The 1999 soft launch of Winnipeg-based eco-friendly bath-and-body company Tiber River Naturals was, by any objective standard, a failure. Then an uninspired photocopier-sales rep, founder Adriana De Luca was looking for, well, any form of employment, provided it would allow her to quit her day job to stay home with her new baby daughter. “I tutored, I delivered newspapers and I made soap,” she recalls.
The soap-making was a side hustle inspired by her nanna’s traditional recipe, one made with pig fat back in Italy. But without her grandma’s watchful eye, De Luca’s experiments proved fruitless. “I don’t have a chemistry degree,” she admits. “The first efforts exploded all over my basement.”
That might have been the moment most of us would have thrown in the literal towel, but not De Luca. No matter what you call it—gumption? stick-to-it-iveness?— it’s this exact affinity for agility and risk that has afforded Tiber River its impressive five-year sales growth of 478%, securing the No. 193 spot on this year’s Growth 500 ranking.
Like most moms, De Luca excels at constantly rethinking her strategy—and changing course as necessary. Tiber River’s operating mandate, in fact, reflects a philosophy the leadership team affectionately calls “vuja de”: it reads, “We always doubt the default and look for a better way. We never stay content with doing things just because that’s how we’ve always done them.”
De Luca hails from a long line of freethinkers: her naturalist father didn’t believe in using antibiotics to treat her childhood ear infections; instead, his preferred treatment was a drop of chamomile tea. It was also her dad’s “weird but brilliant” suggestion to add zucchini into the soap mix that would later inspire De Luca to mix other fridge-friendly fruits and vegetables into her prototypes.
Back in the late ’90s, “natural” and “organic” were far from buzzwords in the Canadian beauty and wellness market, one that’s since swelled into a billion-dollar-plus industry, according to a 2018 Statista report, “Cosmetics in Canada.” (Skincare accounts for $409 million of this, its sales up 12% last year, a spike larger than both fragrance and makeup.) The same report found that fully half of consumers now shop for the most- natural products they see on shelves.
Ever the pioneer, De Luca began selling her organic wares at small parties for friends. When attendees requested hand creams or face washes, De Luca would whip up custom products. And when her base embraced her bath-and-body line enough to want to throw their own events, De Luca leaned into the Tupperware party model.
Well convinced of her market, De Luca decided to switch gears, opening a bricks-and-mortar store on Winnipeg’s Stafford Street. For three years, handmade soap and lotions flew off shelves faster than she could make them. But, unsurprisingly, conventional success didn’t suit De Luca. “I don’t know why I thought a store would be less work, but toward the end, I was there from open to close every day,” she recalls. By 2004, De Luca also had a newborn son and faced the same problem as before. “The whole point was to be with my kids more, so I closed the store.” Back to square one.
But where De Luca saw retail defeat, Michelle Lalonde—herself a boutique owner who stocked De Luca’s soaps—saw opportunity. Having long been a fan of Tiber River products, but not its packaging, Lalonde suggested an alliance. De Luca could handle the products, and Lalonde, with her background in corporate sales and marketing, could handle the branding.
By 2005, the first order of business for the partners was to open two new Tiber River stores, complete with on-site facials and manicures. The self-advertising store-spa hybrid worked so well, in fact, that De Luca and Lalonde developed a new plan to franchise Tiber River’s model. In theory, it was the perfect plan—but in reality, not so. “By then, we both had three kids and the travel alone was too much,” says Lalonde. Before a single franchise had opened, they bailed on the plan.
If this back and forth sounds whiplash-inducing, Elspeth Murray—an associate dean at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business—suggests you may not be taking enough risks. “Too many companies suffer from an unfortunate Catch-22,” she says, “where they get more risk-averse as they get more successful, and they end up locked into one business model.” With more money at stake and red tape to navigate, businesses end up playing not to lose rather than to win. And while every company says it strives for innovation, few have the guts for reinvention. “Most companies would kill for this capacity for change,” says Murray. “Tiber River has built it right into their company’s DNA.”
Once again, De Luca and Lalonde veered back to the home-party model. But in the dozen years that had passed since the product’s launch, the world of direct sales had been turned upside down, largely thanks to social media. Parties had been replaced by virtual groups and online newsletters. Still, Tiber River launched its direct-sales division in 2012, upgraded its software to an app that tracks orders and shipping in 2014, and today, nearly 1,800 “consultants” rep the brand—a division that now accounts for 70% of sales.
This setup comes with some inevitable risks: Tiber River is vigilant of “kitnappers,” the rare bad apples who disappear after their pile of discounted product arrives. But even if the arrangement makes the brand’s marketing manager Mya Horley “a little nervous,” Tiber River believes in giving its consultants lots of leeway to sell the product however they see fit. “We say, ‘Use our logo, here are the guidelines and perimeters, but as far as selling goes, be an individual,’” she explains. Some prefer a retro, Avon-style meet up, while others have set up virtual stores on Facebook and Instagram.
These days, the next big curveball hitting “Happiness Headquarters”—Tiber River’s 11,000-sq.-foot head office and manufacturing facility—will come in the form of a new advertising push that instructs customers to “Buy Less to Buy Better.” (“What company ask you to buy less?” jokes Horley.) “Up until recently, people would pay a premium for a natural, sustainable product. Now they expect it—recyclable packaging just isn’t enough,” Harley says.
So is the 86-person staff at all worried their new campaign might tank sales of its “Citrus Got Real” body butter or “Knotty By Nature” hair detangler? Of course not. “The whole story of Tiber River is full of change,” says De Luca. Then, a time-honoured parenting credo: “It’s one about doing what you need to do to make it work.”