Lauren Polito might not have a job right now if it weren't for one delayed flight.
This past summer, she was at the airport waiting to board a plane to France for her family's summer vacation. Her flight was delayed once and then twice and eventually she found out she wasn't taking off at all. She'd have to leave the next day instead, so she went home.
When she got there, her phone rang. Frank Weeden, a longtime friend and the founder of a company that manufactures high-end, striped candles out of Trenton, had been suffering from pancreatic cancer for some time and was finally looking to step down and spend the remainder of his life making art instead of running a business.
He wanted Polito to take over his company, Fivestripes, and the production of its signature product line known as Ana Candles.
For Polito, who had worked in the bond market in New York before becoming a stay-at-home mom, it was the right call at exactly the right time.
"During the time that I was home with my children, I knew I eventually wanted to go back to work," Polito said. "It's a huge change, and I couldn't be happier."
The company she inherited has ignited a passion in her that she never knew in the bond market, a job she liked but never really loved.
That has translated into early successes for Fivestripes, which, under Polito's leadership, is scoring coverage in magazines and on TV and is branching out beyond the company's striped candle comfort zone.
Ana Candles have developed a loyal following over the past two decades, with shoppers eager to pay $24 to $26 for a pair of striped tapers or one chunky pillar. Weeden started making them out of his basement in 1994, inspired by the fact that no one up until then had ever made a striped candle, Polito said.
A sculptor and machinist, Weeden created custom machines that would bring his striped creations to life, a process that has been constantly tweaked and perfected over the past 19 years.
The five-person company has experimented with wick lengths and wax types and even the depth of the divot in the top of the candle, Polito explained. The stripes are painstakingly added by carving out chunks of candle and pouring new wax in to fill the gaps.
Each candle is shaved and smoothed by hand, one at a time, to suit the strict quality standards of one of Fivestripes' longtime and most discerning employees.
But while Weeden was focused strictly on style and quality, Polito has been thinking business since the moment she arrived.
"Frank was a true artist, and his passion was being in the factory making candles, and the business side, it didn't appeal to him as much," Polito said. "All it needed was to get the word out a little bit more."
The company is largely a wholesaler, selling candles to small boutiques. Fivestripes opens its warehouse to the public twice a year as a way of clearing out leftover inventory, but its most recent retail push has been selling through its website.
Polito said the website carries other brands and products in addition to the Ana Candles line, but it could be an outlet to expand its own brand, as well.
She just received the prototypes for a new tabletop line she hopes to bring into the fold at Fivestripes, with products such as napkins and placemats that keep with the company's signature striped theme.
"My goal for 2014 is, number one, to start establishing our own brands," Polito said. "And (two), just getting the word out about the company because that's what's been lacking over the last couple of years."
That marketing will be critical in pushing sales to a new level, she said, and her efforts over the past five months have already produced "unbelievable" results.
She hired a PR firm, and Ana Candles have now earned a spot in Martha Stewart's American Made marketplace and coverage in multiple magazines. Polito is also in talks with several TV shows, which are considering running segments on the striped candle manufacturer.
Polito also has turned her attention to the Internet and social media. In November, she started running targeted ads online, and that month, the company did four times the sales they did in November of last year, she said.
Now, with the holiday season being the busiest in the candle industry, the company is producing 600 taper candles — the kind that sit in a candelabra — a day. Sales for the month are already projected to far surpass what the company did at this time last year, she said.
"Because it's such a great product, it's been very easy to market," Polito said. "When you see these candles in person, it's dramatic and it's like nothing you've ever seen before."
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