Business

Macon business owner finds success with barbecue sauce, bath products

Roland Neel owns two small businesses that must be handled very differently.

One business must constantly keep up with the latest trends. The other business is based on a long tradition that must be upheld.

Neel is CEO of Private Label Products Inc., a manufacturing company he founded in 1993 that makes items such as lotions and bath products, mostly for day spas and salons. The products are made to order with the name and logo of the spa or salon on each label.

Neel also is CEO of Bar-Jim Inc., doing business as Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce -- a company founded in 1935 that Neel bought in 2010. The barbecue sauce is sold in large national stores, such as Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and in regional grocery stores, such as Kroger, Harveys Supermarket and Piggy Wiggly.

The two businesses are in separate buildings just a few steps apart on Roff Avenue in Macon.

When Neel was a young man, he never imagined he would own a small business, much less two at the same time.

Neel, 53, grew up in north Macon with the family legacy of Joseph N. Neel Co. -- a department store that was in downtown Macon for more than 100 years.

As Neel grew up, he thought he would follow his father in the business. His first job was sweeping the floors at the store when he was about 9 or 10.

“I got paid 50 cents a hour,” Neel said. “My grandfather used to pay me out of his pocket.”

Up until the early 1970s, department stores, such as Joseph N. Neel Co., thrived and were the center of retail activity downtown, he said.

Men would get dressed up and wear coats and ties all the time. But starting in the mid-‘70s, things began to change, and people began to dress more casually.

Neel said he came home from college one summer, and things were not going as well as they could have been at the store, so “I tried to step up and do the best job I could.” He went into sales and eventually into management with the department store.

Then the Macon Mall opened, “and we were getting suburban malls dotting all the major cities in the United States,” Neel said. “It was draining the shopping population out of downtowns. Our expenses remained the same, but the amount of shoppers declined.”

The growth of big box stores like Wal-Mart also played a part.

“The general lifestyle changed forever,” he said. “So as that affected (the department store) business, it became evident to the family that that size store was not a profitable venture going forward.”

Neel was president of the company when the store closed July 3, 1993.

“It was a very, very emotional ordeal,” he said. “It was terrible. It was like watching a loved family member pass away.”

BUILDING A NEW BUSINESS

Neel had to figure out what he was going to do. He was 32 and married with no job.

He thought about going into commercial real estate sales. But while looking at an inventory report from the department store, he noticed the bubble bath the store sold with its name on the label was the most profitable item in the store.

“We had to buy it by the truck loads ... and I got to thinking about how many smaller stores that truck passed to get to us,” Neel said.

That’s when he thought if he could do the same thing with smaller quantities, maybe he could make it work.

“I created that (plan) in less than a week,” he said.

He took the bubble bath bottle to Atlanta and looked up in the phone book wholesale bottle manufacturers until he found one that sold a bottle like it. Then he found someone to subcontract the manufacturing of products.

Private Label Products was created in 1993, and Neel operated the business out of his basement. But he found it tough to get his product in stores, and he was about to give up when he discovered the Atlanta gift trade show, which draws buyers from everywhere. He managed to snag a booth at the last minute, and he wound up selling $13,000 worth of products at the show.

“I’ll never forget it,” Neel said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was like, ‘This is how you do it.’ ”

He then went to apparel shows in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York, “and it worked.” After seven years, the business had crept out of his basement into the carport and the living room.

He decided to open a factory and make the product himself. Howard Murray, the husband of a woman working for him, offered to help. He was a retired senior manufacturing engineer from General Motors Co. and had designed assembly lines.

Neel said he told Murray what he wanted, and Murray figured it out.

“He really nailed it,” Neel said. “There was no owner’s manual. ... That was my dream to get the factory going.”

Murray, who still drops by the business occasionally, said setting up the assembly line for Private Label was different than anything he had done.

“I was totally out of my field of expertise,” Murray said. “But I took it upon myself to learn ... and talked to people all over.”

He said Neel tends to “micromanage” and that he can be tough on his employees. But even though “he bumps heads with me” from time to time, “he’s kind, and I really like him,” Murray said. “He wants to make sure he knows everything that’s going on. I think he’s a really good businessman.”

Private Label now makes the products, designs the artwork and makes the labels for all kinds of boutiques and day spas across the country.

“The recession during 2010 took a toll on gift stores,” Neel said. “But now we are seeing an awful lot more day spas coming up, and we’re also seeing trends in day spas such as waxings, which has become a huge business for us.

“So Private Label Products is constantly having to innovate, whereas Mrs. Griffin’s is very traditional.”

LEARNING THE SAUCE BUSINESS

Mrs. Griffin’s “is much more local,” Neel said. “We believe we are the second-oldest barbecue sauce in the United States. We also believe we are the oldest one east of the Mississippi.”

Neel bought Mrs. Griffin’s when the owner and a friend of the family, Jim Wilcox, was looking to retire. It was 2010 in the middle of the recession.

“I doubled down during the darkest days,” Neel said.

Wilcox, now 77, said he was looking for somebody younger to take over the business “who had a little more energy than I did. ... We worked out a deal.”

Mrs. Griffin’s had been on Broadway for 70 years, but Neel wanted it close to the Private Label business and moved it -- with its employees -- next door five days after he bought it.

He learned more about his customers and met with the buyers.

While he didn’t change the recipe, he upgraded all the ingredients “to make it the best it could be,” he said.

After two years, “we got lucky and fell into an agreement with the (local) Golden Flake franchise to co-distribute our product with its potato chips,” he said. “They have 13 or 14 (trucks) going out every day. So it’s been a good fit. ... So that’s been a big deal.”

Wilcox said Neel has built up the business a lot since he took it over.

“He works hard,” he said. “He puts in whatever hours necessary to get the job done. He’s made a lot of improvements and standardized the business and made a lot of innovations.

“I think he’s a great businessman. I’m proud of what’s he done. ... I feel like this: I sold to the right person.”

In May of this year, Neel was able to get his product inside Kroger’s warehouse, so it distributes directly to their stores.

“And they took us from 14 stores to 110 stores,” he said. “Kroger and Wal-Mart are now really into supporting local brands, which is a change.”

While the businesses are totally different, he didn’t realize until after buying Mrs. Griffin’s that they are busy at different times.

Private Label slows down about Mother’s Day, which is about the time the barbecue business is kicking off.

“It’s almost like having jet skis in Panama City and then going to the mountains to put on snow shoes,” Neel said. “They usually don’t peak at the same time.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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