Nice & natural
The little Northland company Washbar is taking on the world with its all-natural skin and coat care products for horses and hounds, as HELEN FIRTH discovers
Sometimes the best businesses blossom from just one simple idea. That’s what happened when Washbar founder Jules Smith was approached by a friend with an extremely itchy dog. Jules, who had been playing around with soap-making as a hobby, came up with a recipe she thought might just soothe severe flea dermatitis. She sent the bar off and thought nothing much of it, until her friend contacted her a couple of weeks later to say the stuff was amazing. Jules, who didn’t even own a dog at the time, started asking around and discovered itchy skin was an extremely common canine complaint, and so the Whangarei-based company Washbar was born.
That soap devised by Jules contained soothing, all-natural ingredients, such as lemon-scented tea tree and neem to repel fleas and ticks. It’s the same recipe that today sells as the Original Washbar Soap for Dogs. However, things have grown exponentially since Jules started playing around at home; Washbar is now the single biggest-selling dog wash product in New Zealand, and exports to nine countries, including Australia, Hong Kong, China and Sweden.
Although Jules hand-made that first bar of soap herself, she realised she could only produce 20 bars at a time, which wasn’t really a business, so she found a contract manufacturer to make up her recipe. The minimum volume was 2000 bars and when the first order arrived, Jules wasn’t too sure what to do with it all. She began to phone retailers around the country, but one of the first shops she approached told her nobody would ever wash a dog with a bar of soap. “I got off the phone and thought, I’m so lucky my neighbour has a digger, because now we can bury the whole lot and I can get back to my life!” she laughs. However, Jules is clearly tenacious and with a background in sales and marketing she had sold her soap into 70 retail stores around New Zealand within three months.
It’s been a huge lifestyle change for Jules, who moved from Auckland to Northland 10 years ago, after working in ‘corporate land’ at Hewlett Packard. She and husband Pete Gregory live on a beautiful 40-acre block at Kokopu, west of Whangarei, where they are completely off the grid; they rely on solar power, grow their own vegetables and have a herd of goats. Two years after Jules established Washbar, the business became bigger than she could manage on her own, and Pete left his job as an agricultural fencing contractor to work with her in the company.
Naturally, most horse owners are also dog owners, and when horse people started using the original bar on their equines as well, the feedback was positive. Jules and Pete (who both used to ride and at one time owned seven horses) brought out the larger-size Horse & Hound Shampoo Bar in response. Jules is incredibly passionate about ingredients and formulated something that, besides cleaning, would help keep the ticks at bay; what she didn’t realise was that her particular combination of ingredients would do many more things than she had ever imagined. “The Horse & Hound bar helps sort out mud fever, ringworm, lice, ticks and rain scald, plus it makes white horses really white,” says Jules.
Amusingly, all of Washbar’s products are
tested on humans, before they go anywhere near an animal. Pete uses the Horse & Hound soap himself, to shave with. “It lathers up well and I don’t get shaving rashes like I used to with shaving gels,” he says. “There is nothing animal-grade about anything we do. The contract manufacturers we use are making some of the top-end natural cosmetic brands in New Zealand.”
The other thing, says Jules, is the soap is extremely economical. “We gave the Wilson sisters a bar of our soap – they found they got as many washes out of one bar of soap as from a litre of shampoo. So we basically say it’s a litre of shampoo in a brown paper bag.” Great Barrier and would put the oil in his kayak and paddle it round to the boat to bring it over to the mainland for us. It used to turn up in recycled whiskey bottles!” Now they source their kanuka oil from the Coromandel, and manuka from an iwi-based collective on the East Coast, because it contains the highest level of actives available. are expensive ingredients, but the couple love that the bulk of the money goes back to the indigenous people.
“It’s not enough for us that our products work,” she explains. “The ingredients also have to be as natural as we can possibly make them, and ideally bought direct from the growers. We want to make sure the land hasn’t been plundered, and that it’s fair trade.
“It’s bigger than us. It sounds a bit naff, but we talk about Washbar love. It’s more than just a product – it’s about nurturing the community and the land.”
Washbar also supports several organisations and has been a major sponsor of the Kaimanawa Stallion Challenges, as well as working with Mobility Dogs, four SPCAS and Free as a Bird (a battery hen and poultry rescue).