Robert Reeve was in basic training with the Canadian Armed Forces when he had a dream.
Mr. Reeve, now 42, is president of MKR International based in Erin, Ont., north of Toronto. The company produces Purmist, a powerful hand sanitizing system developed from essential oils. But in 2000, he was a new recruit at CFB Meaford, which he joined after 12 years as a special constable with the Ontario Provincial Police.
The idea for what developed into Purmist came to him one night during his training period. Being the sort of man who kept a pad of paper and pen by the bed he was able to write it down after waking up. "It was vivid – people were being sprayed with liquid from head to toe, there were images of flowers, brooks, cleanliness, uniforms," he recalls. "Of course, I had to decipher what I'd written down, and what it meant to me was that I had to find something that would help the professionals protect themselves better from bacteria and germs."
Dr. Wayne King, a professor of entrepreneurship at Memorial University in Newfoundland, has worked with five Canadian Forces (CF) alumni who wanted to start small businesses as part of the school's pilot project last year called Based in Business. "When you start a small business you need a specific skill as your foundation. For the most part the people I worked with had already accumulated the technical skills they needed to do something and build a business around it."
Dr. King gave two examples from the CF students he worked with, to show how widely their experience could translate into entrepreneurship.
"One was trying to start a property management company based on skills he gained being involved in the military from a construction perspective. These skills, he felt, allowed him to be able to appraise and buy properties. Another had learned to be a welder while in the military and was wanting to get into wrought-iron work."
He said military life also provided specific behavioural training that is useful to budding entrepreneurs.
"These people are very motivated, disciplined and willing to work hard, and what is also useful is that they can respond to quick-changing atmospheres by being flexible and responsive to change," Dr. King said. "I've worked with a lot of entrepreneurs and I find some tend to be a little unfocused sometimes, but a military background stands you in good stead."
It turns out Mr. Reeve also holds a certificate in horticulture from the University of Guelph. And since most successful businesses are the sum of an entrepreneur's experience and knowledge, he went back to his old horticultural notes and started research and formulations.
"Did my experience in the military help? Yes, absolutely. I saw the need and the business opportunity, but I also felt that I wanted to give something back to the uniformed services. And 10 years after I finished my horticulture certificate that information came back to help me," he said.
After creating his prototype for Purmist, Mr. Reeve paid for tests to be conducted on the formula at ATS Laboratories in Eagan, Minn., while simultaneously patenting it. The laboratory, which specializes in microbiology, found that bacteria were killed on surfaces for up to four hours, considerably longer than other sanitizers.
By 2008, after leaving the army and following a four-year stint working for local fire rescue services, the final product was ready. Mr. Reeve says Purmist has been laboratory tested on 13 types of bacteria and one virus to date, including the H1N1 influenza, and can eradicate over 99 per cent of all 14 for four hours or longer. What's more, its plant-based natural pedigree means it doesn't cause the allergic reactions experienced by those using chemical-based sanitizers.
Mr. Reeve says sales of Purmist, which was picked up by Mark's Work Warehouse at the end of 2008, have grown by about 10 per cent to 15 per cent every month ever since, even during the recession. Now 980 stores across Canada are carrying the sanitizer, including branches of Metro, Jean Coutu, Overweightea, and Shoppers Drug Mart. Purmist is also used by Hockey Canada.
Currently, these stores only sell Purmist in a 7.1 ml atomizer bottle for $4.99. Mr. Reeve said later this spring the company would be launching a $6.99 100 ml bottle, and a hands-free mister that will be the only product of its type at $39.99.
Since December, 2008, Purmist has sold $500,000 worth of product, Mr. Reeve said, with most of the profit being plowed back into the company, despite dozens of competitors, the biggest being U.S. companies Purell and Germ-X. Purmist is different, he added.
"We've created the next generation in technology in hand sanitizers because it is all based on completely natural plant ingredients and not chemicals," he said, adding that this led to fewer bad skin reactions in those who use the product, important to front-line workers who need a lot of sanitizer.
This sort of determination to see a project through is not unusual in those with military training, according to Canadian Armed Forces spokesman Commander Hubert Genest in Ottawa.
"We provide training throughout the course of a career… The public think we in the military follow orders and we do, but people also know how to push for their own ideas… Every person in the Canadian forces has a different path," he said.
Commander Genest also spoke of the team spirit instilled in those serving with the forces.
"In the last three to five years there has been a surge of new recruits and one of the things they refer to the most is that they want to help and to make a meaningful contribution to society."
This desire to produce something useful for others echoes the contents of Mr. Reeves' original dream.
"I had a good run of 20 years, giving my community my service and now I'm doing it in another way," he said.
And with the military in mind, he has developed a 14-inch by 10-inch towelette, which he hopes will eventually be sold to the Canadian Armed Forces.
"Soldiers that are on manoeuvres that aren't able to wash or bathe for days on end can have this towelette in their pack that they can take out and use to disinfect and clean. That's one of the major things in the military, if you're dirty, sweaty… it's all fatiguing. If you get refreshed that sharpens you up again."
Special to The Globe and Mail