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December 2007
Suds Above The Rest
By Ellison Clary

     The hygienically correct hands of 75 workers at an eastern Gaston County factory figuratively touch millions of grubby paws throughout the United States. These 150 hands help manufacture hundreds of cleansing products for institutions such as airports, hospitals and schools.

     Their Stanley plant (Food and Drug Administration-approved) is U.S. headquarters for DEB SBS, Inc., part of a privately held global hand-cleaning concern called DEB Group based in Belper, Derbyshire, U.K.

     DEB SBS traces its roots back a century to Saginaw, Michigan. The DEB Group bought what was called SBS about 20 years ago and a decade later moved it to Gaston County. Shortly afterward, President Allen Soden signed on, having built a career as an executive with a hand-care products manufacturer in Atlanta.

     Soden studied marketing at the University of Florida and, at 60, remains a rabid Gator fan. He earned an executive M.B.A. at Emory University in Atlanta, where he still maintains a home, in addition to his Charlotte residence.


Cleaning Up

     Soden is an unabashed missionary for better hand hygiene in the workplace and other institutional settings—actually anywhere outside the home, which is where his company’s products are used.

     “There’s a real connection between proper hand-washing and the reduction of infections,” says the ebullient Soden, who professes to cleanse his hands at least 10 times a day.

     How much does the average American wash his or her hands? Soden shakes his head. “Not nearly enough,” he says with a sad smile. Then his eyes widen as he mentions that 40 to 50 percent of Americans don’t wash their hands after they visit the restroom.

     “Right now there is a lot of attention to MRSA and the antibiotic resistant super bugs that cause it,” he continues, touching on the growing concern about sanitary conditions in hospitals and medical centers as well as in schools, including secondary classrooms in the greater Charlotte region.

    “The soaps we manufacture are important in preventing the spread of MRSA, as well as colds, flu and other common infectious diseases,” he says.

     Certainly, Soden wants Americans to use the products produced in his unassuming plant with 70,000 square feet on Highway 27. And increasingly, they have that opportunity, as DEB SBS continues to grow its share of the $1 billion institutional hygiene market.

     “We’re probably the fastest-growing company in the entire category,” Soden says, adding the company ranks third in the United States where the leaders are Georgia Pacific and Kimberly-Clark. DEB SBS does less than $50 million in U.S. sales annually, but that number has been increasing by about 30 percent a year, he adds.

     Health care is the fastest growing sales area. Besides airports, hospitals and schools, the market segment in which DEB SBS operates includes nursing homes and food processing facilities.

     Soden can’t help emphasizing his firm’s reach. “If you take an airplane to Alaska, you’re using our products,” he says. “If you go to a football game in major stadiums in the United States, professional or college, you’re going to wash your hands with our products.”

Foaming With Ideas

     Just before Soden arrived in Stanley, DEB SBS created and patented a foam cleansing product. It also patented a protective dispenser that keeps bacteria out.

     With that, as Soden puts it, “Our little company changed the industry. There’s not a single competitor that doesn’t use foam, and they had avoided it, because they had all their machinery based on gel-type products.”

      Risk management executives, such as those who work for supermarket chains, quickly see the advantage of foam, Soden continues. If gel spills on a floor, it is slippery and can cause falls. But if the foam that DEB SBS makes should fall under foot, it turns flaky and dissipates.

     “Foam is great because it uses less water,” Soden adds. “It activates on the hands much quicker. People enjoy using it. The entire foam process encourages better hand washing. You want someone to use something not because they have to but because it’s enjoyable.”

     At other locations, the company makes dispensers featuring cartoon-like illustrations that appeal to children and help instill hygienic habits.


Making More Than Bubbles

     Soden’s missionary zeal extends to leading visitors on plant tours, a fairly regular occurrence. Busloads of customers and prospects show up to troop through the facility. Soden says he never announces tours in advance because he wants people to see the factory in its everyday mode.

     Visitors first must take off jewelry for sanitary purposes (it might fall into a soap vat), and of course, they must wash their hands. On entering the production area, one of their first sights is a counter where employees go through a three-step skin care process daily. They use DEB SBS products—liquids, lotions, gels and foams—to protect their skin from chemicals, contaminants and irritants; they cleanse their skin of dirt, grease and germs; and they restore their skin to its natural state. If people in the workplace and in health care as well as those who teach children followed these processes, Soden preaches, there would be less absenteeism at work and in schools.

     Next, a visitor is likely to encounter plant manager John Campbell, a Gaston County native who’s quick with facts.

     There are seven highly automated production lines. The company works two shifts daily, starting at 7:00 a.m. and ending at midnight. Saturday shifts pop up at least once a month. Between 700 and 800 one-liter cartridges cross each line daily. The plant produces soap and sanitizing-related products in sizes from 50 milliliters up to one gallon bottles, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

     Campbell’s crew churns out 1.5 million to 2 million pounds of product monthly. Campbell says he could produce 6 million to 8 million pounds with a 24/7 operation and possibly 90 employees.

     “This area has a high quality worker,” says Campbell, who joined DEB SBS two years ago. “People have a great work ethic. It’s bred in their families.”

Campbell catches Shane McGinnis of Lincolnton. The former landscaper found DEB SBS after he married and children started coming along. He was looking for insurance and other benefits. Soden brags about the benefits package and McGinnis readily calls his employer a “great company.”

     Campbell, who earned a Chemical Engineering degree at Clemson University, comes from a textile family, and he hires lots of folks who have spent time in mills. “You get somebody that’s worked in the textile industry and you know you’re going to get a great worker, because they’re used to working hard,” Campbell says.

     Education is important, too. Campbell says the education level in the western Piedmont is improving rapidly.

     “We pride ourselves on quality, “he adds. “You’ve got to have some brains to work here. You have to have a high school diploma and any college helps. A manufacturing background helps, too.”


Just Getting Sudsed Up

     The 41-year-old Campbell says he likes the challenge of his position. “I’ve never been with a company this exciting, with this kind of growth,” he says. “You work for a company that makes things in the U.S.A., and we grow every month.”

     Soden picks up on that. “We manufacture in America and we can compete because what we make is the right quality—people really want quality,” he says.

     Innovation and a nimble bent help, too. As Campbell and technical director Mahen Mehta list the components of soap, they mention the main ingredient sodium laureth sulfate as well as tallow acid, which is animal fat.

     That reminds Soden of a new product line. “We had a rabbi in here a few weeks ago,” he smiles. “Some companies are asking us for kosher soap. We substituted some of the livestock ingredient with synthetics. We got passed as kosher, which is a growing market.”

      Climbing metal steps, visitors stare into 5,000-gallon tanks where various products are created with a mix of ingredients. One tank holds a white, waterless hand cleaner for mechanics. It’s favored by NASCAR because it works on really grimy hands. It uses corn meal as an abrasive to emulsify grease, which is another patented product according to Soden.

      Again with an eye to quality, Soden says he decided a few years back to de-ionize the water the plant gets from the City of Stanley. That makes it softer and further filters contaminants.

     “The great thing about our process,” Campbell chimes, “is we have very little waste. Most of the leftover water is okay for regular drains and the fraction with soap in it goes to a nearby chemical company for recycling. We have no issue with emissions,” he adds.

     Soden and Campbell stress plant cleanliness because it equates to safety. “If soap hits the floor, we clean it up right away,” Campbell says. “To my knowledge, we’ve never had a serious accident here.”

     Last year, Soden says, he took safety a step further and installed a defibrillator, then trained employees to use it.

     A safety measure for customers is the quarantine area that all raw materials pass through when they reach the plant. They stay there until the DEB SBS lab can test a sample. “The lab makes sure it is what it’s supposed to be,” Campbell says. “Then we use it.”

     Another room houses samples of every product—several hundred—the plant produces, for purposes of reference on its contents.

     The huge product line leads Campbell to what he calls the hardest part of his job. “If a customer wants something, we’re going to make it for them,” he smiles. “In manufacturing, that causes problems. We make many different sizes and products. But this is America. We want what we want. So at the plant, we have to be flexible.”

      A sales force of 45 spread across the country keeps the orders, standard and odd-sized, flowing in. Campbell says the plant ships 1,200 to 1,500 orders a month.

     Soden sees that number continuing to rise. “Five years from now,” Soden says, “this plant will be a third bigger, we will have a bigger piece of market share, and we will have a reputation of being the leader in this category.”

     Unlike other companies that make products besides hand-cleaners, Soden says DEB SBS will stick to one area. “We don’t do anything else; this factory produces strictly hand-care products,” he says.

     “We want to really show that an improvement in health and wellness in the workplace can be accomplished through proper hand-care systems.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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