Businessman enjoys sweet smell of success
In 1977 Robert Seidel started a business that made a lot of scents but not much money.
In fact Seidel, 56, says the first few years he made no money at all.
But 30 years later, The Essential Oil Co., a wholesaler of essential plant oils based in the Sellwood neighborhood of Southeast Portland, is doing quite well.
Last month he shared trade secrets with students at Clackamas County's Tree School, an annual program targeted to those in forestry and timber management fields sponsored by the Oregon State University Extension Service, Clackamas Community College and local forestry groups.
"Oils are a value-added product," Seidel said. "When you harvest a tree you can collect the branches that you cut off and distill the oil."
The essential oils Seidel sells are used by large manufacturing companies and individuals throughout the world in soaps, cosmetics, candles, lotions and other consumer products.
Seidel's considered a pioneer and a respected expert and distiller in the aromatherapy industry, according to those who buy from him.
He loves talking about the distillation process he began learning as a college student in New York more than 30 years ago.
In those days Seidel was studying forestry resource management. He became enamored of the smell of balsam fir and began researching methods for capturing the fragrant oils.
He discovered that few people knew how to extract the oils, and many companies that claimed to be using essential oils in their products were fabricating the scents in laboratories.
Using information he found in a couple of old books and a lot of trial and error, Seidel began distilling essential oils from Douglas fir and later from the needles, branches, leaves, stems and petals of other plants.
He used a distiller made from a refrigerator coil and a pressure cooker to produce a small quantity of peppermint and a few other oils. He also began buying and selling small amounts of essential oils.
"There were very few people then who knew what an essential oil was," said Seidel, who worked full time as a plywood inspector for a trade association in the late '70s. "So there was me and about five hippies that I sold to."
n 1981, when the timber industry foundered and Seidel lost his job, he turned his passion for essential oils into a full-time profession. He also drove a cab for a while and took other jobs to pay the bills while building his business.
Initially, the company sold oils through a catalog. Now customers from around the world buy pounds of his products from the Internet. He also sells to a loyal group of regional customers, many of whom come to the sample bar at his Sellwood office and warehouse to get a whiff of the different aromas.
Once they meet Seidel, customers are likely to come back, said Joe Orcutt, a lavender grower from Hood River who has purchased oils and a distiller from Seidel's company.
Seidel exudes passion for plants and their essence. His products, though sometimes more expensive than others, are of the highest quality, Orcutt said.
The quality is in part because Seidel "goes out in the field with the growers," said Heather Michet, an aromatherapist from Sandy who buys about 90 percent of her scents from Seidel's company.
Travel is part of the allure of the job for Seidel. He spends weeks every year on the road.
"I travel to distillers and visit with them to make sure they are doing what they say they are doing. I want to see the plants growing," Seidel said. "I like to travel and meet people, and it's a great way to see the country not just as a tourist."
In a couple of weeks Seidel will be in Fiji meeting with sandalwood growers. He's visited Egypt and India in search of jasmine and met with rosemary growers in Tunisia and Israel.
When he's not creating his own line of essential oils, Seidel is helping others distill theirs through a steaming process that vaporizes the oil before cooling it back to a watery liquid that leaves the oil on top. He also builds and sells distillers.
When time allows, Seidel attends area festivals and events to demonstrate the distillation process and teach others how to do it.
"I like it every time I distill," he said. "You put in the raw material and you get this beautiful smelly oil out. It's like capturing the essence of the plant."
From The Capital Press:
Essential oils can be distilled from foliage
Process works well for lavender growers, company president says at Tree School
Mateusz Perkowski Capital Press Staff Writer
Out of the countless things that can be made from conifers, toiletries are seldom at the top of the list.
While trunks are commonly used for lumber, it's possible to extract value-added products from foliage as well, said Robert Seidel, president of the Essential Oil Co. in Portland.
Conifer needles contain essential oils that can be distilled and sold in liquid form or used in lotions, soaps, perfumes, aromatherapy candles, balms and similar goods.
Although it's unfeasible for family forest owners or Christmas tree growers to generate enough essential oil to compete on a wholesale level, they can find a retail niche for smaller amounts, Seidel explained.
"If you're selling it directly to the consumer, then you can make some money at it," he said. Seidel gave a distilling demonstration at 2007 Clackamas Tree School in Oregon City on March 24.
The process has been working well for lavender growers in Oregon and Washington, who add essential oil and flowers to various personal care products, he said.
Each year, Seidel travels to lavender farms with his mobile still; he is paid for his efforts with a portion of the oil he extracts. Such an arrangement also may be practical with other materials besides lavender, but only if it doesn't require traveling long distances, he said.
Growing lavender for essential oil is much more common, but in terms of cultivation, tree farmers have a distinct advantage: unlike lavender flowers, conifer foliage is simply a byproduct and doesn't require special maintenance or irrigation, Seidel said.
Christmas tree growers can gather material left over from pruning, while woodland owners can save branches they've cut from logs, he said. "One tree is going to have a lot of material," he said.
At the wholesale level, one pound of essential oil sells for $10 to $25, he said. Distilling 100 pounds of raw conifer material yields about half a pound of oil and requires industrial-sized equipment that costs at least $25,000.
Obviously, a full-blown commercial venture would not be economical for tree farmers, Seidel said. Even if someone invested in a commercial plant, producers in Central and Eastern Europe would be able to undercut them on price, he said.
Small stills, on the other hand, only process about 10 to 12 pounds of raw material at a time, producing an ounce of oil or less after three hours of boiling. Such stills cost $1,500 to $3,000, but they also can be built from inexpensive metal objects.
Seidel fashioned his first still from a pressure cooker and a copper coil. Also, they can be heated with a propane burner or wood, rather than a costly boiler.
"There are some interesting configurations," he said. "A guy can get creative."
Although the amount of oil these stills produce is minute, a little bit goes a long way when it's diluted in personal care products - for example, a pound of pre-made, unscented soap requires only one-sixteenth of an ounce of oil, Seidel said.
To expedite production, it may be wise to team up with someone - a wife or daughter, for instance - so that one person is in charge of distilling and the other handles blending and packaging, he said.
The organic and natural personal care industry generates about $5 billion a year in sales and is expected to grow to $11 billion by 2009, according to the Natural Marketing Institute.
In such an expanding and competitive market, distilling one's own essential oil can be a big selling point, particularly if consumers can see how the product is derived from raw needles in a still, said Seidel. "People like to see how things are done," he said.
This marketing angle has allowed Seidel to sell essential oil his company has distilled for up to $15 a half-ounce, he said. "With retail, the sky's the limit."
Distilling essential oil from tree needles isn't going to make anyone rich or generate enough money to retire on, but Seidel believes it's a viable way to garner some value from a waste material - and have some fun at the same time.
"Every time I see oil come from the distiller, I'm amazed," said Seidel. "It goes back to the old alchemy days."
Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.