Candlemaker’s resolve burns steadily
Waxman owner shares tips from 40 years in business
It was during a Friday afternoon phone call in 1972 when Bob Werts — owner of Lawrence’s Waxman Candles — began thinking like a business owner.
The fellow on the other end of the line wanted to know if Werts could make candles that were shaped like a ball.
Well, at this point in time, Werts wasn’t known as an independent candlemaker extraordinaire. He mainly was known as a 23-year-old who had more time than money, and took up candlemaking as a way to kill one and make a little of the other.
His claim to fame — when he started the business about two years earlier — was that he would make a half-pound of candles for students, if they brought him a pound of wax.
You’ll have to figure out why KU students in the early 1970s needed so many candles, but Werts today says “it was kind of a hippie thing.”
Back on that Friday afternoon in 1972, with wax piling up around him, Werts figured he needed to turn this into more than just a hippie thing.
So, ball candles? Well, he had made a candle shaped like a ball before, so he decided to answer the fellow on the phone like a good businessman would.
“Oh yeah,” Werts said, “those are our specialty.”
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Werts indeed did become a businessman. As the national economy flickers like a votive in the breeze, Waxman is celebrating its 40th year in business, now with stores in Lawrence and Chicago. It has been four decades of business lessons, and when asked by the Journal-World, Werts agreed to share some of them.
“I think something that would surprise a lot of people is that I didn’t make any money for the first 10 years in the candle business,” Werts said. “I just made enough money to run the business. And now it is kind of back to that again.”
Business is off about 50 percent from the heyday of the 1990s. But here at Waxman, 609 Mass., Werts’ demeanor is still as smooth as the melting wax that warms in Styrofoam covered kettles in the back shop.
“Every business person has to understand that there are times when you make a living and there are times when you make money,” Werts said. “And then there are times when you just have to suck it up.”
This current recession certainly has been a time when even good businessmen have had to suck like a Hoover, but Will Katz — director of KU’s Small Business Development Center — said even during normal times business owners need to be prepared for a high level of sacrifice.
“I deal with a lot of people who have unrealistic expectations of success,” said Katz, who counsels potential business owners. “Bob’s story of going 10 years is not that uncommon at all. I tell people you had better figure out how to do what you love. If it feels like work, that’s not a very good sign.”
The Friday afternoon caller was pleased to hear that he had found a ball candle specialist. He needed 120,000 of the candles.
Really? Yeah, really.
After a weekend of experimentation and extrapolation, Werts determined that he would have to charge 12.6 cents per candle to break even on this order.
So, when he made contact with the Friday afternoon caller, he told the fellow that he could do the order for — 12.6 cents per candle.
“The guy said ‘great, we’ll be up later this week to look at your facility,'” Werts recalled.
And that’s when Werts began acting like a small-business owner.
For you see, Werts’ “facility” was a central Lawrence garage that had a space for his cot in the corner and a stove with a small wax melting kettle.
So, Werts decided to do what a good businessman would do.
“I found a buddy who let me put my cot in his apartment,” Werts said, “and I went out and bought a bigger kettle.”
Werts works about 60 hours a week in the winters and about 30 hours a week in the summers — candlemaking in the heat doesn’t work well. Now 61 years old, he notes that the winters seem to be a lot longer than the summers.
But 40 years into this, Werts still is a true candlemaker. Sure, he does all those business owner things — he does the books on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays — but he still spends time daily in the back shop with a sharp razor cleaning up the smallest of details on his designer candles.
He insists what has changed most over the last four decades is his eyesight. He now has two pairs of glasses — one for the main floor where he melts and mixes wax, and one for the basement where he does the even more precision-oriented work of making the rubber molds for the candles.
But, of course, there are other differences. In the 1990s, Werts’ business made 25 to 28 tons of candles per year. Now, business is at about 10 to 12 tons per year.
And this current recession is different from others that he has seen. It is “more complex, more global,” he says. But what it is not, is more stressful.
“This is a candle shop,” Werts says almost with a laugh. “I don’t carry much stress. Worrying is productive if it makes you do something, but worrying for the sake of worrying is no good at all.”
Werts refuses to be anything but positive. He’s convinced the recession will end.
“We’re resilient,” Werts said. “It will get better but it will get better in its own way. As soon as people get sick and tired of being sick and tired — and then put out enough energy to make it better — it will get better.”
Katz said such optimism is a hallmark of successful entrepreneurs.
“You’ll almost never meet a really successful entrepreneur who isn’t positive,” Katz said. “The fact of the matter is, you can talk yourself out of anything. To be an entrepreneur, you have to be positive enough to overcome things. When you see a roadblock, your natural instinct needs to be, ‘How can I get around this.'”
For Werts, all of this — even the prospect of failure — is what he signed up for.
“Failure is not a bad thing unless it devastates you to the point that you can’t get off the floor,” Werts said. “And, if that’s the case, it wasn’t a good risk to take.”
When a visitor to the shop chimes in that he thinks the fear of failure is what keeps many people from starting a small business, Werts answers quickly.
“Then it probably should,” Werts says. “The fear of failure is going to result in failure.”
It was four months of Ping-Pong balls, golf tees and Dixie cups.
Werts assembled all those items to create a makeshift production facility to fulfill his new order of 120,000 ball candles.
After months of work, after the last candle was finished, Werts made exactly how much he thought he would off the job — not a thing. He broke even.
But then a few weeks later, Werts got a phone call from the same Friday afternoon fellow. This time he needed a large order of a different type of candle. He told Werts he could pay him 45 cents a candle. Werts said he could do it for 75 cents a candle.
That job took Werts 20 days to complete, and he made $10,000 in profit. He remembers going to Don’s Steakhouse for a $20 meal. He put the other $9,980 into a new shop.
Did Werts know that second call would come? Is that why he did the first job at a break even price? Not really. There was a more basic reason behind that.
“I thought,” Werts said, “if I could make 120,000 units of anything, I could say I was in the candle business, and I would have that feeling in my heart.”
And that’s when Bob Werts got paid like a business owner.