Turn a corner to a space at the back of Pine Ridge Industries’ production and fulfillment facility, and you’re hit with it.
Not just the sight of racks upon racks full of the bars of soap brought in ever since Pine Ridge — the industrial arm of Schenectady ARC, which provides employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities — took over the packaging, shipping and fulfillment operations for RAD Soap Co., but the distinct smell.
It’s strong, to be sure, and takes a second to adjust to until you realize it’s the smell you get when you unwrap a fresh bar of soap — only multiplied by a thousandfold.
“It smells better than other stuff that’s been in this building,” Pine Ridge Industries chief operating officer Nathan Mandsager said. “I will say that.”
It’s a smell RAD Soap founder and chief executive officer Sue Kerber has become more than accustomed to in the past decade-plus.
Kerber founded RAD Soap out of her basement in 2009, a desperate venture to help her family out of dire financial straits. In the years since, Kerber’s company has become a model for small business success in the Capital Region. She landed a deal with Whole Foods in 2014, opened a storefront at Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and does big business over the internet, both wholesale and directly to consumers.
And the actual soap making? That’s moved from her basement to a 15,000-square-foot facility in Menands.
But with orders piling up, Kerber was looking for a partner she could contract with for fulfillment operations. At the same time, Mandsager was looking to add another area small business to Pine Ridge Industries’ roster of partners.
The match was made in a fashion unique to the COVID-19 atmosphere.
During a virtual networking event hosted by FuzeHub last summer, Mandsager spotted the RAD Soap logo and, familiar with the company, tracked down Sue Kerber and her son and co-founder, Zak, for a chat.
“I think I kind of stalked these guys,” Mandsager said.
Both sides quickly realized it was a perfect fit. Pine Ridge was looking for a new partner and RAD Soap needed a company with just the capabilities that Pine Ridge had.
“When we started talking, we realized how it could be such a good connection that we said, ‘We’ll set this up right away,’ ” Sue Kerber said. “We wanted it the week after, so we just moved on it.”
The timeline worked perfectly. RAD Soap wanted to move its fulfillment operations to Pine Ridge’s space in Glenville just in time for the rush of the holiday season, and Pine Ridge had a partner set to move out of its space at the facility at the end of October.
By the second week of November, the contents of RAD Soap’s old fulfillment center in Menands were cleared out as now all of the company’s labeling, packaging for retail and wholesale, e-commerce and shipping are handled out of Pine Ridge.
“They fill all of our orders and they do a great job,” Sue Kerber said. “These people are great.”
It was an ideal partnership for both sides, not just because of the logistical part of the operation, but through Pine Ridge and Schenectady ARC’s role in the community.
Kerber has a daughter with Down syndrome and is intimately aware of the importance of finding employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
“The community helps workers have a place to go, make a difference and contribute to society as an equal,” she said in a press release highlighting the partnership. “I think what they are doing is amazing and creative. Another thing it shows me is that I’m giving back to a community that I love.”
“Customers should be most excited that they are helping to empower a workforce that is often overlooked in our own community,” Zak Kerber said.
The workforce at Pine Ridge has appreciated the partnership as well.
“It’s really great. I do love it there,” said Pine Ridge employee Zach Gabriel. “I really love the job there. It’s really the type [of job] for me.”
Gabriel’s attention to detail and quality control has made him an invaluable part of the operation, according to Mandsager.
“Especially on our e-commerce side, fulfilling those orders,” Mandsager said. “He does a lot of the picking and packing of the products that need to go in particular orders, and ensuring that the customers are getting their proper orders.”
“I want to make sure we’ve got the right products that we need,” Gabriel said, “so the customers won’t get mad. I don’t want to make a mistake. I have to be careful and I always double-check them.”
As the partnership began, Sue Kerber was amazed with how quickly Pine Ridge got operations up and running.
“I was hesitant, because I started 11 years ago in my basement,” she said, “and these guys had it set up in a week.”
There was plenty of on-the-fly adaptation that had to be done to get everything running just right. RAD Soap’s move came with a huge number of holiday orders, and Mandsager said that eight or nine of Pine Ridge’s 65 employees were spending “all day, every day” labeling, packaging and shipping products.
While Pine Ridge has done plenty of e-commerce work in the past, Mandsager said that taking on RAD Soap as a partner was the business’ biggest venture yet on that front.
“We knew there was a risk these guys were taking to come to us,” Mandsager said. “Any kind of partnership, there’s always some risk. I don’t think I understood how risky it was until we really got into it.”
“But,” Sue Kerber added, “he didn’t make us feel like it was [a risk]. He was great.”
The partnership is just a few months old, but for both the little soap company that could and the agency that gives opportunities to a group of people who are so often overlooked, it’s been ideal.
It also gives the Pine Ridge employees the rare chance, given the agency’s other partners, to see a product they work on out on store shelves.
“This is a product these guys can be really proud that they’re working on day in and day out,” Mandsager said, “because they get to go to the store and see it there.”
That’s a feeling that still sticks with Sue Kerber more than a decade after the first bars of soap came out of her basement.
“They see where it comes from. Everyone that works for us goes through that experience,” she said.
“I still get amazed when I go into somebody’s home and it’s in their bathroom. When I go to somebody’s house and it’s something that they display, that’s surreal.”