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Beer Soap Puts Student Entrepreneur in the Spotlight

Beer Soap Puts Student Entrepreneur in the Spotlight February 5, 2010

Alumnus of ACM business program profiled on WLS-TV’s “190 North” show


“This college senior and founder of Grandma Gee’s soaps inherited the soap making gene a while back, but just two years ago started mixing and mastering the art in his apartment,” said WLS-TV’s Janet Davies, to open a recent segment on the Chicago station’s weekly “190 North” show. “Recently, Jim has gained notoriety in part to his popular beer soap.”

Jim GregoryJim Gregory on the set.

Notoriety, indeed. Jim Gregory’s beer soap, which he created for the Half Acre Beer Company on Chicago’s North Side, also has gained airtime on the city’s Fox Network affiliate and was featured in a Chicago Sun-Times article.

How did a student from a small college in southern Indiana crack the Chicago market?

Start with Gregory’s boundless energy and creativity, his drive to succeed, and a dash of inspiration. To that, add in the semester Gregory spent on the ACM Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society (BES) Program in Chicago, where he made some crucial contacts and got a crash course in how to grow his business. And to help blend the ingredients, Gregory had a mentor in BES Director Robyne Hart.

Can I use your kitchen?

Hart recalled the day in early January when, in the midst of a short visit to Chicago, Gregory got a call from a producer at “190 North” asking to schedule a photo shoot.

“We had lunch on Monday,” said Hart, “and later that afternoon Jim called me and said, ‘Can I use your kitchen?’ I said, ‘I thought you were going back to school.’ Then he said ‘A TV show wants to film me making soap, and I need a kitchen in Chicago for the shoot!'”

Hart said yes, of course. Gregory hopped in his car and drove through the night to his apartment in Madison, Indiana, to gather his soap making supplies. He returned to Chicago the next morning for two shoots – one at the Half Acre brewery store and the other at Hart’s condo for the soap making demonstration.

Soap ready to be packagedGrandma Gee’s soap ready to be packaged.

Gregory and Hart met three years ago at Hanover College, where she was Director of the college’s Center for Business Preparation. “Jim had just started on a small scale making soap in his dorm room,” said Hart. “I think he always thought there might be something to it, but didn’t know how to go about it. It was just more of a hobby.”

Hart helped get the ball rolling with a bit of basic marketing. “Robyne told all the faculty ‘you’ve got to buy this soap,'” said Gregory. “Everybody started buying it and giving me suggestions. I just listened to what people were saying, and pretty soon I was making a business out of it.”

When Hart was named Director of ACM’s new business program, one of the three Chicago Programs, she suggested to Gregory that he consider participating in the program’s inaugural semester in fall 2008. Gregory jumped at the chance.

A bar of soap and a business card

On the ACM Business, Society, & Entrepreneurship program, students get a well-rounded view of what goes into launching a business, from market research to writing a business plan. Through an internship and an independent study project, students have the flexibility to dig into their particular interests. For Gregory, that meant learning how to take his business, Grandma Gee’s Handmade Soaps, to a new level.

“Jim tried to hone in on the marketing,” said Hart. “He did focus groups, he did some surveys, he did a lot of reading.” His internship at a local apothecary shop which is known for its large inventory of health and beauty products – including a wide variety of artisan soaps – proved to be pivotal.

BES group in fall 2008Robyne Hart (left) with BES students in fall 2008, including Jim Gregory (center).

“The supervisor of his internship (gave) him constant feedback about packaging, positioning, and what it would take to get his soap into a store,” said Hart. “Jim was able to see behind the scenes, working with someone from that side (of the business). He was able  to see the entire process of a large scale distribution organization – not simply making the soap and what he touches, but what would be required if he ever gets large enough that he doesn’t have to sell the soap himself.”

Gregory never missed an opportunity to network. For the program’s seminar, “Entrepreneurship and Innovation,” Hart regularly brings in businesspeople and entrepreneurs to talk with the students. “Jim was notorious,” she said. “Every time we would meet with any kind of entrepreneur, he would have a bar of soap to give them, along with his business card.”

Meanwhile, during any spare moments, Gregory was making soap in his small apartment, perfecting his craft and developing new varieties. Part of the walk-in closet was used for its intended purpose, and the remainder served as a soap factory. “I had a very understanding roommate,” said Gregory. “He was fascinated by the process, the smells, and me mixing soap on our stove.”

Jim grinds menthol, an ingredient in his beer soap.

During the course of the semester, Gregory began to think in terms of a different business model. “There are thousands of soap makers out there, and I’m sure that retailers are flooded with a lot of soap products,” Gregory noted. “I started thinking about it, and thought ‘why don’t I just let them make their own customized soap?'”

One day the seminar guest was Gabriel Magliaro, a co-owner of Half Acre, a start-up microbrewery. Gregory handed him a business card and a bar of soap. Magliaro was intrigued, and about a year later, after a lot of product development, beer soap hit the shelves of the Half Acre store. The media buzz started up within days.

“Chicago really changed my life,” said Gregory. “It’s a very busy city, like New York, but people are just a little more laid back. They’ll talk to you. They won’t slam the door in your face…. It’s a very warm city despite the winters.” Gregory plans to move to Chicago after he graduates this spring.

The best $%&! soap on the planet

Gregory has continued to expand his repertoire of customized soaps. Madison, Indiana, where he lives, draws a steady flow of tourists to the shops in its historic downtown along the Ohio River.

Grandma Gee's boothJim in the Grandma Gee’s booth.

Several merchants carry Grandma Gee’s soaps, and Gregory has developed private label soaps for local businesses, including a chocolate soap for a chocolatier. He also sells Grandma Gee’s soaps online.

The company’s name is a tribute to Gregory’s grandmother, who grew up making soap during the Depression and gave her grandson his first taste of the art. Not long after he started Grandma Gee’s, she passed away.

“That’s what really pushed me forward, seeing my grandmother pass and knowing that I had started a soap company with her in mind,” said Gregory. “I put all my heart and soul into making soap. My grandmother told me – and you have to understand my grandmother’s like one of these fighting Irish types – she said ‘Jim, make the best damn bar of soap on the planet.’ I really stuck to that. I’m hardheaded and stubborn, and I haven’t given up on that vision.”

On the front of each package of Grandma Gee’s soap is this inscription: “Warning: Package contains the best $%&! soap on the planet.”

The shoot and a deep breath

Preparing for the arrival of the TV crew, Gregory set up the kitchen like a cooking show – ingredients pre-measured and batches of soap at different stages of production to provide the “just out of the oven” flourish.

“When they get here, what’s the plan?” Hart asked. “Are you going to tell them what these things are? What are you going to do?”

“They’re probably going to ask about the different kinds of soap, so I’ll show them all these bars,” Gregory replied, gesturing to a pyramid of soaps on the counter – Mango Madness, Parisian Pear, Half Acre beer soap. “They’ll ask how the soap is made, and I’ll show them – here’s the beer solution, here’s the coconut oil and the safflower oil, heat the oils up and pour in the lye solution.”

The TV crew arrived, announced by the barking of Hart’s friendly Australian shepherd. As the lighting and camera angles were tested, producer Rubye Wilson talked with Gregory about the set up and the sequencing of the shoot. “As soon as he gets (the camera) up and running, we’ll start with step one and you can walk us through the process,” said Wilson.

After a few takes and some close-ups of beer bottles and bars of soap, the crew packed up their gear and headed out the door, each with a business card and bar of Grandma Gee’s soap in hand.

“I’m glad this is over,” said Gregory, “so I can take a deep breath now.” Knowing Gregory, it will be one – and only one – deep breath, and then he will dive right back into the deep end of the entrepreneurial pool.


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