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Published: Monday, 4/25/2005

Scented flickering propels factory

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Connie Bowser, of Delta, pours candles into jars at Swan Creek Candle Co. in Swanton. Connie Bowser, of Delta, pours candles into jars at Swan Creek Candle Co. in Swanton.
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Starting in the basement of her Swanton home 27 years ago making potpourri, entrepreneur Ann Albright has cooked up a sweet-smelling retailing and manufacturing enterprise.

"We are in the home fragrance business," explained Ms. Albright as she conducted a tour of her 40,000-square-foot Swanton factory. All around her, workers created scented candles with names like Almond Biscotti, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Caramel Pecan Pie.

Ms. Albright entered the public spotlight locally when she announced plans to open a retail outlet of her Swan Creek Candle Co. this spring in downtown Toledo's Warehouse District at Washington Street and Superior Street near Fifth Third Field.

But the firm's quaint name belies the scope of the enterprise, which has an estimated $10 million in annual sales.

●Its candles are sold nationally in 3,000 gift shops, most in the midwest.

●It operates an outlet store at the factory on the outskirts of Swanton and in restored historic buildings in five cities in Ohio and Michigan.

● It maintains permanent booths at a number of wholesale venues including merchandise marts in Chicago and Atlanta.

Albright Albright
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Swan Creek is one of an estimated 350 candle manufacturers nationally which together have sales of $2 billion, according to the National Candle Association.

Employees say that, like home-making guru Martha Stewart, Ms. Albright, 59, has a knack for knowing what the public wants.

Baking scents are hot right now, she said. "People want their homes to smell like they have been cooking all day when guests walk in. People smell gingerbread, and it evokes childhood memories. We are evoking ... memory fragrances." Also on tap: Tuscan-inspired fragrances.

The firm has specialized in a number of products over the years. But in 1995, sensing that candles were about to take off, Ms. Albright switched gears.

Said son-in-law and company controller Jean Duet: "She's definitely got a feel for the market. Before, we were doing wreathes and dried flowers. That market dried up. We moved into candles at the right time. It was the move to make and it was Ann's decision."

Ms. Albright has bet big on a new type of candle wax, made from soybeans. Perfected by researchers at Purdue University in the 1990s, the wax burns cleaner and cooler than dominant paraffin wax, according to advocates. Nearly all candles sold by Swan Creek are made with the product, which Ms. Albright bills as "American soybean wax."

Like many industries, candle manufacturers have been battered by inexpensive imports from China, said George Pappas, president of a rival candle manufacturer, Hearth & Home Traditions Ltd., of Norwich, Ohio. Despite heavy tariffs, many domestic manufacturers have been forced to close, he added.

"Everybody is trying to differentiate themselves," he said, citing Swan Creek's promotion of "American Soybean wax" candles.

Swan Creek's outlet stores, most of which are in restored historic buildings, attempt to create an ambience that attracts repeat visitors. Stores typically have exposed brick, beams, a small antique section, and a vintage stove that holds an always-hot pot of coffee.

"We try to create this ambience that is relaxing - not fussy, not cramped but friendly," Ms. Albright explained.

The Toledo store, which the owners plan to open in June, is in a pre-Civil War building that served as a hotel in the early 1900s.

While retailers in downtown Toledo have struggled for years, Ms. Albright is confident she can succeed there. "It's about making an environment people can't find anyplace else," explained the former teacher of French and Spanish. The firm will share a building with a restaurant planned by Toledo's Tony Packo's Cafe.

Besides Swanton, Swan Creek has other Ohio outlet stores in Findlay and Vermillion and in Michigan in Dundee, Jackson, and Perry. The company wants to open two more stores in Ohio and one more in Michigan.

Small Business Profile is a weekly feature on local companies. To be considered, send information about your company to Small Business Profiles, Business News, The Blade, P.O. Box 921, Toledo, Ohio 43697-0921.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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