Kari Warberg Block, founder and CEO of EarthKind, a manufacturer of all-natural pest repellents for farms and homes, was recently honored by the Manufacturing Institute as a STEP Ahead Award honoree for leadership and excellence. EarthKind has an office in Mooresville outside of Charlotte. Crain’s recently caught up with Block to discuss how she got into the pest-repellent industry, how she grew the business from nothing to a multimillion-dollar company, and how she hopes to inspire women as entrepreneurs. Follow Block on Twitter at @KariWBlock.
Q: How did you get involved in the pest-repellent industry?
A: Certainly not intentionally – not in the beginning, anyway. I had a problem. We were living on the farm, and we had rodents getting into tractors, trucks, combines. It was a stinky mess and very expensive. They just kept coming. I kept things clean, but they were still coming. Most farmers at the time were using mothballs and poisons. The mothballs were highly toxic. I thought there had to be something that wasn’t poisonous, but that's all there was. I’m a mom. I have kids, I have pets. I love wildlife. Why lure them in, kill them and then feel bad about it?
I decided I had to do something about this. I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to do. I just knew that somebody was going to do it. And it was going to be me. I don’t come from that industry. I didn’t have a manufacturing or chemistry background. The whole driving force was a passion and a purpose and creating something that was both safe and effective.
Q: How did you come up with the product and get through all the regulatory requirements to take it to market?
A: I started doing research. The only thing I had to my advantage was that my father was an entomologist, and he did a lot of tests and trials and technical things. I got a chance to look at pest behavior in a different way. I looked at it in a very different way because my father was fascinated by the behaviors of pests. With rodents, there must be one of the five senses that I can use to keep them out. I discovered that rodents can only see a few inches ahead of them, but they have a highly developed sense of smell.
It started that simply, a natural logic. If I get a headache from perfume, imagine what a mouse 200 times smaller than me – with a sense of smell 200 times greater than me – will get. That’s how I started with the idea. I went to our state university and there was somebody who specialized in rodents. That’s where I started doing research. What in nature could naturally repel rodents? Everything in nature repels or attracts something. There are these Canada balsam, [small fir trees] which develop their own pesticides to keep rodents from eating the bark and the trees from freezing. I tested it and it worked, got it patented and got Environmental Protection Agency approval.
Q: You were the wife of a farmer and then suddenly you’re responsible for marketing and manufacturing to keep this company afloat. How did you navigate that new territory?
A: I started making it in a very crude fashion in the beginning. I used it on our farm and I gave it to other farmers. It really worked. I just kept going from there – getting more research done and getting the product out there. But to get it out there, I had to make it first. We weren’t big enough to get the equipment because we didn’t have enough sales. I had to make everything by hand, then we slowly automated over time. Now, it’s different. We have a nice-sized plant and a workforce, and a sales and distribution system, and a financial department and a shipping department.
It wasn’t a grand scheme to get here; it was a matter of practicality as I had to do it that way and slowly automate a piece at a time as we grew. It really changed the whole marketplace. It’s as if we were the first person to break the four-minute mile, now others are following. We had to get the product out there, and we had to make it available and affordable.
A: How did you stay encouraged and keep going during what, at times, must have seemed like a daunting process?
As an entrepreneur, I’m optimistic. But there were a lot of low points where I seriously questioned everything I was doing. I even lost a marriage on the farm because of it. But I was really committed to doing this and it was a journey. I really feel that in my life and in my heart, I knew that I had to do this.
There was a tough moment when I thought, “Can I really do this myself?” I feel like it was a calling for me. I’m probably the right person to do this. I had to do it for the health of our planet, our kids, our pets.
Q: There are added challenges when you’re bringing something to market that’s disrupting what people are used to using – in this case, poison – especially when it’s cheaper and what people are used to? How did you combat that?
I had to champion this product and then teach people to think differently. They’re used to just killing something with a spray or with a poison. It turned out, though, that there were, and there are, many people who are looking for a natural solution and who don’t just want to kill things. They believe, as we do, that pests have a place in the ecosystem.
We targeted those key words. In the beginning, it was a guerilla approach to analytics and keywords that enabled us to get on retail shelves. I’d go to a retailer with a spreadsheet that showed how many people in their area were searching for safe or all-natural alternatives. And the retailers would buy it. That was how we built the whole thing. It was just the logical way of getting our products onto their shelves.
But we still had to convert the farmers. We have a very strong agricultural base and it turns out that these farmers have dogs and farm cats that they were worried about getting into the poison and the poison harming their pets. They needed a solution. It costs thousands of dollars to replace combine wires that rodents chewed. Our product became a staple product for John Deere, which was our first national distributor. They’d give customers our product as a gift when they bought a tractor. That helped tremendously.
From there, we built it customer-by-customer. I didn’t go too fast. I made sure [customers] were happy. And it helped a lot that we were the manufacturer, as well. In the beginning when I went to different business groups for advice, they all told me to manufacture in China to be able to make a profit. That doesn’t make any sense. I couldn’t be sure what they were going to put into it. Everything in our products comes from family farms. We’re supporting our farms, which are the ones buying the products.
Q: You’re involved in many organizations that champion women in business and women entrepreneurs. Why is this something you’re so passionate about?
A: There are a few reasons. When I was growing up, my dad was really good in business. He left the entomology field and started a convenience store company that he eventually took public. I always loved business from the time I was a teenager, when I had my own housecleaning and bookkeeping businesses. Back in those days, parents didn’t encourage girls to go into those fields. I’d sneak into and listen to my dad’s business meetings. He wanted me to be a stay-at-home-mom. From the time I was a teenager, I noticed there was a natural bias set up against women, and I noticed it as I was growing this business.
I was at the corporate headquarters of a major retailer yesterday and the lobby was filled with men in suits. Seriously, here we are in 2017, and in this major corporation’s office, there’s nothing but men. In sales, it’s still traditionally 95 percent men who are doing the selling. There were no role models for me as I was starting this business, other than Anita Roddick from the Body Shop, who was way before her time.
It’s not just mentorship. It’s also making sure policy supports helping women bring products to market and have access to capital. Ernst and Young [now EY] has a women’s program for companies like mine, which are in the $5 million to $70 million range. The conversations that I have there are hugely valuable.