Entrepreneur Dan Ritter hits a retail sweet spot with BugBand brand

AMERICAN MADE: Bartow manufacturer builds $4M insect repellent business

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The hum of mosquitoes might be an annoyance for most people, but for Dan Ritter their buzzing means something entirely different — profits.

From now until September is peak season for the Bartow-based businessman. Each day his facility at the cul-de-sac of Riverside Drive in Cartersville produces about 15,000 of their proprietary BugBands. 

"They're 80 percent polyethylene plastic and 20 percent geraniol oil," the owner of Effective Environmental Systems (EES) Inc. said. "The oil is mixed into the plastic while the plastic is in a heated, molded state. It's done under high pressure so the geraniol won't bleed off."

Geraniol is a type of organic alcohol that's found in citronella oil, rose oil and palmarosa oil, among other essential oils. After conducting almost two decades of studies, researchers at the University of Florida determined it was one of the most effective naturally-occurring insect repellents out there.

In 2002 Ritter decided to purchase the university's "trade-secret strength” geraniol patents. A year later, the BugBand brand officially hit the market. 

"It seemed like an opportunity, and we had never done anything on the retail front before," he said. "Everything else we've done has been through wholesale."  
 
The 76-year-old Cartersville resident was born in a small town just outside of Davenport, Iowa. After leaving the United States Marine Corps., he worked for a division of The Dow Chemical Co. before starting his own aerosol packaging company in Marietta.

He decided to open another business, EES, in 1990. He purchased five acres of land in Bartow County and began manufacturing janitorial and sanitary supply products.

"We were looking to build a new building and the land prices in Cobb County just got so expensive, we started looking up here," he said, "where it was more reasonable to buy land."

EES, which still manufactures various odor-control products such as air freshener beads and gel deodorants, produces about 15 different BugBand-branded items, including sprays, towelettes, granular products and bed bug insecticide.

Today, the company employs 15 people and generates about $4 million in annual revenue.

"We started off with just little mom and pop shops and gotten up to where we're now in Walmart, Target, Bass Pro, Cabela's, a whole bunch of places," Ritter said. "We've even got a sponsorship with the Boy Scouts of America."

The eponymous BugBand, naturally, is their top seller. The insect-repelling bands come in nine varieties, including a glow-in-the-dark variation.

Mosquitoes and their irritating ilk are naturally drawn to the carbon dioxide produced by humans. The geraniol-imbued products work, Ritter said, by effectively "messing with the insects' sensory perception."

He compared his products to other insect repellents, whose primary ingredient is diethyltoluamide, or as it is more commonly referred, DEET.

"Our product is as effective as DEET up to 25 percent," Ritter said. "Above 30 percent DEET, DEET does not become any more effective, it just lasts longer ... meaning if you have to replace DEET every six hours, you'll have to replace our geraniol-based spray every four hours."

Ritter said his formula is superior to DEET-containing repellents for several reasons. For one, his geraniol-based products aren't a solvent like DEET, which means accidentally spraying BugBand on your sunglasses or watch won't ruin them.

Then there's the health side of the equation. 

"From a medical standpoint, if you spray [DEET] on your skin, it will absorb through and get into your bloodstream," Ritter said. "DEET has the ability to penetrate that barrier into your spinal fluid, and thus, go into your brain."

Although BugBand technically falls under the EES umbrella, Ritter said selling both retail insect repellent and wholesale janitorial supplies means he's essentially running two different businesses.

"It's become more of a challenge because it's two totally separate markets and two totally separate sales forces," he said. Whereas he might meet with wholesalers interested in purchasing his EES products once every four to six weeks, he said he may only get one or two meetings a year to pitch his BugBand products to retailers.

And those meetings, Ritter said, are pretty much "make or break" for business.

"They all are different, of course," he said. "Most of them won't see you unless you have some other distribution established already."

Ritter said his long-term business strategy is to find more retailers to carry his wares, in addition to squeezing more of his product line onto the shelf space of his existing retail partners.

He said he expects the BugBand brand to continue to add on new product lines. The company's latest release, Ritter said, is a tick repellent that came onto the market earlier this year.

Two sectors Ritter said he'd love to enter are golf and agriculture. 

"We already have the products, we just need to find a way to get into the distribution system," he said. "There's over 20,000 golf courses and we have to find some wholesaler who's already calling on those and we'll add that to his line."

Ritter said he takes a fairly barebones approach to marketing. He does some radio advertising and runs ads on a couple of hunting shows on television, and he has sponsored several race car drivers. If you're ever around West Cartersville, you might see his BugBand-branded sports utility vehicle out and about — considering its rainbow-hued paint job, it won't be hard to spot.

With nearly 30 years in the market, Ritter said he's experienced his fair share of ups and downs. 

"We've put a number of things out there we thought we're going to be good movers that didn't move. We've had an item with QVC TV we thought would sell a lot and it didn't," he said. "But you can't let any of those negative things get you turned down. You just have to keep coming back with something new."

Indeed, he credits the success of his small manufacturing business to a simple practice — not being afraid to fail. 

"We've been at it, what, 28 years?" he said. "So I guess we're here to stay."

More information on Ritter's products is online at www.bugband.net.