Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
By 7 a.m., the eight Johnson kids are awake, piling out of beds and bunks in their commodious back bedroom. Downstairs they tug on rubber work boots and clamber with their father onto the family's golf cart for a quick drive to the milking shed, where 14 goats await the ministrations of their small but expert hands. In winter, outside the goat pen, snowballs fly. An older brother gently guides Vienna Rose, 3, who insists on trying to milk her beloved Chewy. Back on the cart, the contents of their buckets swishing, the Johnsons head home to wolf down eggs and oatmeal.
The Bend Soap Company occupies 40 acres where the somber pines that ring Oregon's Cascade Mountains yield to rolling farmland. Here, Dwight and Marilee Johnson, their seven sons, one daughter, and 10 part-time employees produce chunky, fragrant bars of goat's milk soap and other skin-care products. The children earn money, negotiate workloads, seek operational efficiencies, and cheerfully conduct tours of the property.
"One of my favorite things is when we had travel-sized soaps that they would box," says Marilee, who handles administration and marketing. "So they would get a little assembly line going and try to get as many done in an hour as they possibly could. They would just race. It was really cute."
When Dwight Johnson moved to Oregon 17 years ago for the state's natural beauty and outdoor lifestyle, he never dreamed he'd start an entrepreneurial version of The Waltons. But in 2009, the couple's third son, Chance, then age 3, developed eczema. A natural products enthusiast, Dwight read about the salutary effects of goat's milk on skin. The first bars he produced--courtesy of the family's milking goats--dramatically improved Chance's condition, say the Johnsons.
Today, the Bend Soap Company sells close to $500,000 a year of goat's milk soap, lotion, lip butter, and other products, 90 percent of that through its website. The business recently landed placement in its first chains: Natural Grocers in Oregon and Texas and the local Whole Foods in Bend.
Pamela Hulse Andrews, founder and owner of Cascade Media, which publishes several local magazines, discovered Bend Soap when she wrote an article about this prototypical Oregon business. "They live on a wonderful little farm with goats and make products that are good for you," says Andrews. "People in central Oregon are inclined to celebrate things like that."
Andrews had never before bothered with natural products; but then the Johnsons gave her some samples. "Now I am just addicted," she says.
Beyond the virtues of its products, the Bend Soap Company is a paradigmatic family business whose capital is shared enterprise, values, and affection. Bend Soap is no mere exploiter of convenient labor, where grudging offspring take inventory on Saturdays, counting the minutes until their blessed release. Rather, it is the source of the Johnson children's fondest memories, and a shaper of their identities and characters.
"I want Bend Soap to be something where [the children] can earn money," says Dwight. "But they also learn ethics, learn to work through problems, learn that a workman is worthy of his hire.
"These are great kids," says Dwight. "They love this company."
A long-fused romance
As entrepreneurs, Dwight and Marilee Johnson didn't fall far from their respective trees. Marilee's father is co-founder and CEO of Champlain Database Design, which develops and manages ticketing and other software systems for a subsidiary of United Airlines. In the 1930s, Dwight's grandparents started the Ceramic Decorating Company, which designs and applies labels to bottles for consumer brands. His father, uncle, and brother now own that company.
Dwight and Marilee met young, in 1979. He was 4. She was 2. Their families knew each other when both lived in Los Angeles. "I developed a crush on him when I was 16," says Marilee. But in high school her family moved to New York State. Marilee rarely saw Dwight until she returned to California for college. As they traveled in the same social circles, their friendship deepened.
College didn't suit Dwight. For five years he managed the family business and then built metal lawn sculptures and pine furniture, which he and a partner sold at craft fairs around the country. His parents loved Oregon and always talked about moving there one day. Dwight beat them to it, buying a house in Redmond in 1999.
Soon, Dwight's parents followed and bought a coffee stand that operated from the side of a road. Marilee, who had grown weary of auditing and administrative positions, moved north to work for them. ("I loved his family," she says.) Dwight, meanwhile, repped for a nutrition company, bought and sold real estate, and launched a window-washing business. In 2003, they married. "When we finally got together," says Marilee, "it was a fun culmination of so much that happened in our lives."
The following year, Burnell was born. Then Orin, Chance, Ty, Quint, Wyatt, Vienna, and Royal. Baby number nine is due in March.
A child in pain
Marilee had no warning when Dwight came home one day in 2007 with a pair of goats, Molly and Velvet. The family had been buying milk from a local farm, "but I wasn't really excited about the flavor or the price," says Dwight. The head of the local 4H offered to sell him a couple of her Nubians, the droop-eared crème de la crème of milk goats.
The Johnsons bought a billy goat. Molly and Velvet had kids. They produced milk. Dwight toyed with the notion of making cheese.
Then, in 2010, Chance developed eczema--bad. He scratched until he bled. The chiefly alcohol-based treatments stung. "You go to dermatologists and you try all these lotions and creams, and everything you try just seems to irritate him further," says Marilee. "As a parent you feel helpless. How do we help this child?"
Anxious to salve Chance's skin, Dwight studied soap production online and settled on four ingredients: goat's milk, coconut oil, virgin olive oil, and red palm oil. He crafted a four-pound mold from pine and cooked up the first bars in his father-in-law's kitchen. (By that time, Marilee's family had moved to Oregon, too.) "There are a ton of problems you can run into making soap," says Dwight. "I was expecting all kinds of issues, so I was shocked when my second batch turned out really, really good."
Back in his own kitchen, Dwight sliced the soap into 16 bars and left them for a month to cure. (He now gives that process six weeks.) Then he tossed one into the bath with Chance. Almost immediately, his son's legs "looked less inflamed. He said it felt better," says Dwight. Homemade goat's milk soap became the sole soap used chez Johnson.
Store-bought soap "has 15 to 20 chemicals," says Dwight. "And I had been rubbing it all over my body and my kids' bodies. I realized, we have to throw this stuff out."
Dwight enjoyed soap-making and was eager to experiment with different ingredients: lavender, peppermint, honey-oatmeal. That meant creating more bars than even his large family could use. Dwight is a generous guy (you can't buy the eggs his chickens lay--he'll just give them to you). So in June 2011, he started handing out unwrapped soap to people at his bank and at church and at Starbucks. By November, those people were back, asking for more soap to give away as holiday gifts. They wanted to buy it.
A friend of the Johnsons built them a website, and Dwight returned to the craft show circuit, this time selling soap. People with eczema, psoriasis, and other skin conditions bought it. So did lovers of natural products and a smooth, creamy wash. In 2012, the couple sold $80,000 worth of soap bars.
The Von Trapps of skin care
At Bend Soap, compensation is based on performance--of your goat. Goats that produce the least pay 35 cents per milking. Champion producers are worth as much as $1.50. "Most of the time I let the boys negotiate between themselves who gets which goat," says Dwight. "They try to keep things fair. Sometimes somebody wants out of it, and they will let someone else cover their goat for the extra money." (Vienna and Royal are not yet old enough to be "certified" milkers.)
The children also package and label products, for which they are paid a piecework rate. ("When you inspire kids in that way, they can crank out volume," says Dwight.) And when a van needs loading for a craft show or a tour group descends on the farm, then it's all hands on deck. In one month, a young Johnson can earn anywhere from $180 to $500. "It gives them a sense of pride," says Dwight. "And then, when they look at their paycheck, they are like, 'Sweet! We are crushing it!'"
Company work is slotted in around schoolwork. The Johnson children are home-schooled. Marilee handles most of that: "We do reading, writing, and math, and different history and science projects," she says. "There are a lot of extracurricular things: piano lessons and guitar lessons. Video editing. Cooking. I think cooking is a great skill for men."
And while the children don't study entrepreneurship, they've picked it up by osmosis. When Burnell, now 12, discovered that his father got just $5 apiece for used oil barrels from a recycler, he launched the Bend Barrel Company to sell them on Craigslist. Then he hired Orin, 11, to tote and clean the barrels. Now Burnell is trying to sell the business to his younger brothers.
Much of the new product development, meanwhile, has fallen to Marilee. Among her creations: goat's milk based deodorant, lip butter, and sugar scrub, for exfoliating dead skin. Typically, R&D takes place in the family kitchen. As launch time approaches, it moves out to the soap house, a 1,500-square-foot insulated building outside the Johnsons' back door, where production takes place.
That production is in high gear at the moment. Bend Soap does a quarter of its volume in the last two months of the year, with gift baskets, in particular, selling well. Meanwhile, things quiet down for the goats. The Johnsons don't milk during the winter, believing it's better for the animals to dry up before they breed again in spring. Fortunately, enough 4H families milk year-round to supply Bend Soap with its staple ingredient. In 2016, the company went through about 3,000 gallons of the stuff.
Dwight says the children want to eventually take over the business, which is fine by him. It's also fine if they don't. "I grew up in a family business and know the pressure to be part of that, and the guilt if you are not," he says. "I don't want that for my children. Whatever their dream is, whatever their unique abilities are, that's what they need to pursue."