BRUNSWICK, Maine — It's been nearly a decade, but George G. Bean still remembers the night a skunk sprayed his two Great Danes, an assault that helped put the sweet smell of success into his backyard business.
Bean tried "everything in the book"--from tomato juice to vinegar--but had little success in neutralizing the skunk odor that wafted from the huge dogs, clinging to everything they rubbed against.
"They wanted to roll on the Oriental rugs," he recalled in horror.
Combining his chemist's training with a desire to mobilize for future skunk attacks, Bean set to work in an attempt to develop a formula that would eradicate the problem.
After three years of experimentation, he came up with a basic formula that would not irritate skin. His final step put the active ingredients in solution in water, yielding a product that remains chemically stable for indefinite periods.
The resulting product was dubbed Skunk-Kleen, and Bean initially sold it through hardware and drug stores. It wasn't until six months later that he realized he had overlooked pet shops, which now account for the biggest portion of his sales.
"Suddenly I looked up and I had a great big market I never knew before," he said.
It wasn't long before Skunk-Kleen gave rise to a series of related deodorizing products, such as Fish-Kleen, to neutralize seafood odors, and Smoke-Kleen, aimed at ridding rooms of tobacco and other smoke.
Bean keeps his formulas for the products under wraps, as he does sales figures for his company, G. G. Bean Inc.
While the similarity in names between G. G. Bean Inc. and L. L. Bean Inc. is purely coincidental, Bean is proud that the world-famous camping outfitter in neighboring Freeport is among the stores that stock and sell Skunk-Kleen.
Bean says sales are so brisk he may be forced to expand beyond the modest factory-workshop he built across from his seaside home four years ago.
Doubling Business Yearly
"We're doubling our business each year, and this year we're practically tripling it," he says. Three larger companies have contacted him with buy-out offers, but the white-haired entrepreneur says that at this point, he's not interested.
"I enjoy the business. If I didn't like it, I'd get out."
Bean doesn't talk about his age, but his success in the odor-killing business comes at a time in his life when most of his contemporaries are already enjoying retirement.
A self-described tinkerer, who studied chemistry at Bowdoin College but who lacked the money to fulfill his ambition to go on to medical school, Bean worked in the vending-machine business and owned a couple of diners.
From there, he looked for a business he could start from scratch. His first products were Magic Pellets--"you put two of them in a salt shaker and the salt never sticks"--and Visarctronic, a condenser designed to make lawn mowers run better.
He later switched production to a line of deodorizing and cleaning tablets for humidifiers, dishwashers and holding tanks. But it wasn't until 1980, with the emergence of Skunk-Kleen, that the business really took off.
Bean now puts out a total of 11 products, but he's always pondering new possibilities and spinoffs. The latest addition, a deodorizer earmarked for the nursing-home market, is being introduced in Canada.
Stickler for Quality
Bean describes himself as a stickler for quality. He mixes his products in small batches and tests them frequently to make sure they measure up to standards.
"Quality is everything," he insists. "The secret of my business is that all my products work. They work simply and easily. And they are odorless."
Much of the machinery in his factory was designed or modified by Bean himself. In the basement, giant mixing and tablet-making machines stand alongside sacks and barrels of chemicals and cartons of packaging materials. The machines that package his liquid and tablet products are on the main floor.
"We're crowded, which is nice," he says.
Bean's wife, Grace, handles mail orders, makes up labels and takes care of the books. A couple of part-timers help with production.
The seasonal pickup in orders for Skunk-Kleen serves as a reliable indicator as to when the snow has melted, enabling Bean to track the arrival of spring. "The skunks are out in Union, Maine, because we got an order from Union, Maine, the other day," he said.