Oceanic clay can only be harvested twice a year in Northern British Columbia where the delicate operation is dependent on the inter-tidal zones being exposed during the spring and autumn equinoxes. However, Ironwood Clay Company, a B.C.-based manufacturer of beauty and skincare products, works year-round to fulfil its export orders from North America, Europe and the burgeoning Asian market.
Unlike many businesses that establish themselves in the domestic market before exporting, Ironwood’s founder and president Rodger Upton’s first consignment of clay was shipped to a direct sales company in the U.S. Approximately 30 years later, he is still doing business with the same company and has expanded export-focused operations to South Korea, China, Japan and Thailand.
Upton’s entry into the skincare business was equally unorthodox. One-time owner of a restaurant in Williams Lake, and the B.C. Lions’ marketing manager for 10 years in the 1980s, he was acting as a consultant when he was asked to meet with a potential local partner for the direct sales company. When the partnership didn’t go ahead, the company asked him to get involved.
“I asked the B.C. government how to go about harvesting the clay. Then I went and posted my own claims, took some big guys with me and we went to Hunter Island and dug clay, put it in bags and got a fish packer [boat] to carry it down to this little factory in East Vancouver I’d opened,” he recalls.
“I realized very quickly that this was actually going to be a business that had a bigger future than the little operation I had going using a cement mixer,” he says.
His natural entrepreneurial instincts were right: Since 1989 Ironwood has sold more than $100-million worth of clay products to one of its long term clients alone: in turn it markets the products in 53 countries.
In addition to its house brand, Nena, Ironwood is a turnkey manufacturer producing private label product for several major brands and retailers. Ironwood does the formulation, manufacturing, packaging and shipping from in its 30,000 square-foot facility in Richmond, B.C.
“Really, all they have to do is market the product,” he says. The iconic British pharmacy chain Boots has been selling the B.C.-made clay product for 18 years; it has been on the shelves in The Body Shop; and North American-based Avalon Organics sells formulations manufactured in Ironwood’s facility. “Plus a myriad of brands in Asia,” says Upton.
Upton is quick to credit the federal and provincial trade commissioner services for helping him expand Ironwood’s exports. He first worked with federal trade commissioners in the 1990s to sell Nena products in Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
While exports of the clay-based products have increased and expanded into new markets, Ironwood’s scientists have been hard at work broadening the range of goods that can be produced from the clay.
“What makes our clay functional is that it has over 70 minerals in it and it has osmotic and ionic properties. We have developed a process to extract all of those minerals in a clear, aqueous solution. We get all the benefits of the clay in a clear water. That mineral water is used to enhance skin care formulations,” says Upton.
The first shipment of Ironwood’s marine mineral water was a 13-ton order to South Korean-based distributor Durae in 2012. AmorePacific, South Korea’s second-largest beauty products company, developed the range of Hera products based on the clear water, resulting in steady demand for the ingredient.
In addition to the agreements with Durae and AmorePacific, Upton is building Ironwood’s Nena brand in the vibrant South Korean market. In May 2016, MSCO (The Jung Show) launched a Nena direct-sales initiative with a 30-minute broadcast on a home shopping channel in Seoul, featuring a video shot by a South Korean crew in B.C. Upton says home shopping channels in Seoul typically sell $100,000 worth of product in an hour.
More recently, the BC Trade and Invest team facilitated Ironwood’s $25-million partnership with Guangzhou Yuemu Cosmetics Co., a Chinese skin care products company.
“They are making a significant investment to partner with us. We will develop and manufacture the finished products and they will sell them through their existing channels, online or retail,” says Upton.
At home, Upton has nurtured his relationship with the provincial government, which links him with nine different agencies to ensure his operations are environmentally friendly. Ironwood has been extracting clay from Hunter Island on DeCosmos Lagoon for 26 years. Recently it registered claims at the head of the Bute Inlet, and a site at Hvidsten Point. The extraction of the clay is carefully managed and when the operation is complete. “You wouldn’t know we had even been there,” says Upton, who most often accompanies the crew on the bi-annual digs.
He has also developed a relationship with the Homalco First Nation that benefits from the sale of the clay.