Athea makes room for growth

While most consumers haven’t encountered Milwaukee’s Athea Laboratories Inc., many have used its cleaners, disinfectants, wet wipes, herbicides and insecticides packaged under major brand names.

“You’ll never see anything on the market with Athea’s name on it,” said Steve Hipp, president.

The company serves the retail/consumer and institutional markets, with the highest volume of orders for its wet wipes. Many of the companies that put chemical products on store shelves prefer to deal with just the retail and marketing process, not the manufacturing side of the product.

So Athea works as a contract manufacturer for companies such as Walgreen Co. It sources the chemicals to be blended, packages and puts the marketing companies’ labels on the products.

“We offer a complete turnkey solution for customers,” Hipp said. “They don’t even need to touch it. A lot of times we’re the one who puts that off brand or that Walgreen’s brand together.”

Athea has about 400 different raw materials, which are mixed in large tanks and then brought to assembly lines so individual bottles can be filled, sealed and labeled. Products can have a broad range of components.

“We make some makeup remover wipes that have 30 ingredients and some glass cleaners that have three ingredients,” Hipp said.

The fabric used for wet wipes is cut, folded and perforated into 70 sheet rolls, then cut into donuts, which are inserted into canisters.

Once the canisters are filled with fabric, a chemical liquid is poured in to an exact fill weight. The wipes absorb the chemical so they are all moistened.

Some of the main uses for Athea products are food service, institutional, pet stain and odor and consumer cleaning.
Wipes have become popular recently, particularly since viruses like MRSA, bird flu and H1N1 became a widespread health concern. The company has developed wipes for usage on everything from grocery carts to gym equipment.
“That whole convenience thing (of wipes) has driven a lot of our growth,” Hipp said.

Athea, which originally manufactured cosmetics and was named for the Greek goddess of beauty, was founded in 1965. When the cosmetic and perfume market got more competitive, Athea added cleaning products to its mix.
“Those were higher margin products and more profitable for us, so we just kind of gradually moved into the area,” Hipp said.

Hipp has focused on growth since he took the helm in 2000, more than doubling the number of employees to 88 in 2012. The company is still actively hiring skilled candidates, and plans to add five to 10 more employees on the second shift this year.

“We need people that can run these types of machines, which are a mix of mechanical aptitude and creativity,” said Bryan Wazbinski, vice president of operations and change management.

The company acquired Milwaukee chemical manufacturer Matarah Industries Inc. in 2001 and the wet wipes division of Milwaukee specialty chemical firm Converted Products in 2005.

Currently, Athea is operating out of two locations, a 60,000-square-foot building at 755 N. Faulkner Rd. and a 90,000-square-foot facility at 6161 N. 64th St., both in Milwaukee.

The company is in the process of moving all its operations under one roof at a 250,000-square-foot facility at 1900 W. Cornell Rd. in Milwaukee. Athea has invested about $5 million in the building and equipment. The new location allows room for future growth.
“We bought some equipment recently that will help us expand our current capabilities and capacity,” Hipp said.
Revenue grew about 12 percent in 2011, and Hipp expects it will grow about 18 percent in 2012.

Toneka Bratchett fills canisters of fabric with liquid to make wet wipes.

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