Building the Balm
The Family Behind the Name on Everyone's Lips
By Mike Sula
Every morning when Paul Woelbing goes to work at Carma Laboratories, in Franklin, Wisconsin, he sits down and answers letters about Carmex, which his grandfather invented more than 60 years ago and which has been the company's principal product ever since. Most of the letters come from people who wax poetic over the vaporous balm in the white bottle or who have some specific problem with it. Others are from people who've discovered that the salve offers relief from burns, athlete's foot, dry cuticles, or something other than the "cold sores, fever blisters, and chapped lips" claimed on the bright yellow metal cap. "Basically people want to be heard," Woelbing says. "You write a nice letter back, and they're always happy."
But sometimes Woelbing has to answer letters that ask him to confirm or deny what some friend of a friend said about Carmex--that the stuff's addictive or that it's made with ground fiberglass or LSD. "If we get a letter from somebody with some insane rumor, invariably it's from a college town. I suppose that's where a fair amount of people are putting the world together for the first time. You're separated from your parents, moving into the real world--everything is open for discussion. It's the middle of winter and you're using our product, and somebody says, 'Hey, I've heard that stuff is addictive.' And you say, 'Yeah, I guess it is.' It's just a free-associative kind of thing."
It's possible that the contrarian business practices of the three-generation Woelbing dynasty have made Carmex an easy mark for rumormongers. Since the days when Woelbing's grandfather roamed the midwest selling Carmex store to store out of his Crosley, the company hasn't spent a red cent on advertising, relying instead on word of mouth to build its powerfully loyal customer base.
But frankly, the Woelbings don't give a darn about the rumors. "We never confirm or deny anything," says Paul, referring to attacks by groups such as Lip Balm Anonymous, the "Weird Al" Yankovic of Internet conspiracy theorists. "We simply go about our business. If somebody writes, we'll answer their questions. But if they're smart, they'll figure things out for themselves. We intentionally stay as low-key as possible. We basically don't want people thinking about us unless they need us."
In 1936 Alfred Woelbing had no idea that the salve he'd concocted to relieve his own cold sores would become such a prolific generator of urban legend. All he wanted was to get back to Milwaukee. He'd once worked as a buyer for several local department stores, but he lost his job in the Depression and was forced to take a position at Wieboldts department store in Chicago, commuting back to see his wife and son in Wisconsin on weekends. But bolstered by the praise of friends and neighbors who'd tried the salve, he decided to have a go at selling it for a living.
He knew the stuff worked. He'd learned to make salves and ointments for livestock while growing up on his parents' farm, and though he'd gone to school only through the eighth grade, he was a voracious reader and had done his research. After toiling in the basement for a few months he'd come up with the right combination of menthol, camphor, alum, phenol, salicylic acid (aspirin), lanolin, cocoa butter, and wax base. All he needed was a name.
Carmex wasn't named for a girl or for Bizet's Carmen, as some have rumored. Alfred simply liked the way the word he'd invented sounded--it was easy to say, easy to memorize, and wouldn't embarrass someone going into a drugstore and asking for it.
Alfred drove his balm around to little stores in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, southern Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa. Back then it went for 29 cents for a quarter-ounce white glass pot with a yellow paper label and a black cap, but Paul says store owners were reluctant to try an unknown product. "He would go and talk with them and hopefully sell something. If he couldn't, he would take a box and give it to the owner, saying, 'Try this. If it doesn't sell, throw it out. If you do like it, here's your reorder card.' That's how he built the company."
Until the 70s Alfred cooked up five-gallon batches of Carmex in an enameled pot on an electric hot plate, pouring the warm liquid into each jar with a glass measuring cup. Over the decades word of mouth reached critical mass, and he and his wife couldn't keep up with the demand, even though they'd moved the business into a warehouse. "He got so tired and disgusted that he would just take a handful of order forms and throw them out," says Paul. "They didn't even have a telephone until about 1973, because they didn't want to be bothered. He just wanted to make enough to support the family. His philosophy has always been that there's more luxury in living below your means and being able to pay your bills than in having an enormous house and worrying about how to pay for it. He still lives in the same 800-square-foot house that he built by himself in his 60s. Until two years ago he'd still hang his own laundry out to dry. The bills were paid, and there was enough to live on, and he was OK with that. The intent was never to get to the size that we are now."
Yet Paul doesn't really know what size they are now. He says he doesn't pay attention to the market--though he's heard they're in third place, after Chap Stick and Blistex, in dollar sales. Ever since his father, Donald, went into the business in 1972, they've regularly rejected buyout offers.
Donald Woelbing was a stonemason until Alfred's accountant contacted him and suggested that his father could use some help with the family business. One of the first changes he made when he started was to modify a Bunn coffeemaker so that it would dispense melted Carmex automatically. He bought Formica scraps from the cabinetmaker downstairs to use for cooling shelves. "They'd pour all morning long, put a shelf down, pour another, and stack these things about four feet high along the wall," says Paul. "Then they'd go barbecue in the parking lot. They'd come back in the afternoon and label the stuff." But the labeling was slowing them down, so a couple years later they decided to bring Carma Laboratories into the industrial age by purchasing their first automatic capper and adopting the distinctive bright yellow labeled caps.
"Go through the cosmetics department of any major store and look at some of the stuff they're doing," says Paul, who has a master's degree in art and seven years ago, after a career as a high school art teacher, came into the business as the nominal controller. "These beautiful, subtle soft violets and sage greens and natural colors? Absolutely beautiful. If I were starting out now I would love to do some of that stuff. I also would pick a different typeface. People have done studies that say cosmetic products should not be in yellow. But you know what? Sunlight is an even mixture of all wavelengths. The human eye perceives yellow most readily. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
But two years ago the glass jars needed fixing. Until then, according to Paul, Carma Laboratories was the largest purchaser of opal glass in the world. But something went wrong in the opal glass industry, and the jars started to break when they were capped. "Opal glass was kind of the standard in the 20s and was an apparently tricky glass to make," he says. "We tried buying from Italy, Germany, France, England, but we just could not get good jars anymore. It was almost as if the formula for opal glass was lost. We hated to do it, because we really liked the jars." He says they were integral to the "gestalt of Carmex. When I was in college, in a lecture hall with 300 people, and I would hear the clink of the metal cap hitting the glass, I would think, 'That is something my grandfather and my father had a hand in.' It's sort of our trademark. It's just really old-fashioned, and it sort of says quality." The company did set aside a stash of the glass jars, and they'll sell up to a dozen to anyone upset enough by the switch to plastic.
Other changes have been made. Carmex now also comes in a tube, sales of which, Paul says, are catching up to those of the jar. Paul stopped using the jar about four months ago, when they began testing a stick form with sunblock that will be introduced in a few weeks. "Kids always write because they've heard that we test on animals," he says. "We don't test on animals--we test on family members."
Alfred's humble basement operation has grown into a 45,000-square-foot office-factory-warehouse facility with a sinus-soothing atmosphere of menthol and cocoa butter. Five lines of churning machinery stretch the length of the room, and photographs of workers' family members are taped to the machines.
Workers line up endless rows of white plastic jars in front of the pouring machines. The filled jars march along a cooling conveyor to the capping machine and are spat out on the other side to be boxed and shipped. Rows of five-gallon stainless steel kettles containing solidified Carmex line one wall, waiting for a man in a white lab coat to heat them on conventional stoves. The liquefied Carmex is then poured into the machines.
In another room chemist Raman Rangarajan presides over two three-ton metal tanks where half-melted blocks of lanolin float in a curdlike slop of primordial balm. There's no fiberglass in evidence.
Paul won't say how much Carmex the company makes, but he does say production never stops. The workers build up a supply in the summer, but in the winter months they can't make enough. "Maybe 10 percent of our customers actually use it for cold sores--90 to 95 percent use it as a lip balm. But I do get letters all the time saying, 'Hey, I found a great use for it.' Some people claim psoriasis. I've heard eczema. I've even heard skin cancer." But he doesn't believe that any more than the rumor that it causes cancer.
"We don't make any wild, exaggerated claims," Paul says. "We just say it does the least of what it does. We could advertise on the Super Bowl or something, and a lot of people would try it. Some would like it, but others wouldn't. And the ones that wouldn't would say that it was awful. The only people that try our product now are people who have heard about it from other people who recommend it highly. That's why we have such an incredibly loyal following." Once a month or so, Paul says, his 97-year-old grandfather brings in an old glass Avon jar with a silver lid and asks Rangarajan to fill it up with Carmex to use at home.
Alfred still comes to work at Carma Laboratories twice a week. He suffered a small stroke a few years ago, but with the aid of a walker he makes his way across the parking lot, past the oil portrait of him that hangs in the entranceway, and into the front office, where he greets everyone. Then he exchanges the walker for a cane and heads through the old, unused cafeteria and into the factory to greet each of his 55 employees. "He just kind of sets the tone for things around here," says Paul. "He likes to maintain the feeling of family ownership. He kind of reminds you that we're all working for a common purpose." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eric and Paul Woelbing and their father, Donald photo by Nathan Mandell.