The Marriage Failed. The Company Thrived.
Posted January 12, 2018 7:50 p.m. EST
SAN RAFAEL, CALIF. — It is a bright September day and I am standing in a 45,000-square-foot space in Marin County that was once the “Star Wars” studio of George Lucas and is now the home of EO Products. It is hard to imagine a high-tech film studio being converted into the production facility for an organic cosmetics company — one that features products like a mint-and-coconut soap and sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners. There is something implausible about the optics of it, if nothing else. Then again, there is something implausible about EO Products itself, beginning with its homegrown origins and the way that, more than two decades later, the company is run by Brad Black and Susan Griffin-Black, the couple who head it.
Make that former couple.
Yes, this is more than just a story about an entrepreneurial pair who, out of the humble beginnings of their San Francisco home, built what would become a $50 million enterprise, specializing in body, skin and hair care based on botanically derived essentials oils. It is the story of a couple who did all that while also going through a divorce.
Michael Funk, former chief executive of United Natural Foods, among the world’s largest wholesale distributors of natural and organic products, has known the couple from the beginning of their relationship — they met over a glass of wine at Friar Tuck’s in Nevada City, California — and says he has always been impressed by Brad and Susan’s “drive and integrity.” In a recent phone interview, Funk said he had seen “thousands of small suppliers coming through the door and five years later many of them aren’t around. You never know if who you meet is going to be one of those stories. Given where the two of them came from, which was a startup that didn’t have much financial backing, makes it even less likely.”
Perhaps had Funk known that the couple was whipping up a foaming shower gel containing an alternative to sodium laurel sulfate — an ingredient that some studies have linked to cancer, but without which it is difficult to create a lather — in the sort of 3-gallon stainless steel stockpots that you make soup in, he would have been even more skeptical about the odds of EO Products lasting over the long haul. (Black compares that experiment to an “I Love Lucy” moment.) But when the couple went from selling to mom-and-pop boutiques to winning a Whole Foods account in 2000, their position in the natural marketplace was solidified. Eventually the company became a cornerstone of the $3.7 trillion global wellness industry and paved the way for such competitors as the Honest Company and eos.
But let’s start at the beginning.
A Garage Turned Laboratory
The couple met in 1989, when they exchanged business cards — she was working in the U.S. offices of Neal’s Yard Remedies, a British organic skin care company; he was designing and manufacturing clothing made of organic cotton — and began having lunch. They were both in a series of on-and-off relationships during this period; Susan was recently divorced with a young son. The two were fast friends from the beginning but it would take a few years before they began dating.
In 1995, the couple married and started EO Products in their garage in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. (EO stands for essential oils, which are found in the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers and other parts of plants.) In the well-established tradition of hippie entrepreneurs and based on Griffin-Black’s interest in aromatherapy, they created a collection of four essential-oil mixes (“Relax,” “Refresh,” “Love” and “Calm”) for the holiday gift guide at Bloomingdale’s, where Susan had some professional contacts from her earlier clothing boutique business.
Their instincts — and the unexpected success of those oil mixes — told them there was a market that no one was fully exploiting. “We didn’t look at anyone else,” Griffin-Black said. “We just knew the ingredients we didn’t want to use. My own experience led the way more than the marketplace.” (Though, across the country in rural Maine, another hippie entrepreneur was having a similar epiphany: Roxanne Quimby, the founder of Burt’s Bees, was blending her boyfriend’s leftover beeswax into a lip balm.)
The Blacks eventually moved their work space from their garage and acquired HFI Labs, a private label manufacturer with the equipment and technological know-how to enable them to expand their product line. “We were always too small, or didn’t have enough money to partner with other manufacturers to drive innovation,” Mr. Black said. “We weren’t trust fund kids.”
They were married for 11 years; during that period they went from working on their own to hiring 35 employees. (Today they have 121.) They have a son, Mark, from Susan’s previous marriage, who is now in a rock band, and a daughter, Lucy, who was born in 1996. The couple share a mutual professional acumen — with Griffin-Black, 62, being more an Earth mother-type and Black, 55, the one who keeps a tight, “Shark Tank"-like rein on things — as well as a raft of personal eccentricities. Griffin-Black, who was raised Jewish in Pittsburgh, is the dedicated Buddhist with an abiding alchemical passion, mixing and brewing flower and plant essences in tiny glass bottles; she practices hot yoga daily. Brad, who hails from Wilton, Connecticut, likes to invoke large concepts, like 19th-century pre-industrialism and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” has abandoned Buddhism for more esoteric spiritual pursuits, like Philippine blood drawing rituals. He’s been known to bungee jump off bridges.
Although they were equal partners in running the company and were aligned in what Black refers to as their core values — “if you lead with kindness,” he said, “you’re not going to kick someone in the shins afterward” — they fell flat romantically. Despite couples therapy and intimate getaways, Griffin-Black said, “it got to be too much and we realized we couldn’t ‘have it all’ together.”
Here’s where things get interesting. For one thing, the couple’s relationship continued to flourish after they divorced in 2007: As co-chief executives, they continued to spend every day in each other’s presence, doing all of the things that married couples commit to: parenting, splitting finances, meaningfully communicating, confessing, forgiving, even occasionally touching. For another, and here’s the really curious part, EO Products took off in unexpected ways.
Whereas the usual story line would suggest that a divorce in such a situation would spell professional disaster — Michael Funk says that in his 40-something years he’s rarely seen it work — EO not only survived the Blacks’ very conscious uncoupling but gathered steam.
The line expanded and popped up in retail stores like Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and Target without any compromises made to transparency about their ingredients. “What I admire about EO is their commitment to using essential oils in spite of their being more expensive,” Quimby of Burt’s Bees said. “They’re willing to go for that level of quality.”
‘We’re a Package Deal at This Point’ As they led me on a walking tour of their offices, which they moved into in 2012 and, later, their manufacturing facility, Brad and Susan’s rapport seemed warm and relaxed, both with their employees and each other. Their work space is an open floor plan, painted white, with skylights, windows and plants scattered about. No one has an office except for Black, Griffin-Black, and the head of human resources. The couple’s own offices, across the hall from each other, are unprepossessing to the point of minimalism — equipped with a standing desk (for Griffin-Black) and a stool (Black), couches and various personal items, such as travel photos and Buddhist memorabilia.
As he walked around the office, Black took large steps forward, introducing employees by their first names and recounting how many years each had worked at the company. Griffin-Black was more reserved, smiling and nodding once in greeting. With each greeting, the desk workers wheeled around in their chairs to beam and wave at the co-bosses. (It’s unclear whether they know the person getting this tour is a reporter.)
Black is fond of making global statements while Griffin-Black sticks to the particulars. “One of our defining pillars as a company is to honor and respect people and the planet,” Black asserted as we wove through the loft-like space. “That philosophy starts at the ground up, and it defines our management style.”
Griffin-Black waited for Black to finish, something I noticed they reflexively did for each other, before adding, “Our products celebrate well-being and originality; they’re healthy and they nurture. It’s vital that that’s reflected in out company culture.”
These days, EO Products is one of the last large independently owned organic beauty companies; most of the cozy-sounding brands out there, like Kiss My Face, Burt’s Bees and Jason Organics, are owned by giant corporations. “They helped define a body care category that you’d define as ultra premium,” Funk said. “They’re a leading brand in their space and the two of them appear to be a healthy management team. It’s very impressive to witness that over the years.”
Five years ago the Blacks launched Everyone, a mass-market line. The idea for it came from their son Mark, who wanted a more budget-friendly option for him and his bandmates. (EO’s branded products range from $1.99 to $124.99.) Everyone has 75 products, some of them gallon-sized, ranging from $6.99 to $11.99; they incorporate a lower percentage of pure essential oils and are sold mostly at Target.
The issue of essential oils has become very au courant, with a recent article in The New Yorker detailing the extravagant claims made about their curative properties. The piece focused on two companies, Young Living and doTerra, based in Utah, which together do more than $1 billion in annual sales. Griffin-Black procures her oils from neither of them, preferring to source her oils directly from growers in Australia, Morocco and China.
“We have very specific properties of each oil that we buy and if it doesn’t adhere to them, we don’t buy them,” she told me. “The scent of the oils are also very personal — think of the differences between many Cabernet wines.”
Although she is a passionate, almost evangelical advocate of essential oils, she does not insist that they potentially replace half of Western medicine.
“Each oil has unique properties and has been used for thousands of years for medicine and perfume,” she said. “We do not recommend using internally without consulting a certified practitioner. There are many questionable claims being made and inaccurate information regarding usage for certain medical conditions which we think are careless and potentially dangerous.” After I walked around the factory and watch people wearing shower caps supervise the partially automated production line, in which green goop from a giant vat is poured into hundreds of perfectly lined-up bottles, Susan and Brad took me to their only stand-alone store, in nearby Mill Valley. There you can blend your own oils or refill your favorite coconut-and-lemon hand soap or lavender-infused body lotion, or, perchance, purchase a waffly Japanese washcloth.
We went on to dinner at Tamalpie, a casual, family-style restaurant serving homemade pizza and pasta that is owned by Griffin-Black’s younger sister, Karen Goldberg. As we sat over glasses of wine and talked about life, liberty and the pursuit of wellness, I was struck by the couple’s well-worn camaraderie and by a certain aura of renegade authenticity that both possess, despite their success.
Black, for all his talk of the business being “a living, breathing entity” is not beyond the candid throwaway remark that he would sell in a minute for the right price. Griffin-Black seems more attached to the substitute family they have created. “It’s been a lifelong journey to create a company that we wanted to work for that infuses our values into what we do and who we do it with every day,” she said.
Neither Black nor Griffin-Black have remarried, though both have been in a series of relationships since their breakup. (Griffin-Black has been with the same partner for nearly five years.) When asked whether it would shake things up if one of them did remarry, Griffin-Black has a ready response.
“I don’t think it would change the dynamic in a negative way,” she said confidently. “We are each other’s advisers and confidantes — including in each other’s romantic relationships. We’re a package deal at this point because we have kids together and we work together.” Indeed, I found myself thinking what an attractive team they make — he with his slightly surfer dude look and she with her polished yet leftover-hippie appeal — and how, step by step, they have taken a dream and made it grow 25 percent each year since 2012 without appearing to lose their souls (though Black’s casual comment about selling might give one pause).
It’s hard to imagine EO without them — or them without EO.