Dynamist Blog

Competition is the Mother of Innovation

The LAT's David Colker tells the story of how the last soap factory in town has managed to survive despite low-cost competition from China. It's clear that soap-making doesn't have a big future in Los Angeles, but the story also a tribute to the ingenuity that has allowed the company to find new markets and new operating methods.

Hoping to trim one of his biggest remaining expenses, electricity, he contacted the Department of Water and Power. "They told me if I could shut down by 1 p.m., they could give me a much better rate," Shugar said. He moved the plant's starting time back to 5 a.m. to meet the cutoff time, resulting in 40% savings.

One of his most valuable assets was his mechanical engineer, Cheng Lim, who came to Shugar from Jergens when that company closed its Burbank plant in 1992. Lim could have stayed with the giant company, based in Cincinnati, but "my wife did not want to go," he said. "Too cold there."

Lim adapted the Shugar production line for use by fewer employees.

For example, a worker once stood at a conveyer belt to pick up the finished bars of soap, one by one, and turn them 90 degrees in preparation for the wrapping machine. Lim divided the belt into two strips, with one traveling slightly faster than the other. The bars thus turned without human intervention.

"Without him," Shugar said, "I would have to move to China."

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