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August 22, 2016 On the record

On the Record with Carlos Quijano, founder of Coast of Maine Organic Products

Photo / Tim Greenway Carlos Quijano started Coast of Maine Organic Products in 1996, turning waste into soil that could be sold through gardening stores and retailers like Whole Foods. In July, a private equity firm acquired a stake in the business and paid off early investors.

Carlos Quijano founded Coast of Maine Organic Products in 1996. Growing up, he spent summers in Lincolnville. After graduating from Princeton, he spent more than two decades at Chase Manhattan Bank. When he left banking, he and his wife Jean moved to Maine.

An avid gardener and composter, Quijano found himself more and more intrigued with how Maine handled (or didn't handle) waste from various industries — the fisheries, saw mills and blueberries. With initial grants, he set up a business that would compost the various wastes into something that could be used for home gardeners.

Today, Quijano and his wife live in Cumberland Foreside and Coast of Maine has an office on Munjoy Hill in Portland. Its composting operations are on 22 acres in Marion Township, Washington County. Quijano has long wanted to expand the company's footprint beyond New England and the Hudson Valley. In July, a Wellesley, Mass., private equity firm, Gemini Investors, invested in the company, buying out investors Coastal Ventures LP and Maine Venture Fund and taking an undisclosed stake. The added capital will allow Coast of Maine to expand to other U.S. markets, including the Mid-Atlantic states. Quijano and the team of 15 full-time employees and eight or nine seasonal employees will remain in place. Mainebiz caught up with Quijano recently at his office to find out more. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: How did the company grow?

Carlos Quijano: There was a compost team in state [offices], compost aficionados. We were looking at all the marine waste — from mussels, salmon, lobster. Even the transfer stations don't want it. There was also blueberry 'litter' — the leaves, stems, smaller berries. We spent four or five days traveling around the state. We came to the conclusion that everyone had a waste-disposal problem. We thought, 'Let's actually produce something.' We got a $25,000 CEI grant and a grant from Eastern Maine Development Corp. We wanted to sell an exceptional product at a premium price. We'd mix and seal bags and sell primarily in garden stores. We tested Connecticut, Boston, Maine. In a week, everything we produced had been sold.

MB: How important was the marketing?

CQ: We knew we needed a distinctive bag. Twenty years ago, no one was doing anything original. It's a low-margin product. 'Dirt in a bag' is what we were up against. We knew [artist] Eric Hopkins from North Haven. We got Eric to do a prototype [bag design] in 1996. [His painting is on the bags to this day.] We came up with different color bags for the different products — the Penobscot blend was our first. We had a seal saying we were approved by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, then got the national equivalent, Organic Materials Review Institute. We have what I call the 'full disclosure' bag to emphasize what's in it and how it's made. It's a low-margin business and there are some big processors out there. The objective is you're not just buying this, you're making a lifestyle decision. The first five, six, seven years, people laughed at me. Ten years ago, the whole notion changed, and people realized the quality of your soil determines your success.

MB: Why was this the right time to find outside investment?

CQ: We were looking for somebody to help the company, who was committed to our vision, committed to the team. That narrows it down. There were a couple of people that wanted to buy us out. With Gemini, it provided an exit for Coastal Ventures and Maine Venture Fund and one independent investor. The process took a couple months to find the right fit. We wanted to [retain] a great deal of flexibility. To complete that longer-term vision took longer than I would have imagined 20 years ago. We were past the due date [laughs].

MB: Where do you see future expansion?

CQ: Right now, our primary markets are from Marion Township to the Hudson River: Greater Boston, Connecticut, the lower Hudson Valley. We sell to two Whole Foods distributors, one in Connecticut and one in Landover, Md. Part of our strategic plan is to open a manufacturing plant in the Mid-Atlantic. We're looking at potential acquisitions and a range of options. We're a regional business. We always intended to replicate what we're doing.

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