A success story of passion and persistence
“Our vision is to offer world class New Zealand hand-made products of light and scents, to create a gift of affordable luxury, which reflects natural living, inspires the senses and nurtures the human spirit.” Cynthia Baur, owner and CEO, Living Light Candles
BY DIANE COVINGTON-CARTER
The soft, soothing glow of candlelight links us back through the ages to ancient times, when life was quieter, simpler. And today, in the midst of our modern, fast-paced world, candlelight can still bring a calming, peaceful and nourishing presence into our lives.
Cynthia Baur, owner and CEO of Living Light Candles in Golden Bay, first came across a small company called Living Light Candles at a gift show in Christchurch, 22 years ago. She was so struck by the beauty of the product, that she placed an order of 77 candles for a gift store she co-owned in Auckland.
That order led to meeting the owner of the company, Heinz Oertli, a connection, dating and marriage. They both sold their homes and relocated to Golden Bay, where they set up shop in a converted pottery studio, with a total of three customers and one employee. Cynthia, who had a sales and marketing background, became the front person and the business grew from three customers to 50 in one year. Then the next year, the numbers doubled again.
Persisting through challenges
As they scrambled to keep up and added more help, they realized they had outgrown their tiny space. They found the current factory, a former abattoir, and began a two-year renovation. During that time, Cynthia’s husband became unwell and she took over running the business. He died in 2010.
For the next seven years, Cynthia persevered through many challenging years. She believed in the vision, the products and was happy to be a local employer. But it was easy to get discouraged, as she worked to master all the aspects of both candle making, business management and worked to create a strong bottom line.
“One day a woman came into the gallery, looked at me and said, “Darling, you are making so many people happy with what you are doing.” That encouragement inspired me to carry on,” Cynthia says.
A great partnership
In 2017, she married David Lester, who became involved in the business, taking on the building maintenance and providing welcome emotional support and stability.
“David brings a real balance into my life. His beautiful support has allowed me to focus on the business and turn it around.”
She also brought in a consultant from Nelson, who helped to implement an inventory system, to calculate the accurate cost of goods and all the other information needed to ensure a strong bottom line.
“The system showed me the products that weren’t selling that well, so we could streamline and make important changes.
I was the designer and the creator. I loved getting in there and doing it, from candle making to negotiating for packaging,” Cynthia says. “But I had to learn to step back and see the whole picture.”
With the new systems in place and David’s support, profits have been climbing; 2020 was their best year yet, even in the midst of covid-19.
Art and Science
“The process of candle making is both art and science,” Cynthia says.
On a recent tour of the factory, I discover just how precise that science is and all of the variables involved. For example, the four kinds of beeswax, also soy and plant wax, each require a different handling. Add to that, thousands of different kinds of cotton wicks, each one calling for different adjustments to the recipe, then add in a fragrance, which can also change the results. Many different types of molds create another variable. The walls of the factory have to maintain the even temperature inside, also an important factor.
The “test room”, where they try out variations in waxes, jars, wicks and fragrances, feels like a tiny chapel, a quiet space amid the busy factory, lit up with more than fifty candles.
“We have to be very precise and assess every change we make,” Cynthia says. “We teach new candle makers the exact procedures.”
“People along the way have helped us to improve with their ideas and innovations,” Cynthia says.
For example, when the pillar candles had a mysterious dent, a visiting American scientist friend suggested changing the small metal circle at the base from steel to lightweight aluminum. Problem solved.
Icicle candle success
The icicle candles, the company’s most popular product, go out as fast as they can produce them. They recently exported 8,200 to a distributor in Australia, each carefully tissue wrapped in single boxes. The whole team worked together to pack all those boxed candles into pallets and a 40-foot container.
“David woke me up in the middle of the night, worried about the ship voyage damaging the fragile candles. He thought of putting inner tubes between the pallets, and when we researched the idea, we discovered dunnage bags, which solved the problem. The candles arrived in perfect condition,” Cynthia says.
The Icicle candles, which require a thin mold and plant wax, are poured quickly to avoid air pockets, then fanned to cool at a quick rate, to create the icicle effect, then cured for 24 hours.
“For the icicles, we have to have the perfect wick and if we didn’t fan them, it would be a boring candle,” Cynthia says.
The icicles come in twelve colors and are finished by hand, with all extra wax recycled. The beeswax for their candles comes from the Beeswax Company in New Zealand and one local Golden Bay vendor.
The company creates blends using high-end perfumes and essential oils for their quality non-toxic fragrances.
“The fragrances sell the products. It has taken all these years to create a library of them. Peony, which is our top seller ever, feels almost divinely inspired,” Cynthia says. “We were working to get it just right and I got the idea in the middle of the night, to add some black rose. Everyone who smells it loves it.”
One of the important elements of the company’s success has been to develop a strong brand offering.
“It took me a long time to find one good brand and to do it well,” Cynthia says. “For each fragrance, we now offer candles, body lotion, hand cream, a body bar, room spray, room diffuser, aroma stones and diffusers for small spaces, all both eco-friendly and luxurious.”
A Strong Team
I sense what “hand-made” means as I watch everyone working at the factory, carefully creating, then polishing, packing and shipping out the orders.
“From the beginning to the end, we pay attention to the quality of the product, the presentation and how it is packed,” Cynthia says.
The large factory space has a feeling of harmony and efficiency as we visit the different departments.
Robin, one of the packers, smiles as she packs a candle. “I’m just putting love into the box,” she says.
Cynthia is proud of having a strong team of 20 local Golden Bay employees, 18 women and two men, including David. Six women comprise the candle production team.
“Women excel at candle making and packing and the team is dedicated to the innovation of processes and procedures,” Cynthia says. “We can always find quality staff. People want to live in Golden Bay. They care about the lifestyle here.”
“We care about the environment and use eco-friendly packaging, shredded paper from Nelson, which is messy, but environmentally good. All our candles are, bio-degradable and burn carbon-free,” Cynthia says.
“Our success reflects both the quality of the product and the quality of the people who make them,” Cynthia says. “We look for integrity and the ability be a good team member. We can train them in the job, but we’re looking for certain qualities and how a person would fit with the team.”
When conflicts come up, she has learned to get professional help. The company also created a Code of Conduct, that each employee signs.
“When communication breaks down, we bring the team together and have conflict resolution meetings to solve the problem. We all affect each other and need to be on the same page in how we conduct ourselves at work,” Cynthia says. “Empathy, listening and making an effort to understand each other are keys.”
Once a month company-wide meetings help maintain the alignment, with individual departments meeting more often.
“Many times, I wondered if it was worth it. But I never stopped believing in the vision–to keep alive an old art, making something beautiful, that is New Zealand hand-made with love.”
Keeping it hand-made has also meant keeping people employed. One of her employees, who has been with her the longest and doesn’t give out complements easily, was in for a review. She burst into tears as she thanked Cynthia. “You have never given up. Thank you for your vision and for always looking for the best in people.”
“To be an entrepreneur, you need to enjoy solving problems,” Cynthia says.
For example, her products are now available on Amazon in the US. But Amazon requires that when products arrive at their fulfillment centers, they have to be able to be dropped from shoulder height five times and not have the product damaged.
“That presented a huge challenge for us. We broke a lot of icicle candles till we came up with a bubble bag to cushion the candle and a box that closed with a magnet. We figured it out,” Cynthia says.
The company’s packaging design won a Luxury Gold Award, in 2017. They also were finalists for the Australian Life In Style–Body, Bath, & Fragrance Award that year.
A proud Kiwi
“I have been here 40 years and am so proud to be a Kiwi. The nature, the people, the ‘can do’ attitude. The diversity of the landscape, mountains, desert–it is all here,” Cynthia says.
Advice to budding businesses
“You have to be open to letting things reveal themselves as you go along. And to providing a space for the team to blossom,” she says. “Trust your intuition, believe in your dreams, (even when others don’t) and be brave, bold and kind.”
“When I walk through the factory doors today, I feel a sense of gratitude, for each and every one who works at Living Light. Their commitment, attitude, skill level, work ethic and teamwork create a positive working environment, resulting in a beautiful product offering to our customers,” Cynthia says.
As the large orders keep coming in from Australia, she remembers that woman who helped her years ago with her words of encouragement.
“She really was an angel that day,” Cynthia says. “If I could see her again, I’d say, ‘Thank you. It is happening now’.”