November 21, 2010

Growing success from a compost heap

Sales are good for the maker of mulch and garden soil derived from the waste of some of Maine's iconic industries.

By J. Hemmerdinger jhemmerdinger@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - For Carlos Quijano's business, the recession had a silver lining.

click image to enlarge

Using tillers with 16-foot-wide rotating cylinders, Coast of Maine mixes and aerates long piles of composting material, which includes organic matter such as lobster shells and carbon from wood shavings and sawdust. Based in Portland, the company makes the compost in Washington County.

Photo courtesy Coast of Maine Organic Products

click image to enlarge

Carlos Quijano, president of Coast of Maine Organics, used a painting of Maine islands by North Haven artist Eric Hopkins on the company’s bags of soil.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

That's because when times are tight, many consumers stay home to save cash. And home is where the garden is.

Quijano's Coast of Maine Organic Products, a Portland-based maker of nutrient-rich mulch and garden soil, starts with cast-offs from some of Maine's best-known industries -- lobsters, blueberries and forestry.

Business has been so good, in fact, that this summer Quijano upgraded his production facility in Marion, about 20 miles from Calais, with a new 5,000-square-foot building to house offices and a bagging line, and purchased the 26-acre property that he previously leased. The company makes about 800,000 bags of compost a year, and has expanded its market to as far south as North Carolina and west to Ohio.

But it's compost, and Quijano doesn't sugar-coat what happens to huge piles of lobster and mussel shells, blueberry bush trimmings, cow and hen manure and salmon guts.

"It gets nasty fast," he said, sitting back in his Newbury Street office that overlooks Casco Bay. The actual composting operations are far north, with about 65 percent of the compost manufactured in Marion, and the rest in Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada.

Making compost is relatively easy, done by many in backyard compost bins. Just mix organic waste with water and leaves or twigs, stir it up, and in a few months microbes convert the mixture into compost, excellent topsoil for gardening.

Coast of Maine's technique is similar, but done on a larger scale.

The composting happens outdoors, where massive heaps of lobster shells, wood chips and other ingredients are mixed and left to mingle. Employees measure temperature and moisture content and frequently aerate the piles with 16-foot-wide above-ground roto-tillers.

The company makes roughly a dozen different types of soils and mulches, which have such names as Penobscot Blend, Quoddy Blend and Bar Harbor Blend. Bags sell for roughly $7 or $8 each, more expensive than much of the competition.

But the soils are a hit with consumers.

"They have very loyal customers. People ask for it by name," said Mark McGarity, a buyer at Broadway Gardens Greenhouses in South Portland, which sells Coast of Maine products.

When Quijano launched the company about 15 years ago he knew nothing about composting. He was a career banker, having worked for 25 years at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Quijano left the corporate world and moved to Maine for a change of pace. Maine felt like home. He had family here. And he and his children had spent countless summers at Quijano's grandparents' farmhouse in Lincolnville.

Shortly after arriving, Quijano was hired by the Great Eastern Mussel Farm to assess the company's options for discarding mussel shells. Great Eastern already composted shells with help from the Maine Compost Team, a group of state and university composting specialists.

Quijano saw a business opportunity. With the right marketing, he thought, Maine mussel shells could be converted into nutrient-rich compost and sold as garden soil.

With a $25,000 federal rural business enterprise grant and a $25,000 loan, he launched Coast of Maine in 1996.

With the money, Quijano leased land in Marion, perfected a compost recipe with help from the Maine Compost Team and studied the market. He spent days in the library flipping through the Yellow Pages, identifying 100 home and garden centers -- potential clients -- from Portland to Connecticut.

To succeed, Quijano knew he needed a distinguishing brand. Similar products were already available at lawn and garden centers, but most were sold in nondescript white bags with black writing.

"To differentiate ourselves, we needed something that was new, or perceived as new," he said. "We needed something highly visual."

So Quijano turned to a friend, Eric Hopkins, a North Haven artist. Hopkins painted the image of the islands that still appears on Coast of Maine's bags.

The company's initial run of roughly 50 pallets of soil -- more than 3,000 bags -- sold fast.

Still, some thought Quijano's business was doomed.

"I remember Carlos coming to me with a bag of compost and telling me how much it would cost. I told him he was crazy," said Joel Leeman, a buyer at Skillins Greenhouses, which has stores in Brunswick, Cumberland and Falmouth.

Coast of Maine's strategy was to sell to independent lawn and garden centers, which Quijano said have better customer service than such big-box stores as Walmart or Home Depot. And unlike local hardware stores, Quijano said lawn and garden centers are thriving, particularly in the Northeast.

Cameron Bonsey, Coast of Maine's director of marketing, said the company spends time educating clients' employees about Coast of Maine's products.

Growth has been steady. The company initially sold to lawn and garden centers in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, but has since expanded south and west.

Because transportation by truck is expensive, Coast of Maine partnered with a composter in southern Ontario, Canada, which is some 200 miles closer to the mid-Atlantic region than Maine.

Coast of Maine has annual revenue of roughly $4 million and has never had a down year, not even during the recession, said Quijano.

The company employs four full-time staffers in Marion and an administrative and sales staff of five. Coast of Maine's compost production runs from April to mid-November.

The company has succeeded despite competition from what Quijano called the "25,000-pound gorilla" -- Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., which makes topsoil and saturates television every spring with advertisements.

Quijano attributes his success to quality products and effective branding.

His clients agree.

"It has been well packaged and well marketed and is a top-quality product. Customers accepted it well and come back for more," said Leeman at Skillins Greenhouses.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com

 

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