In the midst of the Great Depression, Steve Stone’s father, Ralph, pivoted from collecting fat, grease, and oil from butcher shops, grocery stores, and restaurants and selling it to soap manufacturers to making soap himself.
Almost 90 years later, Steve has transformed the company again. Over the span of a fortnight in March, Stone Soap Co. in Sylvan Lake went from producing car wash detergent to hand sanitizer in response to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stone Soap long ago elevated its game by producing car wash presoaks, pressure washes, tire and wheel cleaners, rapid rinse aids and waxes, fast foam conditioners, shampoos, foam brushes, and other specialty items for customers across the United State and around the world.
An indication of the company’s commitment to the car wash industry, which usually comprises more than 50 percent of its manufacturing volume, is the on-site working car wash the company uses to test promising product lines. At one point, Stone Soap had a car wash academy to train operators how to manage and repair car wash systems.
The company also manufactures EPA-registered specialty biopesticides for another Stone company called Avian Enterprises. The chemicals, designed to keep birds away from places like farms and airports, makes up most of the balance of Stone Soap’s production output. Another 1 to 2 percent of revenue comes from a combination shower shampoo and body wash used in hotels and gyms.
“When the pandemic hit and all nonessential businesses were ordered closed, we didn’t have to close because our biopesticide business is an essential industry, especially since the majority of its market is agricultural,” says Stone, owner and CEO of Stone Soap. “Our dilemma was, with over 50 percent of our production sidelined since most car washes around the country were closed, we had a facility that was going to be open — but how (would) we keep our people busy?”
The answer quickly arrived in the mail. Stone received a letter from the FDA that detailed new emergency rules in place for the production of hand sanitizer, which was in very short supply due to the outbreak of the virus.
“Prior to the pandemic, (hand sanitizer) was a niche market for makers of hand cleansers,” Stone says. “All of a sudden it became a dominant, must-have item for everybody. We looked at the guidance from the FDA and realized we were ideally suited to make this product.”
The company received a license to manufacture alcohol-related products 40 years ago, plus it had several large tanks designed to handle flammable liquid, all of which are set apart from the rest of the plant and protected by a special fire-suppression system.
The issue, according to Stone, was acquiring the raw materials, bottles for the finished product, and the labor to label and fill the bottles.
“It was a race to procure large quantities of ethanol,” Stone says. “It was also a race to get the bottles. Plastic bottles became very scarce very quickly.”
One reason for the bottle shortage was the same plastic blow-molding factories that produce bottles for hand sanitizer also manufacture containers for food from grocery stores. The plastic food containers were suddenly in high demand, with restaurants closed nationwide.
“We got into production inside of two weeks,” Stone says. “That was a Herculean effort.”
Once Stone Soap started hand sanitizer production, it was quickly clear that 25 employees working a normal shift couldn’t keep up with demand. Consequently, employees started working 10 to 12 hours per day, seven a days a week, from April until early July. “We got so busy with hand sanitizer that rather than having to furlough anyone, we were working overtime seven days a week,” he says.
Stone even hired extra help: husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and children of employees who had been furloughed from their jobs. At least a dozen family members were brought in to do bulk labor like labeling and filling bottles, and putting together boxes. “It’s the bottleneck of the operation,” Stone says. “We have 120,000 square feet of space. We were able to keep social distance.”
The added workers came in handy when Stone Soap landed a contract to provide hand sanitizer for an automaker’s entire nationwide dealer network, which equated to about 200,000 half-gallon jugs of product. The hand sanitizer business has since settled down to 5,000 gallons per week, but Stone learned a lot about his workforce during the big push.
“The thing that was so gratifying was how committed our people were,” he says. “How do you ask people to work 10- and 12-hour days, seven days a week? Our people were proud to come to work because I think they thought they were doing something really useful. Every one of them felt they were doing something special.”
Stone adds he refused to profit extensively from the demand for hand sanitizer. He priced his product at $19 per half-gallon retail. One competitor, he says, was charging $120 per gallon. “I realize that we’re able to buy in bulk and keep costs low that way, but some of those prices were way too high,” he laments.
Beyond pricing issues, according to Stone the alcohol content in some competing products, at times, was too low. The formula Stone Soap uses contains 80 percent ethanol, which is recommended by both the FDA and the World Health Organization for the prevention of coronavirus spread. “We’re stunned at how many products out there have active ingredients far below those numbers,” Stone says.
Fortunately for Stone Soap, as the hand sanitizer business subsided, the car wash business rebounded. “Even though (the car wash business is) slow during the summer months in the Midwest and East, it came raging back,” Stone says.
For the immediate future, Stone Soap plans to continue manufacturing hand sanitizer as well as car wash detergent and biopesticides — but, according to Stone, it may not be a permanent staple in its product portfolio.
“When you’re a manufacturer and have the flexibility to produce a variety of products, you go where the need is,” Stone says. “We were fortunate to have the infrastructure to ramp up very quickly when the need was critical. If in nine months hand sanitizer becomes a commodity item and too many people are making it, and we decide the need isn’t there, we’ll move our manufacturing to where it’s best suited.”