Mike from Mother Jones writes, "Josh Harkinson profiles David Bronner, the 40-year-old, hallucinogen-dropping, Burning Man-attending scion of the Dr. Bronner's soap empire, who channels roughly half of the company's substantial profits into activism, including the Washington State GMO-labeling bill that voters will decide upon tomorrow. Bronner, who favors the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients, has been arrested for planting hemp seeds on the DEA's lawn and for a performance-art protest where he milled hemp seeds in a cage outside the White House. He also sued the DEA (and won), so that his company could legally obtain hemp oil as a soap ingredient. Since David took over, Dr. Bronner's sales have soared. It's on track to bring in $64 million in revenues this year. But in a strike against corporate greed, Bronner has capped the company's top salaries at five times that of the lowest-paid warehouse worker."
At first, David Bronner (Jim's son) wasn't sure he wanted to become the next standard-bearer for the soap-making clan. After graduating from Harvard in 1995 with a biology degree, he wound up in Amsterdam and immersed himself in its psychedelic drug culture. "I just had my life explode on many levels of identity," he recalls about a late-night ecstasy and LSD trip at a gay trance club. These experiences and a lot of reading eventually opened his eyes to the value of his grandfather's All-One philosophy, and the power of the soap company as a vehicle for change. In 1997, he let his dad know that he was ready to work for the family business, but only "on activist terms." A year later, his father died of lung cancer and Bronner, at the age of 25, became the new CEO.
Early on, Bronner decided that he'd rather feel good about his job than worry about making a ton of money. In 1999, he capped the company's top salary at five times that of the lowest-paid warehouse worker. He employs a lot of people he met at Burning Man, including Tim Clark (official title: Foam Maestro), a buff guy whose job mostly consists of driving a psychedelically painted foam-spewing fire truck to music festivals, which is about as close as the company gets to actual marketing. (Dr. Bronner's has run ads in Mother Jones.) Bronner also employs lots of grandmotherly ladies like office manager Nina Vujko, an intensely loyal, 32-year employee whose office is plastered with photos of her coworkers' babies.
Limiting executive pay and spending virtually nothing on advertising left a lot of extra cash for improving the products and funding social campaigns—which have often gone hand-in-hand. For years, the soap had included an undisclosed ingredient, caramel coloring. As the new CEO, Bronner wanted to remove it for the sake of purity, but feared that die-hard customers would assume the new guy was watering down the product. So he decided to incorporate hemp oil, which added a caramel color while also achieving a smoother lather. But there was a hitch: A few months after he'd acquired a huge stockpile of Canadian hemp oil, the Bush administration outlawed most hemp products. "Technically, we were sitting on tens of thousands of pounds of Schedule I narcotics," Bronner recalls.