Profile: Tom Chappell, Cofounder of Tom’s of Maine

Tom Chappell, Cofounder of Tom’s of Maine

Natural Product Pioneer, Theologian, Environmentalist

Unable to find natural personal-care products for themselves and their five children, Tom and Kate Chappell decided to make their own. They borrowed $5,000 from a friend to start Tom’s of Maine and began making Clearlake, the country’s first phosphate-free laundry detergent, in 1970. Five years later, Tom’s of Maine premiered the country’s first natural toothpaste to hit the fledgling commercial market for natural products.

Today Tom’s distributes more than 100 products, including toothpaste, decongestants, mouthwash and chest rubs, to drug stores and supermarkets all over the world. Astounding growth, considering the company went three years without developing a single new product in the mid-1980s.

That’s when Chappell came close to dropping out of the business world and considered selling the company. Instead the disillusioned CEO enrolled in the theology program at Harvard Divinity School. He graduated in 1991 with a master’s degree in theology and a renewed passion for the company and its goals. Soon after, Tom and Kate decided to embark on the biggest expansion in Tom’s of Maine’s 20-year history.

The expansion included more than corporate growth, says Tom and Kate’s daughter, Sarah Chappell Armentrout, who oversees Corporate Communications and Values Development for the company. The Chappells’ renewed passion also sparked a new charitable movement within the company. “We stamped out a mission, our beliefs, and our reason for being, and we’re making them an integral part of life,” explains Armentrout. Tom’s of Maine donates half-workdays on a quarterly basis to a program called Mission Ownership. From the factory line to the board of directors, the entire 100-person company meets quarterly to flesh out and actively live the Tom’s Mission.

The meetings take different forms and structures but are often held off-site on workdays. A recent Mission Ownership day comprised two days working alongside people with disabilities to repair fences and barns, clear trails, and build a wheelchair-accessible bridge. Another time, the employees strapped on hip boots and visited an estuary reserve to learn more about the natural world and how to protect it.

Glad to be able to contribute something to people and to the environment, Tom Chappell feels that working together and building relationships is the most important aspect of charity. “The potential to grow from writing a check in support of these activities is somewhat limited,” reflects Chappell.

In addition to the Mission Ownership activities, Tom’s of Maine contributes 10 percent of pre-tax profits to charitable organizations and encourages employees to donate 5 percent of their paid work time to a community organization.

— Kelly Patton