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Good Products + Clear Message = Broad Appeal

By: Alexandra Voigt
Posted: February 27, 2009, from the March 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.
W.S. Badger Company

The genesis of a natural brand uncovers how a straightforward purpose and product can blossom into a global venture.

Founded in 1995, W.S. Badger Company was born from Bill Whyte’s lifelong passion for the healing power of herbs and natural remedies and the creation of Badger Healing Balm. Fourteen years later, Badger is still in the business of creating certified organic, all natural products. The company, which originated out of Whyte and co-founder and wife Katie Schwerin’s home, now has grown to be a global brand that employs 40. Whyte, CEO; Schwerin, director of marketing and product development; and their three daughters, however, remain hands-on participants and test market in product creation and trial. The company recently achieved U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Certification, which it cited as a major milestone.

Was W.S. Badger a planned venture, or something that happened accidently?

I was working as a carpenter in New Hampshire. My fingers were severely cracked and chapped from working in the cold one especially harsh winter. I was lying in bed one night with my hands wrapped in olive oil-soaked socks and covered in plastic bags, trying to relieve the pain. My wife, Katie, took one look at that and gently suggested that I could “do better.” I mixed up a batch of what later became Badger Healing Balm. It worked fast and well. My fingers healed and the idea for the business was born.

I was going to call that first product “Bear Paw,” a good name for selling to hardware stores that were early retail outlets for the company, but the night before my tins were to be printed, I found out someone else had use of that name. A former co-worker told me that a badger paw was medieval and frightening, and suggested original art. Badger is an ancient totem; keeper of the knowledge of the world of roots and herbs.

[Natural ingredients] have been a lifelong passion. I worked in an herbal shop in the 1970s in Boston and was totally captivated by the herbs. I began studying then, and have continued deepening my knowledge of herbs and natural healing ever since, reading about and attending lectures about herbs and natural healing, and applying herbal and folk medicine principles in my daily life—first for my own health and well-being and later as a father and friend. My wife is also an accomplished herbalist. I’m also a fanatical organic gardener and the use of organic ingredients is integral to our Badger products. My knowledge of the industry comes from our presence in it the past 14 years. What pitfalls have you encountered along the way?

The answer is probably every pitfall. Business is difficult. You have to do the one or two “most important things” perfectly to just survive in business. To flourish and excel, you have to be adaptable, persistent and skilled. My business philosophies are:

  • Don’t even bother making something that isn’t good or isn’t better than something else.
  • You must have a spectacular product that people want and need.
  • Make sure your artwork and attention to detail are sharp. A product has to be able to stand out from the 3,000 other items in the store.
  • Body care products should be comforting and attractive in addition to being something people want and need.

How has the company changed along the way?

We started with $15,000 and one part-time helper the first year, and grew to $1 million in sales and 12 helpers by the fourth year in business. We now have about 40 “badgers” and worldwide sales, so things have changed dramatically. On the other hand, it still feels relaxed, kind, fun, personal and rewarding—so, much has stayed the same. I love what I do.