Squeaky wheel gets the deal

Wal-Mart’s Open Call puts more U.S.-made products on shelves

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PITTSBURGH — In 2015, Samuel Hopkins had a squeak in his bike chain that wouldn’t go away.

Determined to fix it, the avid biker and outdoorsman bought a collection of different chain lubricant products and greased up his bike — only to realize rainwater would wash the petroleum-based residue directly into the local pond.

“There’s 186 million bikes in the U.S., and it takes 6 million gallons of petroleum oil every year (to lubricate them),” Hopkins, a Pittsburgh-area resident, said. “It’s one of the biggest oil spills in America, every year.”

A longtime inventor with more than 40 patents to his name, Hopkins happened to have lanolin — oil secreted from sheep’s wool, often used in cosmetics — in his workshop for another project, and found it stopped the squeaking. He quickly got to work developing EcoSheep, a line of eco-friendly bicycle lubricants that he produced at home and sold on Amazon.

In spring 2016, Hopkins pitched his line of EcoSheep bike lubricants — including Mountain Sheep, Everyday Sheep, Sheep on the Road and Sheep on the Go — to a Wal-Mart buyer at the retailer’s annual open call event in Bentonville, Ark. He walked away with a deal to sell EcoSheep at 500 stores across the country, and within three months that number soared to 900.

Soon enough, emails started pouring in from people who were using his bicycle lubricant in their homes, on squeaky doors and other items.

So Hopkins went back to the drawing board and created a line of multipurpose EcoSheep products. And at this year’s open call event in June, he secured a deal with Wal-Mart to sell his new line at 200 stores.

“I was so excited last year to go to Open Call, and it was the same excitement again this year,” he said, adding the only difference was that this year he knew more Wal-Mart lingo going in.

Unlike many competing products — petroleum lubricants with glaring warning labels and numbers to call if ingested — EcoSheep is biodegradable and non-toxic, and is designated a USDA BioPreferred and EPA Safer Choice product. The 3.5-ounce cans sell at Wal-Mart for $6.86, and $7.99 on Amazon.

Hopkins can’t disclose sales of the bicycle lubricant line since it started selling at Wal-Mart, but said he is selling tens of thousands of cans this year. He surpassed one year of projected sales in his first month in the discount retailer’s stores.

He also pitched complementary products such as an eco-friendly version of chain cleaner to remove the lubricant, after finding that 10 percent of people use gasoline to clean their chain, even if they do use green lubricants. He also created a bicycle lubricant that can be washed off with a hose.

His products are now collectively being sold at 1,100 Wal-Mart stores nationwide.

He usually wakes up at 5 a.m. and can be up until as late as 2 a.m. working on EcoSheep. Until recently, most of the time was spent manufacturing the product in his home.

“It was getting out of control,” Hopkins said. “We were having drums of oil show up, tens of thousands of cans show up, freight trucks were showing up. … Wal-Mart orders and Amazon orders were really taking off, so I was forced to get a warehouse.”

Since May, the company has been operating out of a warehouse. Hopkins also works out of a co-working space. He recently outsourced production to a filling company in Ohio, which he says now runs three shifts to meet demand. His most recent order was for 90,000 cans.

Hopkins is looking to hire three people to work at his warehouse, his first employees. Until now, he was doing the filling, labeling and packaging himself. Calling it “definitely a family business,” Hopkins added that his wife’s special task was tagging each can with a plastic tab so it could be hung from Wal-Mart’s display cases.

Now that another company handles the filling, Hopkins can spend more time getting business, talking to distributors and refining his product.

Consistent with Wal-Mart’s initiative to purchase more American-made products, EcoSheep’s cans are made in Connecticut, lids are made in Pennsylvania and the lanolin comes from an agricultural company in Connecticut.

This year was Wal-Mart’s fourth Open Call event, which was created to facilitate the retailer’s efforts to invest $250 billion in American manufacturing over the course of a decade. The initiative, which is predicted to create 1 million new U.S. jobs, was announced in 2013 in response to criticisms that the retailer was not sourcing enough inside the country.

Wal-Mart spokesman Scott Markley said this year more than 500 entrepreneurs from 46 states pitched more than 750 products. Nearly 100 companies landed deals for Wal-Mart store shelves.

Markley added that people can pitch their products to Wal-Mart all year, even beyond Open Call, using an online application process.

Hopkins wasn’t the only Pittsburgh-area entrepreneur to score a deal at this year’s event. Duquesne University graduate Nathan Failla will be selling his disposable hair gel packets — PocketGel — at 500 Wal-Mart stores.

After conversations with his buyer, Failla will work on product design tweaks and item verification to get into Wal-Mart’s system. His next steps include connecting with marketers and, most importantly, gaining more capital from angel investors, friends and family to ramp up production.

Failla said after this summer he hopes to be able to quit his day job — wall painting at Duquesne — to work on PocketGel full time, but there is a lot of work to be done before then.

“I thought I would feel more calm, but now I feel like there’s a lot more to do than before,” he said. “It’s a big relief that I know what the next steps are. It’s not foggy anymore since I got in.”