When Kate Cheney Chappell was living in Paris and attending the Sorbonne, it didn’t cross her mind that she would one day be at the head of a natural toothpaste empire. But Chappell and her husband Tom have used their business to make a difference in the world, and are now inseparable from the Maine brand.
The Chappells launched Tom’s of Maine in 1970, two years after they had left behind the corporate life in Philadelphia for the “back to the land” movement in Maine. At the time, they were raising five children, and Tom was working for his father. However, both Chappell and her husband had strong entrepreneurial streaks and an appreciation of the natural world. That combination was, as it turns out, the perfect recipe for a successful toothpaste business.
At the time Tom’s was launched, Kate explains, “An awareness of ecology wasn’t uppermost in people’s minds. It was a new concept that the life of the planet is interrelated.” However, the company and its message still found a loyal following early on among people they had come to know in Maine.
Chappell and her husband first tried out their all-natural product on a circle of friends. They were then able to expand to Boston. Once the toothpaste became popular in Boston, orders from the West Coast began to flow in.
“Of course California was into it,” says Chappell.
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Part of the product’s appeal at the time was its uniqueness because there was nothing else like it. In keeping with the back to the land movement, Kate and Tom were among the population who shopped at health food stores, grew their own food, and were very health conscious. However, they noticed there wasn’t a natural option for toothpaste. So they decided, “We can offer something that’s natural and different from the saccharin, preservatives and artificial dyes in other brands.” Now, nearly five decades later, Tom’s of Maine toothpaste is still selling well.
While Tom’s of Maine was growing and expanding, Chappell wasn’t just running a company and raising five children. She was also attending college and helping to run an alternative school. Chappell served as a parent-teacher of French and English, and managing Handstands, card and calendars with the students’ original art.
At Tom’s of Maine, Chappell was heavily involved with new product development as well as the communications and marketing side of the business. The marketing side included the ‘Dear Friends’ campaign. The result was thousands upon thousands of messages, comments, and suggestions to which Chappell personally responded. Being involved in these aspects of the company gave Chappell an outlet for her creativity. And the company enjoyed the benefit of Chappell’s insights.
Since 2006, Tom’s of Maine has been owned by Colgate. But Chappell explains, “that doesn’t mean its mission or vision is different.” That was very important to the Chappells during the sale of the company. So important in fact, they took a rather unorthodox approach to the negotiations by beginning them with a poem. The corporate negotiators were not shaken. The next week they responded with their own poem creating the opportunity for the Chappells to underscore the necessity of keeping their original values intact. Today, the company accepts items to be recycled if consumers send them back as a means of honoring those values.
Ten years after the sale of Tom’s of Maine, the Chappells are running a new venture. Ramblers Way Farm, based in Kennebunk, sells fine wool clothing and continues the couple’s vision of a company that furthers their ideals; natural products sustainably made in the U.S.
“You can make a difference faster in business sometimes than through politics or legislation,” explains Chappell.
Even while running Ramblers Way Farm, Chappell finds time to devote to her true passion of creating art. She works out of a studio located in Westbrook’s historic Dana Warp Mill, painting, creating installation works, and continuing to spread her message of the importance of appreciating nature. She also has a studio on Monhegan that like many studios on the island, is open for the public to observe the creative process.
Chappell is active in Peregrine Press, Maine’s oldest non-profit printmaking cooperative. At her alma mater USM, she founded a Center for Book Art that provides lectures, exhibits and workshops. Kate’s work is in many private and public collections including, the New Britain Museum of American Art, The New York Public Library and the University of New England where she was included in the Maine Women Pioneers in Art exhibit.
Kate Chappell helped start a company that is now indelibly linked to the state of Maine. She used that company to further her ideals and to make a positive difference in the world. She’s active in the community and the art world and continues her commitment to advancing her vision.
That’s why Kate Chappell is a Maine Icon.