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  • January 26, 2024 5 min read

    Published in Maine Biz
    Michele Gilfoil, founder of Planet Botanicals, manufactures skin care products with ingredients such as seaweed from Maine harvesters at her facility at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook.

    Planet Botanicals was founded in 2008 by Michele Gilfoil, who transitioned from a career as a Wall Street banker to a full-time focus on manufacturing all-natural skin care products. They use plant-based ingredients such as seaweed from Maine harvesters and shea butter from Africa.

    Last August, the company was invited to distribute its seaweed products to all 49 Sea Bags retail locations throughout the U.S.

    Mainebiz asked Gilfoil about the company’s start and evolution. Here’s an edited transcript.

    Mainebiz: What brought you to skin care?

    Michele Gilfoil: I grew up in coastal South Portland where I developed an appreciation for the ocean and the natural environment. That eventually led me to start Planet Botanicals while working as an investment banker on Wall Street in New York City.

    On a business trip to Ghana, I was introduced to a local women’s shea butter cooperative and was astounded by shea butter’s ability to soften my skin. Struggling to find skin care products made without toxic chemicals, I decided to create my own formula using shea butter and other plant-based ingredients from growers around the world. 

    MB: How did you develop your skin care into a commercial line?

    MG: I come from a family of professional chefs and formulating a skin care product is similar to cooking. I had an appreciation for research, and experimented making a cream whose characteristics included soaking into the skin and deeply hydrating yet not washing away or feeling sticky.

    Combining all these features in a product was quite challenging and time-consuming. I would try oils and write down the effect on my skin. I tried many emulsifiers and different percentages until I came up with a cream that was deeply moisturizing yet not greasy.

    Products have been placed in outlets such as about 50 Whole Foods stores and, more recently, all 49 Sea Bags stores in the U.S.

    For a time, I was shipping products from my New York City apartment in the evening while working full-time in banking. But I wanted to be based in Maine, and since my company was growing, I procured a 2,200-square-foot warehouse early on at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook and started manufacturing my products there. 

    MB: How did you build the business?

    MG: In 2008, I did a trunk show at Henri Bendel in New York City. I started selling into specialty skin care retailers and independent natural food stores in the New England and New York City area. I obtained placement in the Portland Whole Foods store in 2009. Sales did well, we hired sales reps and grew our distribution into about 50 Whole Foods stores from Maine to New York.

    When starting my company, I wanted to make sure it was family- and Maine-oriented. My father, George Gilfoil, is the sales and marketing director. With a career in marketing and a MBA from MIT, he has done a terrific job at growing our retail customer base. In addition, my mother and sisters are involved in product development. We also employ part-time staff to manufacture and ship the products when needed. 

    MB: Tell us about the transition from shea butter to seaweed.

    MG: After reading many scientific research papers about seaweed, I realized seaweed has multiple bioactive components with tremendous benefits, for the skin such as anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and hydrating benefits. I selected five types of Maine seaweed and started formulating products. 

    Our first product was a body cream called the Seaweed Dream Cream. The feedback from friends and family was very enthusiastic. Soon after, I launched the full seaweed collection at the Indie Beauty Expo in New York City in 2018 where Planet Botanicals Seaweed Beauty collection was recognized as a Top 10 Indie Beauty Skincare Brand. This award has helped us become recognized at the national level and given us additional proof of the value of seaweed as an ingredient in skin care products.

    MB: What types of seaweed are you using? 

    MG: Bladder wrack, sea lettuce, sugar kelp, Irish moss and rockweed. They are grown and harvested naturally in the clean, cool waters off the coast of Maine. 

    MB: How much seaweed do you buy?

    MG: We bought 300 pounds of fresh kelp last year. We expect our use of seaweed to increase. 

    MB: How did you scale up distribution of the seaweed line?

    MG: We have a multichannel distribution strategy that includes selling to cosmetic retailers, specialty distribution channels and direct to consumer.

    We sought out the Portland Jetport as a strategic distribution partner where many travelers stop by their shop looking for unique gifts from Maine. Our products sell well there and have allowed us to reach a national and international consumer base. Once people take home our products, they start re-ordering directly online.

    Another example of a specialty retailer is Sea Bags.  Several years ago, we collaborated with their Mother’s Day gift offering. After strong sales of our seaweed products in their flagship store in Portland, Sea Bags invited us to distribute our seaweed products to all 49 Sea Bags retail locations throughout the U.S. in August 2023.

    We are also sold in a number of gift and specialty shops throughout New England such as Heritage Seaweed in Portland.

    MB: What about direct-to-consumer?

    MG: In 2024, our marketing objective is to build on our existing consumer relationships and grow sales direct-to-consumer through social media marketing, videos and email strategies. Educating the consumer about the benefits of seaweed and how to achieve healthy skin will be primary areas of focus for us. 

    MB: Tell us about your growth trends.

    MG: The year-to-date increase in revenue, as compared to 2022, is 70%. We are on track to continue this growth in 2024. Our sales are in the six figures. 

    MB: Tell us about investment and financing.

    MG: Planet Botanicals is self-funded. We are growing organically and reinvesting our profits on product innovation and sales expansion. 

    MB: Plans on the horizon?

    MG: We are actively developing nationwide distribution opportunities through specialty retailers, boutiques and other natural skin care channels. We will also be extending our marketing reach direct to the consumer through social media. 

    We are working on product innovation with seaweed as a primary ingredient and developing a face care line for launch in 2024. We plan to hire additional staff for manufacturing our products.

    MB: Any observations around the potential for advancing the seaweed industry?

    MG: Seaweed is widely recognized as a food supplement buts its commercial application in cosmetics remains in a nascent stage. Through its product-innovation and marketing efforts, Planet Botanicals will continue making notable contributions to help drive the growing use of seaweed in the skincare sector. 

    As an example, I was a speaker at the Global Seagriculture Conference in Portland in September. In my presentation, I discussed the numerous bioactive components of seaweed, their benefits for the skin and the potential market for this ingredient. I am also active member of the Maine Seaweed Council which promotes sustainable cultivation to protect seaweed’s ecosystem. 

    I am very excited about the future of Maine seaweed and the active market development role that Planet Botanical is playing in advancing the use of seaweed in the skincare industry.


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