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Business Observer Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 5 days ago

$11M soap retailer plows ahead with post-Ian recovery

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Shuttered stores — especially as Christmas nears — can swallow a retail business. As one company executes a comeback, its CEO says communication, organization and accountability are essential. 
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

This is the first of an occasional series on lessons business leaders are learning during Hurricane Ian recovery. 

The first six weeks post-Hurricane Ian have been a whirlwind of meetings, tasks, more meetings and more things to do for Naples Soap Co. founder and CEO Deanna Wallin. The one thing she hasn’t had time for? To “go home,” she says “and crawl into a ball and cry.”

“I don’t have the luxury for negative emotions right now,” says Wallin, speaking 44 days after Ian. The hurricane damaged four of the skin and hair care retailer’s 10 Florida locations, denting 40% of its brick-and-mortar sales for a time. Naples Soap Co. makes more than 300 bath, body and personal care products sold in its own stores and its own website, boutiques, Amazon and more. The publicly-traded company was founded in 2009.  

“All I can do is stay positive,” Wallin adds. “The people in this company are looking to me to set the tone.”

Beyond buoyancy, that tone is one of steadfast resolve to have all four closed stores fully reopened by early 2023. The four damaged locations are: downtown Fort Myers; Tin City in Naples; Sanibel Island; and Fifth Avenue South in Naples. Fifth Avenue has already reopened, and Wallin hopes to reopen Tin City by Thanksgiving and Fort Myers within a few weeks. The Sanibel location was hit particularly hard, Wallin says, recalling a visit she took there, via a boat ride from a vendor, soon after Ian. At 2075 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel took on seven to nine feet of storm surge. Sludge, Wallin says, was everywhere. “It took my breath away. I could hardly speak the rest of the afternoon,” she says. “That’s how traumatized I was.”

The Sanibel location for Naples Soap Co. took on significant damage from Ian. (Courtesy photo)

The company’s Fort Myers warehouse/office was also damaged, which prompted it to speed up a planned move into a new facility nearby — and do it in 72 hours. The new space, on Jetport Loop just north of Southwest Florida International Airport, is 19,000-square-feet. Despite the uncertainty of closed stores, Wallin didn’t let go of any staff from the 67-employee Naples Soap Co. payroll, instead shifting them to other jobs, including warehousing and inventory.  

Wallin, meanwhile, has labored to make the road back more methodical than urgent three-day moves. Wallin describes it as an assess, triage and step-by-step process, down to the to-do list she created on a whiteboard. It included: mold remediation/repairs; landlord discussions; keeping sales staff engaged and employed as well as caring for their mental health/welfare; community outreach; crisis communication management; dealing with insurance adjusters; and replacing lost inventory. 

Through early November, Wallin had spent between $200,000 and $300,000 on inventory and getting stores ready to open. And on those out-of-pocket costs, she says, “we’re not done yet.” She calls the process of getting insurance a hurry-up-and-wait “chronic nightmare,” though she has received some funds from FEMA. 

One other challenge to compound the crisis is the timing, during October, which tends to be a slower month. That means Wallin has less cash on hand — just as the holiday season comes into play. “That’s a monster monster problem,” she says. “This is our biggest season.”

The Naples Soap Co. location on Sanibel Island remains closed post-Ian. (Courtesy photo)

The company’s third quarter earnings report, which doesn’t include October’s closed stores, showed a slight year-over-year increase: quarterly sales rose 2% over September 2021, according to the report, released Nov. 14. And sales for the first nine months of the year were $8.08 million, up 7% from $7.52 million in the first nine months of 2021. Sales from stores, excluding online, increased 12% over the same period, according to the report. The company posted $10.9 million in revenue in 2021. 

Taken in total, the sales that fuel the company, Wallin realizes, will only come from being back to 100% full operations. The biggest business lesson she’s learned in the process to get there, she says, is “hands-down, communicate. You have to communicate with your landlord, your employees, your vendors. Even at times like this, people” have to know what’s going on.  

Next? Be task-driven. “It’s all about being organized. You have to be able to delegate and hold people accountable to themselves and a deadline.” Have quick meetings as often as possible, she adds, to “make sure everyone is on the same page.”

In the backdrop of the comeback, Count Wallin as one of the many Southwest Florida residents who say Ian was a never-have-I-ever kind of storm. 

“I’m 53 years old and I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t think my brain has fully absorbed everything,” she says. “There’s some days where I’m just numb. But the only way out is through. There is no stopping. I love what I do, so I’m just gonna keep going.”

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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