Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cleaning Up: Hard Work Pays in Family Soap Firm

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cleaning Up: Hard Work Pays in Family Soap Firm

Article excerpt

Vita-Erb Inc. hardly makes a sudsy ripple in a U.S. soap market dominated by giants like Procter & Gamble and Dial Corp., but the tiny company has nonetheless carved out a niche market of its own.

From American troops stationed around the world to patients in veterans hospitals, thousands of people with ties to Uncle Sam use Vita-Erb's line of soaps and skin-care products daily.

"We've got a whole file from people who are in Alaska or other places who have been exposed to our products from the military," said Mary Barnes, who founded the Springfield company with her husband, Moses. "They write and say: `Your products are great. Where can I find them?' "

Vita-Erb manufactures and distributes bar and liquid soaps, hand cleaners, shampoos and moisturizing lotions. Annual sales have grown to nearly $1 million last year from $5,000 in 1980.

"We're hoping to double sales within the next few years," Mary Barnes said.

Government contracts have been the key to Vita-Erb's growth, she said. The company supplies its products to the Department of Defense, General Services Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies.

Vita-Erb also markets its products under private labels for other companies, including Bass Pro Shops, the huge Springfield-based retailer of outdoor sporting goods. The company also makes scented concoctions for Bass Pro that anglers spray on lures to attract fish.

Vita-Erb recently ventured into retail by introducing a line of soaps and moisturizers under the Obedience label. The Barneses hope there's room for their products on store shelves already crowded with soaps, shampoos and skin-care products.

After a recent trip to Kmart, Moses Barnes joked that Vita-Erb "never would have gone into retail if I had known there were that many different brands out there."

Vita-Erb was an outgrowth of Moses Barnes' knowledge of chemicals. He retired in 1993 after 32 years in management with Earl Scheib Co., the national chain of auto painting shops, and now works full time for Vita-Erb.

But it's his wife of 48 years who runs the day-to-day operations. She got involved in Small Business Administration programs and attended every seminar she could on how to run a small business, secure loans and land government contracts. …

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