Written by Caitlyn Canby,San Diego North Economic Development Council
Michael Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, was celebrated at San Diego North EDC’s first annual North County Spotlight on Wednesday, September 21 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. Bronner shared Dr. Bronner’s origin story, starting with his great, great grandfather, Emmanuel Heilbronner, a third-generation master soap maker in Germany.
Creating Magic Soaps
Heilbronner immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island, making his home in Chicago. His parents stayed in Germany and were killed in the Holocaust. Instead of turning the pain of those circumstances into hate, he pivoted to a message of harmony, love, and peace with the hope that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again.
“There is more that unites us than divides us,” said Bronner. “We have our common humanity, and we all worship the same ‘divine.’” These are part his grandfather’s “Moral ABC’s” that he would share with whoever would listen. In Chicago, he was admitted to a mental hospital for sharing these messages, where he escaped twice.
After hitchhiking to California, however, Bronner said his grandfather “fit right in.” He became a “Soapbox Orator,” sharing his message and bringing his soap with him as a thank you to his listeners. Soon, he realized people were taking the soap, but not staying to listen. So he literally “put the message on the bottle,” and his words are still immortalized on the soap labels to this day.
Heilbronner also included his personal phone number on each bar of soap and would spend time talking to anyone and everyone who would call. With no money spent on advertising back then, this and word-of-mouth helped Dr. Bronner’s become the #1 selling natural soap in America.
When it was time to pass the business on to the next generation, the inheritance tax was substantial. Many advised Bronner to sell the inherited property to pay off the taxes, but Bronner said he and his family believe that philanthropy isn’t “afterward when we have already been successful. It’s here and now,” part of everything they do. They donated the inherited property to the Boys and Girls Club, which is now the site of the Valley Center Boys and Girls Club.
Despite some obstacles, under the leadership of Bronner and his brother David Bronner, the company grew from $4 million annual revenue in 1998 to $169 million annual revenue in 2021 and from 20 employees in 2000 to 297 employees in 2021.
Bronner attributes much of this success to the company’s six “Cosmic Principles:” work hard, do right by customers, treat employees like family, be fair to suppliers, treat the earth like home, and fund and fight for what’s right. It’s all part of what he calls “Constructive Capitalism, where you share the profits with the workers and the Earth from which you made it,” said Bronner.
San Diego North EDC thanks Dr. Bronner’s as the “Centerpiece Sponsor,” for the North County Spotlight event, donating Dr. Bronner’s chocolate barsin the center baskets alongside spice blend samples created and donated by Encinitas-based Healthy On You.
SDNEDC plans to host a similar event in 2023 – spotlighting one or more of the unique business leaders that make North County great.