By Margaret Jackson | Oct 19, 2015
Employees: 10 (plus independent sales representatives)
Don Stewart spent years selling industrial chemicals. He owned Colorado Supply Co., a provider of industrial janitorial supplies throughout Colorado.
In the 1980s, he discovered that products with bacteria had the potential to be used for cleaning in a myriad of ways.
"He had been dealing with apartment complexes that had major problems with pets peeing on the carpets," says Don's grandson and Unique's vice president of sales and marketing, Ricky Stewart. "There were odor issues. Bacteria products dissolve and degrade urine."
So, Don sold Colorado Supply and started Unique Natural Products, a company that makes safe deodorizers and cleaning products for the home, RVs and boats. Don, then 60, set out in his RV to spread the word about his inexpensive, safe, natural and effective products.
By safe, Don means Unique's products won't pollute the air or water, harm plants or family pets and won't harm surfaces or leave a residue.
Now 84, Don has turned over the day-to-day operations to his family, though he still comes in to the office every day.
"Don is a salesman," says Ricky. "If you met him today, he'd try to get you to buy something."
Unique products are sold across North America, Asia, Europe, Mexico and South America. It's biggest market is in hardware stores.
"We don't have a lot of corporate ties," Stewart says. "We work mainly with independent hardware stores like ACE."
It's also in Do it Best, True Value, Kriser's and Natural Grocers. The company also has carved out a niche in the RV and marine industry, vacuum stores and independent pet retailers such as Planned Pethood Plus and Mouthfuls Pet Bar in Denver.
All of its products are manufactured in Arvada and it sources everything from the United States. "It increases our costs substantially, but it's one of our core beliefs," Stewart says.
Challenges: Challenges for the nearly 30-year-old company are daunting. First, there's not one authoritative group that definitively says what constitutes safe products. Second, the rising cost of freight makes distribution difficult. And third, a passing of the baton from one generation to the next in the small businesses that carry Unique products requires re-educating store owners.
"Finding ways to communicate with them is tough," Ricky says. "The new store owners are young, and they don't want to be sold a bill of junk. It's challenging to create marketing material for them that is easily conveyed by an old-school salesman."
Opportunities: Ricky says the opportunity is not so much in the "green" movement, but rather in establishing itself in the safe products category.
"The safe category is going to be the next big one for us," he says. "We're developing products so we can say to moms that they don't have to worry about locking up their cleaning products. The mom-specific marketplace is a huge opportunity for us."
Pet cleaning products are another high-growth area for Unique but in two distinctly different groups: empty-nesters whose pets have replaced their children and millennials with a small apartment and cat or dog. "It's really interesting to see the great divide between the two," Ricky says. "The pet industry is a constantly growing beast."
Needs: Though it would be helpful to have more capital to put toward advertising, Ricky says what Unique needs most are great sales representatives. "We've switched from the outdated distribution model to the sales rep model, and that's changing our strategy," says Ricky.
Educating consumers about Unique's products and how bacteria works also is a struggle. "People have a hard time wrapping their heads around bacteria," Ricky says. "They wonder how it can be safe. Once they understand, it clicks with them."