Being first has always been a boon to any business endeavor. Although not a guarantee for success, pioneering a new market in an area is a key ingredient of entrepreneurship.
No one knows that better than Amy Keplinger, founder of Amy's Country Candles. In just over two years the former hairstylist has transformed a small sideline candle making business into an international retail company.
"As Far as I know, I was the first person in the Tri-Parish area to make my own candles," Keplinger said. "I had suggested candle making to a friend as a small business startup idea. He never did anything with it, so I decided to give it a try myself."
Keplinger began making and selling her candles two years ago while still a hairstylist in Thibodaux. She made the candles in a small utility room and sold them in salon and at home parties.
Sales took off, and it wasn't long before Keplinger was adding on to her Thibodaux home to make room to warehouse her stock. She now has six retail outlets across Southeast Louisiana, with plans to more in the future.
She was even more recently nominated for the Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the Thibodaux Chamber of Commerce. Keplinger said one of the keys to her success is that she provides candles that cannot be bought anywhere else. Her personal recipes have been sought after all over the country and even world wide.
On top of that, Keplinger's shops provide an ambient atmosphere - a combination of aromas and mood music - that all compliment her unique product line.
When customers visit an Amy's Country Candles location for the first time, they are invited to try the store's numerous original scents at a smelling table.Surprising to many, Keplinger's customers are not strictly women. In fact, her male customers even have their own favorite scents, evidence of her ability to attract nontraditional candle shoppers.
However, it is Keplinger's tireless search for new candle recipes or a new way to present an existing product that keeps Amy's Country Candles ahead of its competition.
Keplinger does extensive research and testing to maintain the quality of her candles, as well as to discover pleasing new scents.
Candles are made from scratch in the warehouse and packaged in a variety of choices to fit the different needs of the customers. Amy's more than 35 different scented candles can be brought in a large jar or in various other sizes and containers.
Keplinger began selling candles as a small home business in August 1999. Eight months later, the business was large enough for Keplinger to open an outlet in the Southland Mall, which began a string of new shops. In June she opened a branch in Esplanade Mall in New Orleans, and two months later she opened a shop at 410 East 7th St. in Thibodaux.
That September, Keplinger gave up hairstyling to run the candle business fulltime. "It was hard to give up my loyal customers, but it was hard to keep up with both businesses," she explained.
The year 2001 saw Amy's Country Candles continuing its rapid expansion with three more stores -- one in Oakwood Mall in New Orleans, one in Cortana Mall in Baton Rouge, and finally a branch in the Rouses Supermarket on Martin Luther King.
In addition to retail outlets, Keplinger displays her wares at craft shows year round.
Keplinger said it has been a challenge to oversee the operations of such a quickly expanding business. Although she had experience operating her own hair salon, it never reached the scale of businesses that the candle shop is doing today.
Yet despite the business's rapid growth, Keplinger is careful not to bite off more than she can chew.
"We have to make sure the timing is right, " Keplinger said. "We don't want to overextend ourselves."
Amy's employs more than 30 people, including Keplinger's parents. Her mother, Clara Andras, manages the Thibodaux store and helps in the warehouse. Her father, Rocky Lassere, is the company's delivery man.
Keplinger is pleased with her overnight success, but she is not surprised. She attributes it all to hard work and plenty of faith in her maker, which she hopes will continue to lead her forward.
"I feel like I've been blessed by God," Keplinger said. With support like that, Keplinger knows that no competition can hold a candle to her.