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Modern institute turns to medieval business model


A local institute is offering Montanans the opportunity to join a very old approach to business, with a new twist.

Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky of the North American Rural Futures Institute, located on the Montana State University-Northern campus, have created Big Sky Chandlers, a Montana unit of Michael and Lynette Richards' Chandler Guild.

The Richardses, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are candlemakers who "decided it was time to reinvent. What was old is new again," Salmons said.

Members of the guild, based on a medieval form of craft organization, sell candles made from soybean wax in their homes. The wax, called Soyawax, was invented by Michael Richards. Guild members will use the Internet as their guild meeting hall.

Salmons and Babitsky said the guild form of business is self-organizing and self-managing, with the members of the guild helping each other and maintaining quality control because it is in their best interest.

As a home-based business, it requires little initial overhead, they said. The materials for the candles are manufactured by Cargill Inc. and distributed by Candleworks, the Richardses' business.

Candleworks grossed more than $1 million in 1998, employing about 30 people. Salmons said the Richardses are now working on moving from factory-based manufacturing to a home-based model. The guild, started in 2002, has more than 60 members with about 30 percent in Iowa, Salmons said.

The couple said they believe the guild can grow into a multi-million-dollar industry with 2,000 members across the country, but that that will take time.

"We don't want to discourage people, but we want people to understand that we can't work miracles overnight," Salmons said.

The chandlers will market their products to local stores, like grocery stores and gift shops. Eventually, the guild could coordinate filling large orders.

If a guild member takes an order for 2 million candles, the member can use the guild network to find out who can help fill the order, Babitsky said.

Babitsky and Salmons want to select a core membership for Big Sky Chandlers - four to six people who are "go-getters, focused and interested," Babitsky said.

The number of members in each community will have to be small to begin with, to avoid competing for the same markets, they said. As sales increase, the numbers will increase.

"You have to start small and have some successes you can point to," she said.

"We have to go after challenges, but not unreachable challenges," Salmons said.

Once a successful model is in place for the Chandler Guild, that model can be used for other products and ideas for businesses, Babitsky said.

"You need a first-of-a-kind," Salmons said.

The members of Big Sky Chandlers should reflect the rich diversity of backgrounds in the state, Salmons said.

A box of four candles might contain one candle made in a town, one from a farm or ranch, one from a Hutterite colony and one from an Indian reservation. The box would have slips of paper telling the story of each candle manufacturer.

The story of the chandler is a key to the business, Salmons said.

"It turns out that what people are looking for more and more is the community," he said. "It involves the heart, not just the mind."

"It will appeal to their personal side instead of just their pocketbook," Babitsky added.

Salmons and Babitsky moved to Havre in January from Raleigh, N.C. Babitsky started working as director of NARFI, and Salmons took an unpaid position as entrepreneur and futurist-in-residence at the institute. The couple moved their nonprofit research laboratory, Sohodojo, and their consulting firm, JFS Consulting Inc., to Havre with them.

The goal of Sohodojo is to help single-person or family-based entrepreneurism succeed in the modern economy.

NARFI, authorized by the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education in July 2001, is a research institute formed to identify and implement ways for rural areas and distressed urban areas to create a viable, sustainable future using modern ideas, technology and trends.

The work of NARFI and Sohodojo fit the goals of the Richardses, who Salmons describe as "social entrepreneurs. They're not trying to get rich or famous. They're trying to make a difference in the world."

The Richardses formed Candleworks in 1991, making beeswax candles in their apartment in New York City. As the orders for their products grew, they hired homeless and out-of-work people to make the candles.

Responding to a demand for organic candles, as opposed to petroleum-derived paraffin candles, Michael Richards began experimenting with making wax out of vegetable oils. Beeswax candles are about nine times as expensive to make as paraffin candles.

Richards eventually came up with several formulas using soybean oil as a primary ingredient. The wax, which Richards says is better than paraffin in several ways, costs about the same as paraffin.

Michael Richards contacted Salmons and Babitsky to discuss using the Internet for the Chandler Guild after he and his wife saw the Sohodojo Web site.

"He's not a computer guy, an Internet guy. He's an entrepreneur," Babitsky said.

The two teams announced their partnership on March 5 at a conference held in Iowa to investigate changing the dynamics of that state's economy to focus on the "creative class."

Richard Florida, a special guest at the conference, says in his book "Rise of the Creative Class" that the dynamics of the U.S. economy are changing, with more people moving into jobs with a creative element. Those jobs range from artists and writers to planners and engineers to hair stylists, Florida says.

Florida's research shows that the population of the creative class has "exploded." While only about 10 percent of the workforce was in that class in 1900, and 20 percent in 1980, it now makes up more than 30 percent of the workforce, he wrote in an article for the Washington Monthly this month.

This "creative class" also is looking for something different from the economy, Florida says. Instead of just looking for the highest-paying job with the best benefits, members of the creative class are willing to receive less pay to have a job and lifestyle they enjoy, he says.

For more information, e-mail Salmons and Babitsky at [email protected]; or call them at 265-6354.

On the Net: North American Rural Futures Institute: http://www.narfi.org

Sohodojo: http://www.sohodojo.org

Chandler Guild: http://www.chandlerguild.com

Soyawax: http://www.soyawax.com


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