, Brayden and Cade, and as the Waisaths' family grew, so, too, did their business.

They decided early on not to go the retail route but to focus on direct sales. Most of their demonstrators would be women, who like Karen wanted to stay home but needed an income.

"We didn't want to be out there in Walmart, just another candle on the shelf," Curt said. "We're about impacting people's lives and helping them to make a difference in who they are."

Today, their company, Gold Canyon, employs 250 people - 350 in the fall as they ramp up for the holidays. Their products, including candles and other fragrance lines, are sold by 25,000 independent demonstrators across the nation and Canada - more than 3,000 of them in Arizona. Their top saleswoman is that day-care mom who quit her job to sell Karen's candles. Last year, Curt says, she earned $365,000.

The privately held company does $100 million in sales, Curt says, out of the 220,000-square-foot factory they built at Arizona Avenue and Riggs Road in Chandler. A factory that smells of fall as you walk up to the front door. The candle being poured that morning: Autumn Walk. Before the day is done, the crew will have poured a dozen fragrances for fall and Christmas, out of 117 the company sells.

Each one is approved by Karen, who, by the way, doesn't work at the factory. Remember, she started this business so she could stay home with her kids.

And from that need to make $400 a month came not only a business but an opportunity to make an impact. Early on, Karen and Curt made a promise to God, to give back if their business flourished. In 2000, they started the Prayer Child Foundation, which is managed by an all-volunteer staff headed by Karen. More than $2 million has been raised for Prayer Child through a special line of candles.

"We've been very blessed," Karen said. "I am living my dream, being able to help families that are struggling and have nowhere to turn."

Each year, they help several hundred children who are homeless or facing illness or disability, kids who need a flicker of hope.

Where better to find it than from people who make candles?

by Laurie Roberts The Arizona Republic Nov. 11, 2010 12:00 AM

Wick, wax and wonderful

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