Burt Hanna, CEO of Hanna Candles, on Starting a Business in Your 20s (Exec Q&A)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Sep. 24, 2012 12:00 am  

Burt Hanna, CEO of Hanna's Candles. (Photo by Beth Hall)

The CEO of Hanna's Candles Co. of Fayetteville, Burt Hanna has owned and operated the business now known as Hanna's Candles Co.  for 25 years - although he is not yet 50.

Background: Burt Hanna was a University of Arkansas student and a professional water skier when he and his then wife, Donna, began the home fragrance business first known as Potpourri Specialties Inc.

Honors: The Hannas were recognized by the Small Business Administration as Arkansas’ young entrepreneurs of the year for 1990, and Burt Hanna was selected as one of Arkansas Business’ “40 Under 40” in 1997.

Q: How many employees do you have, what do you make and who are your customers?

In 1987 I started Hanna's in the basement of my house with my ex-wife Donna during my senior year at the UA. She made potpourri as a craft project, and I said, "Let's try to sell it." In 1992, I changed from potpourri to candles because my customers told me that candles were really hot and they couldn't get enough. So I went to the library and got a book on candle-making. Twenty years later, we have made over 100 million candles and have one of the largest privately owned candle companies in the world. Our factory is 350,000 SF, and we have about 200 employees. We make all types of scented candles, reed diffusers, sachets and other home fragrance products. If you ever bought a 6-by-6-inch pillar candle at Wal-Mart in the past, we probably made it. We sold over 50 million of that particular candle, which made us the biggest maker of that type candle in the world. Our customers include Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Kmart, Walgreens, Sears, Pier 1, Publix, QVC, Meijer and Z Gallerie.

Q: What did the Great Recession do to your business?

Our sales dropped significantly, which is not all attributable to the recession. Wax is derived from petroleum, and the price of wax went up 250 percent in 2008, which made the big pillar candles too expensive. So we had to change our product mix and our business. But 2013 is going to be a great year for Hanna's. We have patents pending on new technology candles, and we are really busy!

Q: Who are your competitors?

My main competitors are Jill Belasco, MVP Group International, Candle-lite and Langley/Empire Candle - and, of course, anyone in China that has a stove and metal pitcher.

Q: How about some advice for this week's "20 in Their 20s." What three things do you wish you had known then? Is there anything you are glad you didn't know when you started?

1) Family is always more important than business; 2) You don't have to be the smartest guy in the room; and 3) Never, never, never borrow money using a swap to fix the interest rate. I am glad I did not know how hard it is to make a good burning candle when I started or I would have given up.

Q: What's been your biggest challenge?

When the candle business changed, our sales dropped 80 percent in a few years. That was tough! It was like being a brewery when Prohibition hit. Keeping it all going until we could change our product mix, there were some dark moments. But what I learned is that perseverance has no equal.

Q: What is the biggest business mistake you ever made?

I have tried so many things that didn't work, but thank God none has been fatal. I bought all the equipment to start a glass factory. Another time I tried to get in the metal-stamping business. Another big fail was that I got into the fire log business. Each one of these was a $300,000-plus mistake.

Q: What is the smartest business decision you ever made?

Going into business for myself. I have never worked for anyone since I quit water skiing for a living when I was 23. 



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