A Maine company plans to set the world alight with its brand of high-end scented candles.

Village Candle in Wells has started a major export push, building on a toehold in the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

“The international market is huge. We think it can be equivalent to the U.S. market for us in three to five years,” Village Candle President Jeanne Hulit said during a tour of the candle factory and warehouse Monday.

The company recently attended a major trade show in England, has hired a president of international sales, and brokered a deal with Icelandic shipping company Eimskip to take candles to Europe through the Port of Portland.

The U.S. market is saturated with high-end candle companies and cheap imports, but there is still plenty of room to grow sales volume and new product lines in Europe, Hulit said.

“In many ways, they are kind of where the candle consumer in the U.S. was 15 years ago,” she said. “It is such an untapped market.”

CAPACITY OF 35,000 CANDLES A DAY

It’s impossible to escape the mixed aroma of dozens of candle varieties in the company’s cavernous warehouse and production space. Huge shelves are packed floor-to-ceiling with cases of brightly colored candles in glass jars or plastic-wrapped votive candles.

On the production floor, melted wax from large vats is drained through a machine into a line of glass jars. Workers steady dual wicks in liquid wax with small metal plates as vivid blue, yellow and purple candles cool during a seven-hour turn on a slow-moving conveyor belt.

Quality testers light candles in a darkened room to make sure they burn without too much soot and emit the optimum fragrance. Across the production floor, the product development department tries out new candles, testing scents and making sure colors don’t dull on the shelf.

Village Candle employs about 60 people full-time, and another 20 temporary workers when it needs to boost production.

The factory can turn out 35,000 candles a day, Hulit said. She would not discuss total production or annual revenue, citing proprietary information that could disadvantage the company in a small, competitive industry.

She knows a thing or two about competitive business practices. A longtime manager with the Small Business Administration, she was appointed the acting chief of the SBA in 2013, sitting in the Obama Cabinet after Karen Mills, another Mainer, decided to step down.

To one side of the warehouse is a separate room where the company keeps its candles destined to go overseas. International sales are currently about 25 percent of the company’s revenues, but Hulit expects that to double in two years.

The company started selling in Europe through distributors about five years ago, and is now starting to direct-market its products instead of working solely through distributors.

“That puts us two levels behind knowing what the consumer wants,” Hulit said.

RESEARCHING EUROPEAN FAVORITES

The company is researching ways to better understand European customers. For instance, she said, there’s a decided preference for garden-fragrance candles in the U.K., with scents such as lavender proving really popular.

That contrasts with American preferences, which trend toward the aroma of baked goods and desserts, she said.

The overseas expansion includes a booth at the 2018 Spring Fair in Birmingham, England, the largest gift and home trade show in the U.K.; a presence at a recent Japanese trade show; and hiring Clive Harper, a candle industry veteran, as president of international sales. Harper previously helped set up a European branch of Massachusetts-based Yankee Candle.

Village Candle also arranged for distributors to use trans-Atlantic shipping routes with Eimskip, which leases some of its warehouse space.

That makes it easy to load candles into empty shipping containers that depart from Portland, less than 40 miles from Wells, Hulit said. Before, the company exported from New York and New Jersey, leading to product risk and transportation delays.

“This is a whole new level of commitment” to international expansion, Hulit said. “We are really looking at how we launch ourselves as a brand, not just as a supplier.”

CANDLE EXPORTS JUMP AFTER 2011

In 2017, $12.9 million worth of candles were exported from the International Marine Terminal in Portland, the third-biggest export item at the bustling port that year. It is unclear how many of those candles were made in Maine.

Last year, Maine exported about $2.27 million worth of candles, according to U.S. trade statistics. About a third of that went to the U.K., but hundreds of thousands of dollars worth were sent to Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy.

Although Village Candle is one of a number of Maine-based candlemakers, those countries are the company’s biggest markets, Hulit said.

Between 1996 and 2011, Maine candle exports averaged about $252,300 a year. But in the past six years, exports have averaged $2.8 million, with a high point of $4.1 million in 2015.

That’s about 10 percent of the total U.S. candle exports. Last year, $278.4 million worth of U.S. candles were exported, with the U.K., Canada and the Netherlands making up two-thirds of all imports.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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