Nobody grows up thinking someday they would like to run a business selling wooden sticks. Trey Higdon certainly never did. How times have changed.
In the early 2000s, Higdon was working for a food supplier in Tampa; one of his customers made Italian ice treats and used wooden sticks manufactured in Maine. He thought he was paying too much. Could Higdon find a cheaper source? Higdon did—he found a factory in China, and placed an order. One stick led to another. Higdon kept his day job and on the side he imported sticks for the customer, Philly Swirl.
One day scanning the Internet, Higdon was surprised to see the number of ice cream makers in the U.S. “They all used wood sticks,” recalled Higdon. “I realized I had the nucleus of a business.” Higdon left his job and founded Perfect Stix, LLC, from his one-bedroom apartment; he had one customer, Philly Swirl; a supplier, computer and a credit card.
Last year the Vero Beach, Florida-based business imported four billion—that’s right, billion—100-percent white birch disposable wood products, which he supplies to the food, medical, cosmetic, craft, paint, concession and restaurant industries.
Sticks sell for pennies: A case of 10,000, 4 ½-inch ice cream sticks goes for $48—but pennies add up. Perfect Stix generates sales of $5 million, which Higdon accomplished by utilizing the Internet, cold-calling prospects and getting help from friends. His start-up costs were $250,000, paid by credit card; this included Higdon’s nine trips to China lining up several more suppliers. He also imports from Australia.
Using the Internet, Higdon got contact info on ice cream makers and worked the phone tirelessly for hours cold-calling prospects. But he landed his first ice cream biggie, Americana Foods, based in Dallas, through a friend’s help. “He didn’t know anything about sticks but he had the gift of gab and got on the phone and finagled an appointment for me,” said Higdon.
When they got to Dallas, Higdon said, “I realized I didn’t know what we were doing there. I was a one-man operation—I had one customer. They had fancy machines that made ice cream bars and they wanted me to demonstrate how my sticks fit into the ice cream bars.” Higdon’s friend didn’t help. “He said, ‘I got the appointment—the rest is up to you!’ ” He was on his way.
Higdon reported to the factory at midnight when production was shut down. He inserted his sticks into machines. “It was a disaster!” he said. “My sticks wouldn’t fit right and this shorted out the lights in the factory. Even worse, ice cream spewed all over the floor. They told us to come back when we had our act together,” said the entrepreneur.
Later Higdon discovered the problem: Only 91.5-milligram sticks fit into machines; Higdon’s were 92 milligrams. Higdon persevered. After returning to Dallas eight times, his sticks worked, and he began supplying them for Atkins Diet Bars.
Buoyed by this success, Higdon pursued other ice cream makers and landed Blue Bell, Oregon, Ciao Bella and Silhouette, among others.
A college frat brother encouraged Higdon to pursue the medical industry. “If you make ice cream sticks you can make tongue depressors,” his friend advised. The friend introduced Higdon to a broker in Jacksonville and Higdon began supplying tongue blades, tongue depressors and other sticks to medical facilities around the U.S.
Higdon continuously develops products, often at customers’ requests. For example, he designed a bow tie-shaped spoon for ice cream cups for Philly Swirl. Two years ago he patented a lollipop candy spoon that can be eaten by itself or dipped into ice cream cups, a project that cost $350,000. Higdon said it was worth every penny. “It generates sales of a half-million dollars a year.”
Until 2009, Higdon worked from home. “I ran a virtual business,” he said. “I placed orders by phone or computer; all products were shipped directly from suppliers to customers.”
But as the volume of business soared, Higdon restructured his operation. He set up an office and took warehouse space in Vero Beach, Tampa, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Dallas, where all products are stored until shipped to customers via FedEx. His FedEx tab runs $1 million a year.
Higdon runs a tight ship—five employees in his main office, including his mother-in-law, who keeps the books. Higdon handles quality control himself. He receives samples of all products that arrive in the country and okays them before they are shipped to customers.
Higdon uses six independent sales reps but he and marketing chief Laura Wood account for 75 percent of sales, taking orders by phone or computer. About 15 percent of sales originate from his website.
Looking ahead, Higdon has set his sights on sales of $10 million. He plans to do this by continuing to add products, including bio-degradable sticks and spoons, and branching into retail craft stores like Michael’s. “We can do this,” he said. “People always need sticks.”
WOOD STICK EMPIRE AT-A-GLANCE
Perfect Stix, LLC is located at 4416 U.S. Hwy. 1, Vero Beach, FL 32967
For More Info: call 800-341-0079 or visit wwwperfectstix.com
What: Imports birch wood products for ice cream and other uses.
Founded: 2002 by Trey Higdon from bedroom with computer, one customer.
Start-up cost: $250,000, via credit card
Current sales: $5 million
Forecast: $10 million by adding
products, selling retail.
Trey Higdon has made a million dollar fortune from a simple, inexpensive product: popsicle and ice cream sticks. There were many stops and starts along his journey but he now supplies to the food, medical, cosmetic, craft and restaurant industries.