Amy Mike burning her candle at both ends, and loving it
By SOPHIA RUFFIN
Amy Mike's love for mixing things, whether it is hair care products or triple-scented candle wax, has made her one of Thibodaux's most notable business leaders.
As a young stylist 15 years ago, Mike opened Amy's Beauty Salon in her hometown. In 1999, she decided to hang up her curling iron, instead opting to try her hand at candle-making full-time. That's when Amy's Country Candles got its start.
Today, she operates nine outlets across south Louisiana - in Baton Rouge, Covington, Thibodaux and Houma - as well as an Internet store (www.amyscountrycandles.com) and a candle-making factory in Thibodaux. Add to that, the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans exclusively uses and sells her "Gardenia" scene in its hotel.
Ironically, Mike initially offered the candle-making idea to a customer looking for a career change. When he passed on the business idea, the stylist-turned-candlemaker decided to act on her own advice.
"On that particular day, we were talking about him possibly making a career move. The first thing that came to my mind was candle-making," Mike said. "He thought it was a good idea. He presented it to his wife and she flat out told him, 'No way!'"
"I thought it was a good idea, so I researched it and started preparing to move into the market."
Mike tried balancing hair styling and candle-making simultaneously in the beginning, but it quickly proved too much to run a startup and keep a full-time job. And candle-making offered the veteran business owner the most stability.
"I was making candles at night and cutting hair in the morning," she said. "But there was not enough time in the day to do both. I had to choose one of the other, so I chose candle-making."
The decision, she said, was literally a blessing.
"After I closed my salon, I threw myself into making candles full-time. I began to host home candle parties and, by the end of my second year in business, I had the majority of my retail stores in place."
In fact, her speedy track record earned her the coveted Governor's Lantern Award in 2002. The business award is given to proprietors with groundbreaking success in their beginning years.
Mike's main goal was to hit the ground running. Step one, she said, was finding the right people to create and market her product. "It takes a good team of people to make a store successful," she said. With the right manpower mix, it was time to turn her attention to candle blends.
Amy's Country Candles offers 54 scents. Her district manager, Corrissa Lorgé, said Amy's stand above the rest because each candle is hand-poured with triple the amount of scent than regular candles.
"Amy always researches her product before she releases a scent because she wants her customers to have the very best," Lorgé said.
That was what caught the attention of the Ritz Carlton's New Orleans management.
"It says something when a big name business like the Ritz Carlton wants to use your product," Mike said. "I am so elated by that."
On the homefront, Amy's most popular scent is "Vanilla Sugar Cookie." The scent's soaring sales have made it the store's Candle of the Month for July 2008. Her scents "Bird of Paradise" and "Clean Cotton" come in a close second to the top seller.
Mike said her creative juices never stop flowing; she is always in the factory trying her hand to create new scents. She just released "Wedding Cake," her newest scent addition.
Unfortunately, like any business, the price of success comes with some downfalls. Mike said the stress and responsibilities of owning a business took a toll on her physically and mentally three years ago after the death of her husband Joey Mike.
"I had to remember that I was not doing this for myself; I was doing it for my children, Sonny and T.C., and my community," Mike said. "Because at the end of the day, the money I make is not mine, it belongs to God."
In fact, Mike's generosity has earned her a reputation in the Tri-parishes. The biggest recipient of her generosity has been the MacDonnell House in Houma. "We have to take care of our children because they are the leaders of tomorrow," she said.
Mike is in the process of creating her own seafood dip, Amy's Country Seafood Dip, which will be sold at all Rouses Supermarket locations. Proceeds from dip sales will go toward building a girls' dormitory at MacDonell House.
"It's not our money, it is God's money, so do something for others and not yourself all the time," Mike said. "I am sending out a challenge to other businesses to get involved with the community to do the same."
What Started out as a small business venture for one Thibodaux woman, has evolved into a seven-location business providing scents to many lives.
Business that makes “scents”
By Eric Pellegrin
Because of the growth of her business, Amy Lassere Keplinger, owner of Amy’s Country Candles, has been recognized as the Louisiana as the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) 2002 Lantern Award Winner for District 3.
“I started out in my utility room. I was cutting hair all day and doing candles at night,” she recalls. “It ‘s so good how God has blessed me.
Keplinger, former owner of Amy’s Beauty Shop, said because of the demand for her business, she closed her shop and began working on her candle business full time.
“If you stick to it, it is amazing what you can accomplish,” the mother of two (daughter and son) – Sonny, 9, and T.C., 11 – said, “Successful people get what they deserve. They are successful with hard work and dedication.”
Keplinger presently has locations in Thibodaux, Houma, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Because of their success, she is making plans to open a new store in Lafayette and to expand her worldwide business to include the Internet soon.
“We already ship worldwide,” she said. “We have people that order from all over the world, because everybody loves a good smell.”
The Thibodaux Chamber of Commerce recommended Keplinger for the recent state honor.
Kathy Terracina, executive director of the chamber, said, “Amy started her business as a small venture. Then she moved her business from her house and opened a warehouse and a store.
“Her employee-base has grown over the past three years,” Terracina said. “She has made tremendous economic growth in just three years.”
Terricina said Keplinger’s selection for the honor is important to the community.
“ This is the first time in about 10years that the Thibodaux Chamber’s nominee has won,” Terricina said. “In the early 90’s we nominated Cameco and they won.
LED, in cooperation with the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry are the co-presenters of the awards.The Louisiana Industrial Development Executives Association and BellSouth are the sponsors.
Keplinger will be among the recognized Tuesday at a luncheon at the Camelot Club in Baton Rouge and at a reception at the Governor’s Mansion.
Amy’s Country Candles will represent district 3, which includes six parishes in southern Louisiana.
“Amy Country Candles grew from three employees in a small utility room to a retail chain with seven locations and 30 employees,” said LED secretary Don Hutchinson in a press release announcing the business’s selection.“Amy participates in craft shows all year round, and she ships her candles all around the world. We are indeed proud to recognize Amy Keplinger, owner and president, as one of the outstanding manufactures in the state.”
Keplinger said that her family and employees have been supportive of her business. Her father, Rocky Lassere, delivers for the company while her mother, Clara Andras, works in the Thibodaux store. Mary Andrus, the district manager, helps to oversee the seven stores, and Karen Ledet, general manager for the company, oversees production at the warehouse.
“Without these good people, we would not be so successful, “ Keplinger, said. “God has just truly blessed me.”
Andras says she enjoys operating the Thibodaux store and working with the people.
“I like everything about the candles business,” she said. “The candles are awesome. The scents stay in the candles and it burns evenly.”
Andras said, “They are the best candles on earth. This is just a great team of people working together.”
The business, along with the seven other award-winning manufactures were chosen by the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry based on growth in number of employees, expansion of their facilities, involvement in the community and being in operation for at least three years.
BusinessNews & Tri-Parish Times
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.