A search for a calming hobby led former lawyer Cate Burton to discover the wonders of making beeswax candles, writes Gayle Bryant.
Burning the candle at both ends took on a whole new meaning for Cate Burton when she changed careers from corporate lawyer and marketing strategist to candle maker. Burton was searching for a calming hobby following a series of anxiety attacks when she discovered making beeswax candles. Eight years ago, this hobby became the Queen B business.
"Candle making started off as a hobby and I gave away the candles to friends and family but I soon got calls from friends of friends who wanted to buy them," Burton says.
"Before too long, my hobby became my business." All Queen B candles are made from 100 per cent Australian beeswax - no paraffin, soy or palm wax to be found. Burton chose beeswax for a number of reasons, including environmental. "About 95 per cent of candles are made using paraffin, which is a petro-chemical that is toxic when burnt," she says. "Beeswax is a natural product which is also a natural ioniser when burning."
Every element of Burton's candles is Australian made, including the beeswax, the cotton wicks and the packaging. "Because I am committed to supporting Australian producers I do pay a lot for the beeswax," she says.
"I could buy it 30 per cent cheaper from New Zealand but that would mean I'm supporting New Zealand beekeepers. The higher costs are reflected in the price but beeswax candles do burn longer than other types." [In addition to listing the cost of the candles, the Queen B website provides the cost per hour for the burn time.] Growth has averaged about 30 per cent a year every year. The average customer spends between $25 and $50 in store and more than $100 online.
One of the perceptions Burton has sought to address is that of beeswax candles as "alternative" or "hippy". "While I am interested in, and passionate about, non-toxic products and the environment, I love beautiful things with a strong design aesthetic and believe you can have both.
"Last year I was approached by [restaurant] Vue de Monde on behalf of Dom Perignon to do a light sculpture epitomising the brand. I love that we created something truly unique and beautiful for one of the world's top luxury brands."
One business challenge relates to the amount of administration. "I receive about 150 to 200 emails every day and despite making my website information rich, I get many requests for information," Burton says. "Answering them is very time-consuming." About 4 per cent of sales are made online and Burton says a lot of time is needed to service the website. "There is a lot of added-on work with Pinterest, blogging, Facebook, and it just keeps adding on. My BAS also takes about 10 to 15 hours a month but this is OK as doing it myself means I know exactly where the business is at any time."
Queen B also supplies to 100 retailers and about 20 per cent of sales are made via the shop, in Brookvale on Sydney's northern beaches. Most of the promotion is carried out via social media and through public relations, which Burton does herself.
She says Queen B survives because of the help of volunteers. In addition to herself, a full-time administration person and a part-time candle maker, about four volunteers come every week to help pack orders.
While the most popular products are the tealights and tapers, Burton says there is growing interest in candle-making kits and making beeswax candles for fund-raising.
"While we sell over 120,000 candles a year, that is a small fraction of candle sales in Australia, so there is enormous potential for growth," she says. "We also sell overseas but the cost of shipping from Australia makes it extremely difficult to compete."
Burton says she is researching opportunities overseas but intends to keep the concept of "local" to any new business she opens. "So if I open in the US I will use only American beekeepers; the same for Europe."
While Burton says she has very little spare time, she has no regrets about starting her business.
"I adore what I'm doing," she says. "One minute I'm in the car off to meet one of my beekeepers and next I could be blogging about my company or working on accounts. I've never been happier."
■ Cate Burton Queen B candles are available from smhshop.com.