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Money smells sweet in Heber Springs.

Aromatique's Patti Upton Turned the Fresh Fragrances of Arkansas Into a $62 Million Business

IT WILL BE 10 YEARS AGO this Christmas since Patti Upton gathered up acorns, gum balls and hickory nuts from the Heber Springs hills, added bay leaves and berries, mixed them with season-evoking scents and unknowingly laid the cornerstone for a multimillion dollar empire.

That's how Aromatique, the company she founded in 1982, got its start.

It is a story Upton has told until she's blue in the face, but the charismatic former fashion model and University of Arkansas beauty queen did not seem to mind retelling it during a recent interview at her company's corporate headquarters in Heber Springs.

Originally, her creation was intended simply as a whimsical Christmas decoration for friend Sandra Horne's gift shop. But the look and pungent smell of the mixture captured the fancy, and nostrils, of customers who began asking to buy it.

An experienced retailer, Horne was inclined to give the customers what they wanted.

So, Upton went to work stirring up more of the colorful, fragrant mixture in her kitchen. Friends and family chuckled at the notion of selling the stuff, but an undaunted Upton followed her nose.

Look where it's led her.

What began in her kitchen is now a company that markets more than 200 products that can be bought in 5,000 stores in 27 countries.

Aromatique operates out of 14 buildings in Heber Springs, where it employs almost 500 people. The company also has a New York office and an office and warehouse in London.

Top executives from Estee Lauder and Max Factor have joined the company in key national and international positions.

This year, retail sales are expected to reach the $62 million mark.

"After two months, I knew that it was going to be successful, but I had no earthly idea that the company would reach the heights it's reached today," Upton says.

That original mixture, named "The Smell of Christmas," is still Aromatique's flagship product. Its creation led to "The Smell of Spring" and 12 other room fragrance lines, which have spun off into candles, sculptures and other decorative items.

Although many would label as "potpourri" any dried, good-smelling melange of natural ingredients, at Aromatique it's called "decorative fragrance." It's a distinction that at first seems like pretense until the philosophy behind the label is explained.

"Potpourri is little mashed flowers," says Dianne Proctor, who is in charge of product development at Aromatique. "This is a larger visual. We try to match the visual to the fragrance more or less. We have a whole theme going in a product, not only the fragrance but the visual should match each other or have a correlation with each other."

Hence, "The Smell of Autumn" not only conjures up the smells you'd take in during a walk in the woods, but its mixture of gum balls, pine cones, pomegranates, marigolds and vibrantly colored leaves drive the point home visually.

A Family Affair

Patti Upton's right-hand man is her husband, Richard H. "Dick" Upton, whom Patti calls "the architect of Aromatique."

Along with Patti and Horne, a one-fourth partner in the business, Dick came in on the ground floor. A successful businessman himself, Dick is credited with teaching his wife a thing or two about business and letting her run with it.

"I certainly didn't know 10 years ago the first thing about business," says Patti, who met her husband at the University of Arkansas. She remembers those college days as lots of fun, though the end result wasn't a degree.

She belies her success now with humor about her nonchalance then toward classes.

She jokes that she told her parents, "If you'll just let me stay one more year, I'll buy books."

But Patti Upton honed design and fashion skills throughout college, experience that paid off with Aromatique.

Patti says her husband is a "behind the scenes" person who does the critical planning and projection for continued growth.

But, like his wife, he also has a creative flair and has co-authored a children's book that is making its debut this Christmas.

"The Search for The Smell of Christmas," written with Aromatique publicity director Sharon Fair, is about a big-nosed elf's search for the intangible smell of Christmas. It was written as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Patti's fragrant Christmas discovery.

In one of the Aromatique buildings in Heber Springs, Dr. J.A. Pulliam tries to remedy a problem with a spritzer on one of the production lines.

An inventive man, Pulliam's title is vice president of systems development. He is also Patti Upton's father.

His job is to improve Aromatique's production capabilities. Pulliam has developed much of the company's machinery himself because there wasn't equipment on the market to manufacture most of the company's one-of-a-kind products.

In fact, many of Aromatique's employees have had to make it up as they go along because of the trail-blazing nature of the business.

Numerous employees are longtime friends of the Uptons who joined the company when it still seemed like an experiment.

They've watched what essentially was a cottage industry grow into a company ranked No. 39 on Inc.'s 1988 list of the 500 fastest growing, privately held American companies.

For example, take Ronnie Fair, whose parents are friends of the Uptons. Not long after getting degrees in accounting and business administration, Fair was approached by Upton about doing some of her accounting.

"I started a little business and I want you to do my accounting work," Upton told Fair. "There's only one catch to it--you can't charge me anything because I don't have any money. But if I ever make any money, I'll take care of you then."

As the business took off, the Uptons made it official. They hired Fair as the company comptroller and placed him in charge of finances. Fair's wife, Sharon, joined the company a short time later as publicity director.

Chad Evans, a close friend of one of the Uptons' sons and now director of inventory control, began his career in similar fashion, gathering wood shavings part time. He now oversees the purchasing of materials, projecting sales and designing production schedules.

Dianne Proctor, the product development head, and her husband, Buddy, both found second careers with Aromatique when they moved to Heber Springs years ago to semi-retire. But Dianne Proctor decided she wanted to keep working and asked her friend, Patti, for a job.

Sitting in Dianne's office, the two women laugh as Patti recounts how she reacted to her friend's request.

"Dianne said she'd like a job and I said, 'Oh, I think not,'" Upton says with mock haughtiness. "We work at Aromatique. We don't play tennis. We don't stop when the fitness woman comes to get us all in shape. We work. I just couldn't fathom any of my friends hitting the grind the way I do."

But Proctor convinced Upton she didn't just want a job, but a career. Now she and Upton work closely together. They launched the company's successful bath line about a year and a half ago and are now refining a personal fragrance to be introduced in January.

Meanwhile, Buddy Proctor, who has a farming background, has pioneered Aromatique's process of freeze-drying roses to be sold as dried bouquets. The company is "almost cornering the market" in freeze-dried roses, Upton says.

She points out that many of the employees are doing something that is a departure from their work or education background, but she says the unique nature of the business lends itself to such custom learning.

"This is a business that you just wouldn't be trained to do," Upton says.

Not Just for Everyone

Judging by Aromatique's success, it would all seem so carefully orchestrated. Indeed, the company's marketing strategy is.

Prospective accounts are screened carefully. Aromatique executives look for store quality and ambiance, an "upper end" look that is conducive to the products.

Another must is prime floor space and a large display that includes open containers of the decorative fragrances so the customer can get the optimum effect by being able to see, feel and smell the product.

To assist in that end, Aromatique offers guidance through merchandising manuals and videos and occasional store visits by customer service representatives.

Suzan Ream, who oversees gift shop accounts for Aromatique, says the company is in "only about 5 percent of the retail gift shops throughout the United States, by choice."

The strategy makes sense, says Horne, Aromatique's vice president and director of marketing. Horne notes that good clients breed good customers.

The personalized approach Aromatique takes in serving its carefully chosen accounts pays off with loyalty by and large, Horne says. However, the company's desire to carefully control marketing does turn off some prospective clients.

"We've had people say, 'We just want to buy your products, not join your sorority,'" Horne says.

Upton, Horne and Ann Hill, director of major accounts, laugh about that analogy. They admit that often the relationships Aromatique forges with clients do resemble the close-knit ones of sorority sisters.

"Sometimes in the evenings, they call and say, 'I just need someone to talk to,'" says Hill.

Upton receives a fresh bag of the decorative fragrance each morning. She pours it into a large bowl that sits outside her office to ensure that all the necessary ingredients are there and that the bag has been properly filled.

"There were times when we thought, 'Well, are we crazy? Do you just open up the gate and let everybody have it?'" says Upton about the company's selective marketing.

"But we have found because our sales are up so much each year that we did do it the right way and just continue to make each account we have better, rather than having a huge number of accounts that you can't maintain."

Heber Springs' Head Honcho

Just as Upton hardly imagined her decorative fragrance could have such wide-ranging appeal, she surely could not have predicted that someday she would be Heber Springs' biggest employer.

The resort town of about 5,600 people has two other major employers -- Skil Corp. and Rohr Inc.

But Upton's Aromatique, with just under 500 employees, is the biggest.

That figure does not count workers added during peak periods or the casual workers who scour the hillsides for things that go into the decorative fragrances.

The company buys ingredients in bulk, and a commodity board outside one of the plants lists the day's prices. On one recent day, Aromatique was buying pine cones for 45 cents a pound and hickory nuts at 20 cents a pound.

Fair, the publicity director, says the commodity buying is popular with many of the residents, especially children, who see it as a fun way to make spending money.

"I can't say enough about what good corporate citizens they are," says Karen Moore, executive director of the Heber Springs Chamber of Commerce.

"And we're just thrilled to have such a unique product. It puts Heber Springs on the map, and ultimately that helps us promote tourism."

Upton does her share of promoting Heber Springs. She says she's always singing the area's praises to people in other parts of the country. Recently, that message found two new avenues.

Upton's success was the cover topic of a story in the Oct. 22 edition of "Washington Home" in The Washington Post, an article she says was motivated by the interest in things from Arkansas that has resulted from Gov. Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign.

She also recently hosted a crew from "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" that taped a segment on the Uptons' idyllic life at their home in Eden Isle, located three miles west of Heber Springs. The segment is expected to run sometime after the first of the year.

Upton said the request from "Lifestyles" to feature her way of life followed her acquaintance with host Robin Leach at a celebrity-studded party she attended as a board member of the Fragrance Foundation in New York.

Her retreat atop Greers Ferry Lake is one of the many things Upton clearly loves about her life. She says she tries to tell New York executives that she's living proof you don't have to choose between a thriving career and quality of life.

"Every morning that I wake up I have quality of life," Upton says. "That's not to say you're not stressed during the day but then you go home to that wonderful lake. It sort of has healing powers. It embraces you when you come home."

It's not hard to see why Upton, queen of her self-made fragrance fortune, and easily Arkansas' most successful female CEO, believes she leads a charmed life.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:growth of Aromatique plant fragrance firm in Heber Springs, Arkansas
Author:Martin, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Nov 9, 1992
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Next Article:They came, they saw, they spent.

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