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Sunday August 2, 2009

Scented success

A business that started out in a garage has gone global in less than five years.

WHILE studying in Oregon in the United States, Pimarn Tovanabootr visited a local fair where she saw soap being hand-made for the first time. Her interest piqued, she took it up as a hobby.

Little did she know that it would one day turn into a business venture for her.

Creator and founder of handmade soap brand Soap-n- Scent, Pimarn Tovanabootr, at her Chiang Mai store in Thailand.

Tovanabootr, who was born in Chiang Mai, Thailand, graduated in environmental engineering from the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok in 1993.

“At that time I wanted to learn something cool and thought engineering, which involves designing, would be a fun,” she says in an e-mail interview from Chiang Mai.

She enjoyed the course and decided to go further. In 1996, she graduated with a masters in environmental engineering from the Oregon State University.

Two years later, she returned to Bangkok and got a consultancy job which involved setting up and implementing an environmental management system for factories.

But after six months, she headed back to the US to marry Adison Tovanabootr, whom she’d met while studying. Sadly, her joy was short-lived as he died in 2000 of leukaemia.

“It was a very tough time and I wanted to be with my family back home in Thailand. I thought I’d run a small business while looking for another engineering job.”

Tovanabootr started making soaps in her kitchen and sold them at the night bazaar.

“I guess I was in the right place at the right time as the spa and aromatherapy business was booming. I kept getting more orders every month, so I didn’t get another job.”

As the orders grew, so did her work area. She ended up converting her garage into a small factory.

Today, the house where she started out has an office, showroom and stock room, and a team of 18 workers.

In 2004, Tovanabootr registered Soap-’n’-Scent, which boasts products formulated from natural ingredients and are free of animal fats.

At the start, she did everything on her own, from doing research through books and the Internet, to formulating her soaps.

“Everything was challenging, but I think the most difficult was managing people. Creating a new product was exciting and fun, but I also had to learn how to bring out the best in people so they would be happy and contribute positively to the business.

“I learnt a lot of things the same way I did research for my engineering classes. The training helped me run my business in a more systematic way.”

Her master’s degree didn’t go to waste – she created a tiny wastewater treatment facility for her factory!

“To make soap, we need sodium hydroxide to react with vegetable oils. Sodium hydroxide (an alkali) is not natural but you cannot make handmade soap without alkali. After the saponification process (soap reaction), there is no more sodium hydroxide as it becomes soap and natural glycerin,” she explains.

Tovanabootr, 39, explains that handmade soaps are much milder than machine-made ones.

“People who are allergic to natural stuff such as wheat or honey can also get an allergic reaction to wheatgerm or honey soaps. Basically, they would be more allergic to the natural ingredients in a soap, rather than the base ingredients.”

Tovanabootr says her products do not have preservatives as, basically, soaps do not have an expiry date.

“In fact, the longer you leave the soap, the milder it becomes. However, the scent can fade or the oil can become rancid. The soap will start to smell funny but you can still use it.”

Her range for this summer includes rock and shell soaps, bath salts and massage oils. Key ingredients are rice bran oil, palm oil, palm kernel, coconut oils and natural glycerine. For aromatherapy, there are signature scents such as Apple Cinnamon, Black Rice, Green Seaweed, Lavender, Lemongrass, Mangosteen and Red Jasmine Rice.

Her best-selling scent is lemongrass. She says that scent and lavender are her favourites as they are “very refreshing and uplifting. I love the days when we make lemongrass or lavender soaps as the scents fills up our entire office and house. It’s such a good feeling.”

With so many easy dispensing methods today, do people still buying soap bars?

“People are going back to nature and learning more about aromatherapy and essential oils. I believe that more people are starting to use handmade soaps since they are natural and gentle. They may not be the most convenient to use, but it’s another choice of living,” she explains.

With a confidence lathered by customer feedback, Tovanabootr is exploring ways to make shampoo and lotion bars.

Soap-’n’-Scent is distributed locally by Beauty Soap & Scent and is available at its showroom at No. 27B, Jalan SS22/19, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya. For more information, call 012-228 2013 or go to soap-n-scent.com.

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