Heidi Mueller, Excelsior Candle Co.

Heidi Mueller was working in operations at a wholesale company full-time. Her boss was an entrepreneur and cultivated that same spirit in her. When she talked about opening a coffee shop, he encouraged her to do so. When she closed the shop a couple of years later, he urged her not to give up on entrepreneurship. So she focused on getting the jewelry she created from upcycled materials into retail stores. Then, on the day she was scheduled to meet with the buyer at a popular boutique after work, something unexpected happened. As she shared the news with her coworkers, and they oohed and aahed over the handmade baubles laid out on her desk, men started yelling loudly for everyone to step away from their computers. A look beyond the cubicle walls revealed that federal agents were raiding the building and headed straight for her boss’ office.

It was like a scene from a movie. Everyone was terrified. Heidi hunched down and swiped the earrings and necklaces off her desk and into the bag she’d brought them in. The entire staff was ushered into the cafeteria. Staff members were singled out for questioning. Eventually everyone was directed outside to the parking lot. Heidi was still shaken up hours later as agents demanded they all go straight to their vehicles without saying a word to one another. Dazed, confused and processing what had happened, Heidi drove to the meeting at the boutique as planned—and the buyer bought every single piece in her collection.

Heidi realized how the actions of others could threaten her livelihood and she wanted to be in control of her future. But she had three kids to support and wasn’t generating a living wage from jewelry sales yet. First she’d need to find another full-time job. That proved to be a challenge. News of her former employer’s Ponzi scheme spread quickly. Every company she interviewed with seemed more interested in getting the inside scoop.

Eventually she landed at a top accounting firm. For the next five years she worked a 9-to-5 job in operations and spent her free time on the hunt for materials to upcycle into handcrafted goods—making old things new again was her passion. She began selling her jewelry at marketplace events. She’d pop into shops for impromptu meetings with buyers. When one boutique owner asked if she made candles, it sparked an idea for Heidi. She’d collected plenty of flea market finds—vintage glass and ceramic items like electrical insulators, jars and teacups—that could be made into candles. That’s when her candle company, The Vintage Pyro, was born.

Heidi had always loved watching candles burn. It may have had something to do with growing up with a dad who was an explosives engineer. She spent hours with him, blowing up and burning things in the backyard. And when she started making candles, she realized how much she enjoyed that too. She got to use her hands, which she loved, and she found melting and pouring wax therapeutic. In addition to using unique containers for her candles, Heidi committed to using the highest-quality ingredients from the start. She formulated her own fragrances from essential oils. She used soy wax, which burns longer and doesn’t damage surfaces inside the home. And she used lead-free all-cotton wicks that don’t release toxins into the air.

She quickly found candles were a lot more lucrative than jewelry. As trends changed, demand for shabby chic candle holders diminished, but customers still wanted Heidi’s candles—they raved about the quality. She began sourcing contemporary recycled glass and metal containers from suppliers. She invested in a wax melter and moved operations from her stovetop to her basement. She realized The Vintage Pyro branding no longer worked, so she rebranded. In 2016, she officially launched Excelsior Candle Company and retired her jewelry business.

Today, making hand-poured candles in small batches is Heidi’s full-time job. Her products are available at retailers nationwide as well as on her website and via Amazon.com. She participates in dozens of events and pop-ups every year, including collaborative retail ventures at several malls in Minnesota. Her commitment to sustainability has not wavered. She encourages customers to bring back their empty Excelsior Candle Company containers for half off their next purchase, and she reuses all of the containers returned to her.

Heidi still works a part-time job, but she envisions a future where Excelsior Candle Company is her only source of income and she’s generating enough of it to donate to causes she cares deeply about. She plans to set up a nonprofit division of the company to help people in need. For now, Heidi gives back by volunteering and supporting other small business owners every chance she gets.

To learn more about Heidi’s business, visit ExcelsiorCandleCo.com.

Photo: Excelsior Candle Co.

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