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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Bag Balm Moves Into The Future With New Owners

Charlotte Albright
Bag Balm cans await filling at a Lyndonville factory. The company has recently been sold by the family that founded it 115 years ago.

A company that started in Lyndonville 115 years ago making a salve for cow’s udders has new owners, and they hope to tap bigger markets.

Yellow, waxy Bag Balm soothes human as well as animal skin, and fans tout other uses, too. For example, incoming CEO John Packard has seen it quiet squeaky springs.

Every dog owner should have a can. --CEO John Packard on the untapped market for Bag Balm

Packard’s office still has boxes on the floor and bare walls, but he’s already got big plans for this quirky product. The middle-aged UVM baseball Hall of Famer works with the two out-of-state venture capital firms who bought the assets of  Bag Balm from the family who founded it. Commuting to Lyndonville from his home in Rye, New Hampshire, Packard sees a bright future for this iconic Vermont-made product.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Bag Balm's new CEO, John Packard, studies a map showing distribution centers and retail stores that carry the Vermont-made salve.

“It’s early but I think there are two separate roads to go down. One is what I am calling now, which could change, but Bag Balm people and Bag Balm pets,” Packard says.

He says he knows the agriculture market, having once run an organic fertilizer company.

Bag Balm began as a softener for cow’s udders and made its way into homes when farmers’ wives realized it softened their hands, too. To make claims for human skin care, Bag Balm will need FDA approval, a lengthy process.

Meanwhile, Packard wants to anoint the veterinary market.

Animal owners rave about Bag Balm on its Facebook page.  In fact, it was rubbed on the paws of dogs who searched the Twin Tower rubble after 9/11.

“Every vet in the country should have Bag Balm on his counter and they should be selling it, " Packard says. “There are between 80 and 100 million dogs in the United States, so let’s say the average dog owners has two dogs. That is 40 or 50 million dog owners. Every dog owner should have a can. In the history of Bag Balm we haven’t sold forty million cans.”

Typically, he says, annual sales are a few hundred thousand cans. Packard wants to add re-closable tubes, fill up half-empty Lyndonville warehouses and ship out to big stores. He’s hiring a sales team from New Jersey, where the skin care industry is big. Packard also wants local employees—all seven of them—to feel a bigger stake in growth and success.

“So I want somebody to own accounting. I want somebody to own manufacturing. I want somebody to own marketing and sales and I want that ownership from current employees,” says Packard.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Bag Balm employee Mark Perkins works on the automated assembly line and gives occasional tours at the Lyndonville factory.

So Office Manager Shawna Wilkerson feels pretty sure she can keep her job after seventeen years at Bag Balm.

“It’s really going to change, but it’s all going to be a good thing, a great thing,” she predicts.

On the third floor of an old wooden factory that needs a coat of paint and a new elevator, Steve Colby puts the caps on one-ounce tins of Bag Balm—by hand. That job may change with more automation. Colby has worked in paper mills no longer in business, so he’s a little wary.

“I’ve been in other jobs where they’ve all of a sudden closed the doors. That’s what I’m kind of worried about now, worried about whether they’re going to move the company to another country, or something like that,” Colby says.

But his new boss says Colby has nothing to fear. The first thing you see when you drive into Lyndonville is a giant green Bag Balm can jutting out from an old wooden building. CEO Packard says neither the can nor the company is leaving its birthplace.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
A Bag Balm factory building stands at entry to downtown Lyndonville.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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