June 23, 2018
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The sweet smell of success: Perfumery growing in St. John Valley

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

MADAWASKA, Maine — The bottles slide through various points in their manufacturing life cycle.

Perfume fills them at one station, pumps are inserted at another and caps top the package down the line. In several places around the floor, they’re tucked carefully but efficiently into colorful boxes. All through the process, workers lift bottles up to the light and peer intently at the contents or scrutinize boxes for imperfections.

At one area, each box is clearly stamped with the important “Made in the USA” imprint.

“The ‘Made in the USA’ label is still worth something worldwide,” said Jeff Albert, owner of Evergreen Manufacturing. “There’s money in manufacturing.”

He would know.

The climb from bankruptcy

A longtime Madawaska business, Northern Trading Co. had been run for decades by a husband and wife team. Founded in the early 1960s, it found success bottling brands including Royal Copenhagen and Jade East. But when the founders died, the company faced management challenges and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1998, Albert said.

Albert bought Northern Trading out of bankruptcy in 1999 for pennies on the dollar. At the time, the company had fewer than 20 employees. Today, the newly named Evergreen Manufacturing employs 70. Northern Trading had been producing about 4,000 bottles a year — Evergreen does that in two weeks now, Albert said. Evergreen began to turn a profit five years out of bankruptcy and remains profitable today.

This year, at the urging of its largest customer, the contract perfume manufacturer became a turnkey operation, taking ownership of all inventory needed to make a finished product — from boxes and bottles to fragrance and pumps. The company charges customers accordingly, but it frees up those clients from handling inventory, logistics and other concerns and makes Evergreen more attractive as a manufacturer. As a result, one of the company’s two main customers — a major perfume company that Albert declined to identify, citing client wishes — has increased the amount of work it is doing with Evergreen.

The company hired more workers to handle the extra demands. It is on track to see $20 million in revenue this year, though much of that is because the company has to spend more on the front end in materials. Albert said apples to apples, the company is on track to match or beat its banner year of 2008.

The company is in talks with a pharmaceutical company looking for a manufacturer to bottle and package product, said Albert. Evergreen is registered with the Food and Drug Administration and could do the work, Albert said.

All this in a state — and in the far reaches of northernmost Maine, to boot — where the colloquial wisdom has manufacturing dying.

There is still manufacturing in the state. Paper mills continue to operate across Maine. Bath Iron Works still employs almost 6,000, computer chip companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor and National Semiconductor are going strong in South Portland. There are even new enterprises popping up, from pellet stove manufacturers to high-end composites firms to initiatives by mainstay companies such as Cianbro Corp.

But the state has lost companies and jobs as well with names like ZF Lemforder, Bass Shoe, Stinson Seafood and others fading from the landscape. In 1981, the state had 113,390 manufacturing jobs, according to the Maine Department of Labor. That dropped to 74,540 in 2001 and to 52,340 in 2009.

In many ways, Evergreen’s success bucks a trend.

Macroeconomics at play

Albert said part of the company’s success is simple: It had a main customer that stuck with the manufacturer through its bankruptcy, and it made some acquisitions and grew rapidly. The company takes high-end fragrances and moves them quickly from prestige retail stores to the mass market, he said. And Evergreen has grown with that company.

The market that Evergreen’s clients deal in was hit by the recession but has begun to improve, said Elena Solovyov, director of communications for the International Fragrance Association of North America.

According to that trade association, the global fragrance market is worth about $7 billion to $7.5 billion, roughly $1.3 billion of which is “fine fragrances” or perfume. The sector has seen annual market growth rates of 2 to 3 percent over the last decade.

For contract manufacturers like Evergreen, the move to take on more inventory management and logistics responsibility is a wise business move, Solovyay suggested.

“They become an essential part of the process,” she said.

Controlling the supply

Another reason for success is the vertical integration that Albert has pursued. Evergreen works closely with another family business, Albert Farms Inc., a trucking and farming company.

“The symbiosis is there, but they are two separate companies,” Albert said.

Having control of both companies means Albert can manage the perfume company’s inventory needs and finished product delivery with logistical and trucking support from Albert Farms. Unlike many manufacturers, Evergreen Manufacturing is not at the mercy of independent shippers.

If the company needs to replenish its inventory of bottles or boxes, it can send a tractor-trailer to its supplier in New Jersey on one day and be making product the next day. A few days later, it can deliver finished product back to the Jersey area, Albert said.

That’s a quicker turnaround than other contract manufacturers that are closer to the end market, he said. Essentially, the cooperation between companies has erased any geographic competitive disadvantage Evergreen may have.

Even so, Albert said, it can be hard to convince potential customers of that.

“Customers have a hard time understanding that,” Albert said. “But it gets done — we can do it.”

Albert graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in forest engineering in 1982 and worked for the J.D. Irving company. It was there he learned the value of vertical integration, he said. He also learned about process control, mechanical engineering and other important concepts that he’s been able to use in the Evergreen venture.

‘It’s great for Madawaska’

On a recent weekday, workers at Evergreen were bottling a new line for their main client. On another line, workers were processing bottles of rose water perfume destined for the Middle East, where that scent plays an important part in Muslim culture.

The factory smells better than many others — the moist chemical smell of a paper mill or fumes of a composites boat builder is replaced by perfume.

The company recently added a new manufacturing line that allows Evergreen to fill and process smaller bottles of perfume. The line was paid for by a community development block grant approved by the town of Madawaska.

According to Suzie Paradis, the town’s economic development director, the company has received $260,000 in CDBG funds since 2006 for equipment and expansion. Those funds must be met with one-to-one investments by the company, and each $20,000 in CDBG investment must result in a job that pays at least $27,635 annually, Paradis said.

“You’re creating a little bit of a higher-end job,” Paradis said.

Tracy Ouellette has worked at the company for 17 years and said she feels more secure in her employment these days. Each employee keeps an eye on the products, noted Cliff Cyr, the plant’s general manager. There’s a lot of “hands-on product,” which customers like, he said, as it improves quality control.

“We like our products to be perfect,” Ouellette said.

Ed Lavasseur came to Evergreen five years ago after retiring from a lifelong career at Fraser Papers. The high quality of the product Evergreen ships to its customers secures the company’s future, Lavasseur said.

“As long as we keep them content, there’s no reason for them to send labor out of the company,” he said.

Lise Roy has worked at Evergreen for three years and previously sold ads for the local weekly newspaper. The area has seen its share of businesses that have opened and failed, Roy said.

“To have this place is great for the economy; it’s great for Madawaska,” she said. “We’re lucky to have this little place.”

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