When migraines from a fragrance sensitivity brought Anie Rouleau to develop a line of unscented and eco-friendly consumer products, she soon found herself sniffing out global markets for her unique brand.
The Montreal entrepreneur discovered that many people have health problems triggered by strong-smelling soaps, cleaning agents and body-care items. They’re also looking for alternatives to the vast quantities of plastic packaging that such products typically come in.
Enter Baléco Inc. and its brand The Unscented Co., locally manufactured home and body care products such as laundry detergent and deodorant that have no scent or dye and are made with simple, natural ingredients. They also have a positive impact on the world, with refillable, sustainable or plastic-free packaging as well as solid versions in some cases.
“Definitely there’s an interest out there in our products,” says Ms. Rouleau, 52, Baléco’s CEO, who founded the company in 2011. She first found corporate customers for its fragrance-free cleaning products, and in 2016 trademarked The Unscented Co. and started building the brand, expanding her line and landing a contract in Bulk Barn stores across the country.
“That really started the business,” Ms. Rouleau says, as did an appearance on Dragon’s Den, which brought further sales through Canadian Tire. She turned to the U.S. in early 2020 with Whole Foods in the country’s northeast. But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, forcing her to slow down. That wasn’t such a bad thing; unable to easily cross the border, Baléco found strong demand in Canada amid the crisis and planned her export strategy.
Foreign sales are not a new thing for Ms. Rouleau. She grew up in an entrepreneurial family, with a firm that manufactured equipment for hydro transmission lines in Canada and the U.S. She worked for six years in Birmingham, Alabama, running an aluminum foundry it had bought. Both have now been sold.
Her advice for companies planning to export to the U.S. is “you can’t underestimate the U.S. It’s a huge market,” and very diverse. “It’s not one country; it’s 52 countries.”
It’s difficult and costly to cover it all at the same time, for instance in social media efforts.
“If you’re targeting the entire U.S., you won’t have enough money. That’s not realistic,” says Ms. Rouleau, noting that it’s hard to keep up with production. “California is the size of Canada. You can tackle that.”
Brokers represent the company in key regions such as the southwest as well as northeast, while contract distributors get the items to stores. She’s especially focusing on a dozen cities there, looking for social media influencers and developing a public-relations campaign. U.S. sales today represent 5 per cent of Baléco’s revenues. Ms. Rouleau projects that to be 12 per cent next year.
A trade commissioner at the Montreal regional office of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service, a free service of the federal government, has helped her to identify prospects, offered marketing tips – such as “Americanizing” the language in the company’s promotional materials – and staged virtual events to get the word out.
Canada is seen in markets like California as a country with high-quality products. Mr. Rouleau stamps the Canadian flag on labels, which remain in French and English. “If you create a new packaging it just amplifies the footprint.”
Paul Martineau, a senior business adviser at Inno-Centre, a not-for-profit organization in Montreal that supports the development of innovative small businesses.
Mr. Martineau, a former entrepreneur who helped Baléco brainstorm its export plan, says it helps that Ms. Rouleau went slowly amid the pandemic and developed her strategy over time. "
Start with smaller deals and after, when you get to the big ones, you’ll have the knowledge.”
He notes there is a lot of U.S. demand for companies like Baléco. Regional trade shows work well for promotion. “That is going to bring you a lot of growth opportunities and put your brand everywhere,” Mr. Martineau says. It also helps that Ms. Rouleau is connected directly to agents and brokers that are connected to stores and has industry consultants that help her adapt to the U.S. market.
It’s also critical that she instituted an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which helps the company handle its contract manufacturers, manage stocks, schedule deliveries and forecast sales. “If you don’t have a proper ERP system, you won’t be able to export, because you’re going to have logistical issues,” Mr. Martineau says.
A big challenge for consumer-goods manufacturers in the U.S. is to differentiate their products and get space in stores, he says. “There’s lots of competition.” Selling there also brings issues such as currency fluctuations and taxes in different jurisdictions. “You have to get good advice.”
Ms. Rouleau says a dozen people now work in Baléco’s warehousing, marketing, accounting, customer service, business development and research and development. The company sells through 5,000 retailers in the two countries. Online sales via major sites like Costco and Amazon represent 13 per cent of revenues, which rose to 20 per cent with the pandemic.
Ms. Rouleau feels that long term, “my business will be as strong as my exports,” with a goal for The Unscented Co. to change consumer habits.
“The more I export my concept, the more I reduce our plastic footprint,” she explains, noting that, “I don’t want to become the leader of dish soap on the planet,” but to have a positive impact on the environment.
Businesses looking to export should tell their story, Ms. Rouleau says. “Consumers are not just buying a product any more; they’re buying a brand that has values they can feel they can align with.”
She plans to remain focused on the U.S. but next target countries such as South Korea, where she’s had interest from distributors. “That’s definitely a market that is looking for Canadian goods; they’re looking for quality, they’re looking for something different.”