TOWN 'N COUNTY - As a high school business teacher, Erin Meagher strived to challenge and educate students about career opportunities.
But her teens turned the tables, catapulting their instructor from public education into private enterprise as founder and owner-operator of a unique small business with an increasingly large reach.
Meagher launched her Tampa-based corporation in December 2009, dubbing it Beneficial Blends. But she chose a more unusual brand name for her line of coconut oil products: Kelapo.
The name is a loose translation of the word for "coconut tree" in Malaysia, among the world's top exporters of coconut oil.
In a few years her products have become available at natural-food stores and groceries in all 50 states, and will get a big boost in August when they debut on shelves at Publix Greenwise supermarkets throughout the Southeast.
"We'll hit $3 million in sales this year, which is a huge, huge accomplishment for us in such a short time," Meagher said. "We're growing, and we're growing rapidly."
Meagher, 30, is a graduate of East Lake High School in Pinellas County and the North Carolina State, Raleigh. For 2½ years after graduation, she taught business at Pinellas County's Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole.
Students apparently were impressed with her zeal.
"They were like, 'You're so enthusiastic, why are you here with us? You should go out there and do something on your own,'" they urged, Meagher said.
"Entrepreneurship was one of my classes," she said, "But I didn't realize what it was I wanted to do until I found the coconut oil, because I believe in it 100 percent and use it every day and stand behind it. That's when I knew it was a product I could work with.''
The revelation came after reading about a Spring Hill physician researching ways to help her husband, an Alzheimer's patient.
"She was researching ways to help him, and one of the ways she found was coconut oil. So I read some more articles and saw how good it was for you," Meagher said of ongoing claims of its health benefits, especially for patients with Alzheimer's and some other diseases.
Last week, the University of South Florida's Byrd Alzheimer's Institute launched an eight-month study of the benefits of a coconut oil beverage as a treatment option for patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's. The study funded by a $250,000 grant from a private foundation is the first such clinical trial, according to the institute.
Meagher recognized a need for virgin coconut oil, including as a cooking ingredient that can substitute for butter and hydrogenated oils. "There wasn't anyone saying their product was very high quality with transparent and responsible sourcing methods; and you could only get it overseas."
For eight months, Meagher worked from her South Tampa home, researching everything from food-product certification to labeling requirements. In 2009 she opened a Benjamin Road office, close to Tampa International Airport.
She debuted her coconut oil line at an October 2010 natural foods expo in Boston, a worthwhile expedition that landed the fledgling company's first national accounts: TJ Maxx and the parent company's Marshalls stores.
The company strives to become "the national healthful brand for coconut oil" to serve people switching to the product for themselves or family members, she said.
The company's social-conscious practices include buying coconut products only from Fair Trade-certified farms, mostly in Sri Lanka, "which means we pay extra to make sure they have better working conditions," Meagher said. "We're very concerned about what's going on in the communities we do business with."
The company has three full-time and two part-time employees, plus an Atlanta-based vice president of sales. I just kept slowly building up, hiring one person at a time," including her younger sister and one of her former students.
"We're lean and mean," the founder likes to say of her small crew.
Meagher and her staff turned out on a muggy morning last week to provide manual labor behind the scenes at Lowry Park Zoo, where Kelapo has become a sponsor of the elephant exhibit. The workers, assigned to shovel fresh dirt into the previously muddy nighttime quarters for the zoo's African impalas, are scheduled to return three more times during the yearlong sponsorship.
As the crew worked, observers included several of the zoo's five elephants in a neighboring enclosure. Suitably, the Kelapo mascot is an elephant, a symbol of wisdom and intelligence.