Alabama candy manufacturer tastes sweet success in overseas markets

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Arik Sokol

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama– From a modest candy factory tucked away in a corner of suburban Birmingham, Scott Green satisfies sweet-tooth cravings in more than 50 countries across the globe.

Green’s firm, Creative Concepts in Irondale, produces Pucker Powder, a sugary confection that is dispensed from custom-designed machines to fill plastic tubes in colorful layers. The company has 7,500 dispensing units in the field, primarily at theme parks, resorts, gift shops and attractions, but they also can be found at pumpkin patches, corn mazes and haunted houses.

For Green, Pucker Powder’s appeal is that customers can mix and match flavors such as watermelon, blue bubblegum and black cherry while filling the transparent tubes, making a sort of edible artwork at the same time. No two tubes are exactly alike.

“We’re really an interactive company,” Green said. “It’s really about the kids choosing the destiny of their candy.”

Alabama trade officials have hailed the exporting success of Green’s candy factory, which today derives about 30 percent of its revenue from overseas sales. While Pucker Powder today is sold from Scandinavia to Australia, Green has plans to expand the firm’s international business.

“They started off very small in exporting, but it has gotten to be a big part of their business,” said Hilda Lockhart, director of the International Trade Division of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “They have gotten what I call the ‘export bug.’ They are one of our success stories.”

Pucker Powder also caught the attention of Ro Khanna, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce, who toured the Irondale manufacturing facility. In his 2012 book “Entrepreneurial Nation,” Khanna wrote that Pucker Powder’s export success shows “there’s hope for almost every small business across our nation to go global.”

At the Irondale candy factory, Green is working on a plan to develop small dispensing machines that can be installed in tiny family-owned shops in Latin American cities. He is taking a second stab at setting up an operation in China so he can expand sales there. He sees potential in Brazil.

“We want to bring Pucker Powder to the masses,” he said.

Green’s candy machines actually got their start in the late 1990s as sand dispensers that allowed kids to make colorful, layered designs inside bottles. His firm even sold some of the SandBlast dispensers to Carnival Cruises Lines at a trade show. Green’s wife Kathy later had the idea of replacing the sand with tasty powder.

“It was just a migration for us,” Green said.

Almost from the first, trade show visits exposed the company to potential international clients. In 2004, the firm secured a Pucker Powder deal with a theme park in Australia and a customer in the United Kingdom. A couple of years later, the firm’s reach in Europe began expanding. It now produces the powder in France, the only site other than Irondale where it is made.

The company today sells Pucker Powder throughout a large chunk of the Middle East, including Jordan, Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. “That shocked me a little bit, to be honest.” Green says of the product’s popularity there. “There is just a lot of opportunity that we haven’t tapped.”

To build the firm’s international business, Green has gotten assistance from Lockhart’s office at the Alabama Department of Commerce and from the Alabama International Trade Center, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Alabama that provides counseling to small- and medium-size businesses across the state on trade issues. The AITC has provided research assistance on matters such as foreign markets and product approval requirements. The Alabama Small Business Development Center also has been a resource.

To expand in China, Green’s firm has taken advantage of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Gold Key program, which helps businesses identify foreign markets and make sales there.

A trade mission to Colombia organized by federal and state trade officials demonstrated the potential of that market to him.

“We were well received in Bogota, were set up with great prospects, and had amazing support from the Department of Commerce staff,” Green said. “I look forward to other trade missions and think they are very useful.”

Trade shows are still an important way to expand the business. The firm attends around a dozen or more shows each year, in U.S. hotspots such as Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando and New York, as well as overseas. This year, the company will be represented as shows in Dubai and Germany, Italy or Spain, and possibly Singapore or China. Green’s cousin, Bruce Goldstein, director of sales and an investor in the firm, handles much of that duty.

Green thinks the company’s international business can rise from its current level of about 30 percent of the firm’s revenue.

“It will be interesting to see where that goes. I think it has the opportunity to get to 50-50.”