Magnolia in bloom: What began as kitchen soap making now growing more like kudzu than namesake plant

Magen Bynum in her New Albany flagship store
December 15th, 2020     Featured General News

When talking with Magnolia Soap & Bath Co. founder Magen Bynum, one may get the sensation that she is moving forward in a sense even while she is sitting still. Comments about her business are peppered with plans being implemented for the future.

“I don’t ever start anything without plans of being as big as I can be,” she said. “That’s who I am. My husband is sometimes like, ‘pump the brakes,’ and I’m like, there are no brakes on this system. We don’t stop.”

And she hasn’t stopped.

In less that four years, she has gone from making plant-based soaps and lotions in her kitchen to overseeing 10 Magnolia Soap & Bath Co. stores with at least six more franchises coming in the next month or so.

Add to that her fleet of ice cream and crayfish trucks and the term “entrepreneur” hardly seems adequate.

If one doubted the popularity of her products, he or she only had to see the line of customers extending down Bankhead Street the length of several storefronts waiting to get in during Black Friday weekend sales.

How it all began

This all really began out of personal need. She was looking for plant-based alternatives to commercial soaps and lotions for her daughter, Elizabeth Anne, who was allergic to virtually all that were on the market.

“We started when we lived in Memphis,” she said. “I was pregnant with my first child and I was just buying ingredients in bulk to the house and making things in the kitchen. Just for myself and my child.”

“It was really just for my baby and then when she was three months old I created a nail salon in Tupelo,” she continued. “We were in the process of moving back home so I opened a nail salon and I couldn’t find an organic plant-based scrub solution that I preferred for my customer base, so I began creating products.”

Through trial and error, her number of products began to grow.

“My husband (who is an attorney) does have a background in biochemistry,” she said. “He helps with formulations but it’s more so me, just trial and error. A lot of error.” However, she does have a background in cosmetology. “So I know how pH works in the body and things like that because it’s crucial in beauty products.”

Opening her first store in New Albany was a result of compromise of sorts, plus an attraction to the community.

“I am from Pontotoc,” she said. “My husband’s from this area though…He grew up in Potts Camp.”

Why she chose New Albany

“We were in Memphis for seven years and we wanted to move back home and this was kind of in-between Pontotoc and Potts Camp,” she said. “I just fell in love with the downtown area here. To me this is like something out of a Hallmark video. It was so quaint, so cozy and so I knew I wanted a downtown setting for my flagship store, so we kind of landed in New Albany.”

Some think they would be better off living in a larger city, but not Magen.

“My husband just mentioned last night about moving toward Tupelo or Saltillo and I said no,” she said. “I just love New Albany. I don’t want to leave here. It’s perfect for a family and we’ve got two small children.”

Her husband practices law in Memphis simply because it is much larger than New Albany. “But you know during this lockdown they have been doing everything via Zoom so all his work has been at home and he’s pretty much at Magnolia now,” she said. That’s even better for the company in another way. “He builds out all the stores that we are opening,” she said. “He builds all of our boxes and all of our displays and everything.”

The company has really taken off

Magnolia Soap & Bath Co. has existed fewer than four years but it has really mushroomed in the past year, offering dozens of new products.

“Well, when we were down at that other location seven or eight doors down we were just literally growing out of it,” she said. “We had so much product and so many customers we were always on top of each other and this (former Bead Shack for Kids location where she is  now) became available and we just snagged it.”

This proved to be a blessing in other ways. “It happened just a week after the pandemic started,” she said. “It just really worked in this time frame because it just opened us wide up for the growth that was coming that we didn’t even know.”

Business, despite the pandemic, was so good that they were able to open a second store six months after the first. Now, they have 10 stores, plus two more opening soon and six more after that pending and likely to open in January. While New Albany is the flagship store, others are in Tupelo, Oxford, Jackson, Starkville, Fulton, Cullman, Ala., Tulsa, Okla., Germantown, Tenn. and Collierville, Tenn. The web site also includes Ridgeland, Southaven and Laurel stores.

Magnolia Soap & Bath Co. has something for everyone

Their ever-growing line of products includes bar soap, body butter and shower oils. Bath bombs are big right now, as is their plant-based laundry soap. They have well over 100 products aimed toward men, children and pets but by far their target audience is women.

That could be changing some, partly because her products have proven to be welcome gifts for almost anyone.

“We want to please everyone,” she said. “Our target market is female. But after men come in they become our most loyal fans.”

“They know they want that specific shape, that specific smell. The first time they come in they’re a little timid, you can tell, because it’s the first time they’re in a soap store. That second time they make a beeline straight toward what they want. They know, they get it and they check out with pride.”

She said some of that pride comes with the time and effort they put into building brand recognition and building a quality brand and building superior products. “They know that if they’re getting something from Magnolia Soap it’s going to be top-notch,” she said.

Their manufacturing is going to see a change

Each store manufactures its own products. “We teach each store how to make and how to produce their store so they are self-sufficient on this,” she said.

This means the New Albany stores don’t have to supply them, but do handle on-line orders and downtown visitors often see Magnolia employees moving material up and down the sidewalk between the two storefronts. Soon, they should be able to both expand and consolidate their efforts even more.

“We just purchased a building at West Union that we will be moving our production and shipping and all that out there,” she said. “It’s the Conlee Construction building and has 9,000 sq. ft.”

Moving her manufacturing away from town is a matter of necessity rather than preference.

“It would be ideal to have a place in downtown here,” she said. “Again, because I love the place and we live three miles out that way. But I could never find anyone who wanted to sell their building. And second, a building big enough for us to fit.”

One of the buildings she was interested in was the former Fred’s building. Another was the former Coca-Cola plant, but neither was available.

She would like to see that north part of town across the railroad grow. “That area could be its own retail epicenter if done correctly,” she said. “They’re (buildings) all just sitting there. You could put 10 or 12 businesses there. There’s so much history there. It’s a shame not to see it utilized. The area behind the Rainey could be a cute little hub.”

They offer a huge array of products

Magnolia Soap sells a lot of different products including bath bombs, oils, steamers, salts, deodorants, bug repellant, candles, disinfectant, beard oil, shave soap, pet soap and spray. Of course soap is a main seller with at least 65 varieties and interesting names. Some include Cereal Killer, Fear the Unicorn, Hemp, Hulk, Kudzu, Mechanic, Mississippi Delta, Scene of the Grime, Take a Chance and even a William Faulkner, plus more traditional floral names.

Despite the variety, she is continually offering new products and is open to suggestions.

And they take requests

“We do requests. We do a lot of customizations,” she said. “Anything we do we are able to customize it to a specific smell or ingredient if that’s what you are looking for, but we can definitely take requests and I am always on the cusp of coming out with something new.”

“We have a loyal customer base and whenever we release something it is pretty welcomed,” she said. “Nothing I release is not planned out and tested for months and months and months before I release it because I definitely never want to release anything that’s not top quality.”

Obtaining her raw materials has been no problem, even with some transportation affected by the pandemic.

From kitchen pans to 55-gallon drums

“We have a couple of manufacturers all in the United States. Everything is from the United States,” she said. “Typically, it has been very easy. But as I say this running into this weekend, UPS has lost five pallets. Thirty 55-gallon barrels.”

“I use two primary resources that are very eco-friendly, they are all accredited so they do a great job of getting our products to us. Everything is in bulk. Barrels,” she said. “We’re very bare out front (in the store display area) and this is when I desperately need it and our barrels are in who knows where. The last time I checked they were in Sacramento.”

“I was laughingly telling some of my franchisees that we were going to have to go back to the way I used to do it. That’s cut the block of palm up, cut the block of cocoanut up, and they’re all like, that will take forever and I was like, that is how I used to make soap,” she said. “I made it easy for you because I master batch everything.”

She has a supplier that master batches her recipes for them. “So they have it super easy. They don’t understand the struggle I was having for two years where I was just cutting it off the block myself, melting it down and making my loaves,” she said. “They were like, wow, are we going to have to do that? I was like, yeah, that’s how we used to make soap.”

“As I grew and realized time is money, it became a need for master batching and the distributor takes my recipe and makes my barrels. We heat it and pump it and that’s how we pour our soap now,” she said.

Planning to offer hand sanitizer was a fortunate coincidence

One of her most successful products this year came through serendipity.

“Funny story about hand sanitizers,” she said. “In January I had bulked up on alcohol, aloe vera, witch hazel and some more of the other ingredients that we use in our sanitizer. I was, well, we will roll that out in June or July. This was before anybody knew anything about a pandemic.”

“And then, boom, the pandemic hit and kind of forced my hand and I launched our hand sanitizer much sooner than anticipated but it was just a blessing,” she said. “So there we were and we sold thousands and thousands and thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer during this whole thing. And we were able to keep open being an essential business because of the hand sanitizer.”

“We were providing hand sanitizer to doctors’ offices, for nursing homes, for police stations. I mean, people couldn’t get it, we had it,” she said. “Our soap is anti-bacterial as well so that was a great thing for us. During this pandemic Magnolia Soap has grown.”

Medicinal benefits more important than look and smell

While she wants her products to look and smell good, her primary concern is the medicinal value it has and what it can do for one’s skin.

“One of our main customers in Tupelo is OB-GYN Associates,” she said. “It’s great for your skin, regulating your pH so they always recommend our products. It’s great for moms concerned about what they are putting on their skin because anything you put on your skin goes in. It’s all hypo-allergenic. Almost all the nurses and doctors around here use my products and they buy them for their employees for presents.”

You always know you’re in a Magnolia Soap & Bath

Magen is a firm believer about the power of branding.

All her stores appear the same as much as possible. “We have eight features that have to be duplicated and replicated at all the stores,” she said. “Essentially you are walking into the same store. I want you to be able to say you know you’re walking into a Magnolia store.”

The only variation at each store is a local table that is specific to that area, or maybe they want to test colloidal oatmeal in their soap that would be on their local table.

“We knew when we started that we were going to try to do this to a grander scale and more than anything I wanted that if I was in Oklahoma the name Magnolia brought you back to the southern state of Mississippi,” she said. “That’s where name Magnolia came from, because no matter where we grow to (we’ve already signed a franchise in San Antonio) they’re going to know it started with Magnolia.”

They see growth ahead

“We have great plans for growth. We’re not stopping. We’re going to keep going. Can’t wait to make Magnolia a household name. More so than it already is,” she said.

Their plans appear to be working. They are very active online with Magnolia products in nearly 600 boutiques, physicians’ offices and other types of businesses. “We go to the big shows in Dallas, Atlanta and we’re going to Vegas,” she said, which garners more distributors and potential franchisees.

Magnolia Soap is not sold on Amazon.

“We’ve been approached by Amazon, it’s just not something I want to do right now,” she said. “Amazon is our biggest competitor. That’s putting local business and small business out of business because everybody is sourcing Amazon, so we’re not going to go there. I’m not going to do Amazon.”

“It would grow my business, probably tremendously, and it would be a great thing to get my name out nationwide but at the same time I don’t want to do that,” she said. “Again, I’m really big on supporting local businesses.”

Even though she has no interest in Amazon, that doesn’t mean she won’t branch out on her own.

Ice cream and crawdads

In addition to soap and bath products, she is also into ice cream and “mud bugs.”

Magnolia Creamery specializes in artisan ice cream, gourmet milkshakes and specialty snow cones. Southern Bugz is crayfish and other seafood, with both vendors operating out of mobile trailers.

Southern Bugz has been around about five years, owned and operated by her husband, father and brother out of Tupelo, she said.

“The creamery came about because I found a really cute trailer,” she said. “We found one and converted it to a snow cone and shake. We make these big giants shakes that everybody raves about nowadays.”

“And so that kind of started that and we duplicated it and now we have eight in our fleet,” she continued. “We have popped them up at several events already, right in front of this store for Tallahatchie (RiverFest).”

They haven’t been in New Albany more because, “I don’t really want to step on anyone’s toes that already has a snow cone business here,” she said. They are more likely to be seen in Tupelo, Oxford, Southaven and Pontotoc. There will be eight, spread out, she said.

“We want to bring them in with our brand. Popping them out when we open our stores, you know,” she said. “Kind of fun.”

An unfulfilled wish

Is there anything else Magen might like to try her hand at?

“I’ll be quite honest. I was originally a car girl,” she said (She drives a Porsche Panamera, her “baby”). “I was in the car industry before. I did finance for several dealerships in Tupelo and then I went to Memphis and worked with the Gossett industry for several years,” she said. “But I would like to get back in the car industry of some sort. That’s secretly the only thing I haven’t checked off my list. There’s a lot of money to be made in that.”

“Toyota is my heart,” she said, and added she has a special love for the Lexus, her car of choice for many years, so there could be a dealership somewhere down the road. “I love fast cars,” she added.

For her, success means being there

Sometimes employees ask her why she’s still out there in the store making bath bombs with them and she refers to what she learned in the auto industry.

“It makes a difference. It makes all the difference if the owner is not present,” she said. “So that’s something I learned early on in the car industry. To be a good leader, you gotta lead. You’ve gotta lead from the front but also have to teach and make sure they’re doing it better than you could.”

“That’s my personality anyway. I’m super hands-on and I want to know every detail to the point where it’s almost a fault, too, because I’m too involved,” she said. “My business coach told me I’ve got to be the CEO and stop being the janitor. Not me. I want to be out there. If it needs cleaning I will clean it, if it needs fixing I will fix it.”

“Right now, I’m kind of wearing the hat for everything. CEO, research development, marketing, franchising. You know it’s happened so fast,” she said. “We are bumping and going and we’re just working through it. With the growth it’s a blessing and it’s also something that we’ve had to adjust to.”

Her company has grown 700 percent, according to her CPA, she said.

“I’m the kind of personality I’m never going to say too fast or not enough or this is too much. I just always figure out a way to fix it or make it better. So to me it’s never too much, it’s just figuring out how to get to the next level.”

Company success tied to increased concerns about body health

As to what makes Magnolia Soap products so popular:

“I think people in general are more cognitive of what they are putting on their skin,” she said. “And plant-based ingredients are great for everyone from a baby on to senior adults, so with our having plant-based and all natural products it’s really a no-brainer and its’ supporting little business too. They smell great, they feel great, they make your skin feel great.”

And good marketing doesn’t hurt. The store and products are colorful and the place is filled with enticing aromas.

“We want to engage all your senses so when you walk in you can touch, we want you to smell, we want you to see and even with your hands and touching you can come back here and help us make a batch of bath bombs,” she said. “When we’re making a batch of bath bombs, we love to grab the kids and have them help make a bath bomb. We really just want to engage all your senses and make it an experience. They’re going to hear the machines and all the fun and laughter.”

Shoppers can watch, try samples if they are unsure, and the store can even host soap-making parties.

She also attributes success to “a really great staff.” “And all our employees stay with us,” she said. “We don’t have a really great turnover. This is a fun job to come to. This is a fun thing to do every day to make all these products. Most everyone here has been here from the beginning. I harp on them about customer service. I want to be the Chick-fil-A of retail.”

Now, she has 18-20 employees in New Albany and about 60 throughout the whole organization.

Those numbers will grow soon because she plans to open six more corporate stores to add to the six she owns herself now. And if financial interest is a sign of success she is succeeding there as well.

Franchises appear to be growing rapidly

“My inbox if full daily of people who are interested in franchises,” she said. “We are being very selective. I mean basically I have to marry these people because they are representing my brand wherever they may be, so I am very selective on who I am allowing in and even more so after being involved with some franchisees.”

“I have to be more cautious because, frankly, this is my brand that we’ve built for years and our name is attached to it and it’s so imperative that we all have the same values and ideas for moving forward.”

They certainly are moving forward.

 

Magnolia Soap and Bath Co. is at 103 West Bankhead St. in New Albany. Their telephone number is 662-539-1051. People can also shop online at magnoliasoapandbath.com. The web site has an extensive product listing as well as pertinent on-line ordering and shipping information as well as further information about the company.

The store hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

 

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