The worst thing Mike McGinley ever smelled? Hyper-concentrated skunk spray that was so vile it caused an emotional reaction, he says, “like somebody had just completely berated me and insulted me. It was depressing and horrible."
That’s saying a lot, since McGinley is an expert in quantifying what does and doesn’t stink. He’s the lab director responsible for product development at Stillwater, Minn.-based St. Croix Sensory, a specialty firm owned by his parents, Charles “Chuck” and Donna McGinley. The company built its 24-year legacy helping clients by scientifically measuring factory, landfill and agricultural emissions for their effect on the human sense of smell.
One of only about a dozen such businesses worldwide, according to McGinley, St. Croix Sensory helps clients across industries evaluate whether and to what extent they may have a problem with environmental odors. The company also evaluates products, trains odor assessment specialists and manufactures its own line of equipment enabling other companies to test and measure their own odors. Its flagship product, the Nasal Ranger olfactometer, now represents 20 percent of the firm’s revenues.
McGinley declined to note sales figures but said they’ve grown by about 7 percent annually in recent years, thanks to a strong focus on R&D efforts.
McGinley spoke with Crain's about the company’s past, present and future.
Q: How did your company get started?
A: My dad was an engineer for 3M in the 1960s when it was developing “scratch 'n sniff” products and then [he] gained more expertise as state odor inspector.
In 1980 my parents started an engineering firm that designed odor-abatement systems, and that was spun off into St. Croix Sensory in 1993 to meet growing awareness of and regulation around environmental air quality.
These days my dad is technical director, my mom is president and my three siblings are involved as company consultants. We now have eight regular employees and about 60 local contractors we’ve trained to evaluate smells.
Q: What is your background?
I joined the company in 1997 after earning a master's degree in public health and working in the field as a self-employed consultant. My primary role now is overseeing product and material evaluation work and looking for opportunities to use our sensory-testing know-how.
Q: How much of your work takes place in the field versus in-house?
Most of our work starts when clients send us products for testing. We then conduct the sensory evaluations and scientific testing using olfactometers, consider our clients’ research questions and design tests that can provide quality answers.
One example: determining how much cat urine to add to a liter box to represent three days of use.
Q: How do you protect your testing environment?
We ask everyone not to wear scented personal care products, and we use high-powered ventilation and exhaust systems to keep our testing area as smell-neutral as possible.
Q: How often are the smells overwhelming for staffers?
Headaches or stomachaches are an occasional trade hazard; we all have our own triggers. You learn to shut off your gross factor so you can do your work, even though you’re exposed to really horrible smells you may not normally encounter.
Q: Tell us about a major challenge in your business.
We work on a project-by-project basis, so it’s hard for us to forecast sales. Our top five clients are different every year and commonly represent different industries.
Q: How has the legalization of marijuana impacted your business?
While most people immediately think of the odor from smoking marijuana, the initial issues in some states are related to nuisance odors from grow facilities. That’s provided a 10 percent boost in sales of our Nasal Rangers over the past two years as communities and grow facilities need to measure odor levels to properly address controls.
Q: Tell us about your side work with Minneapolis haunted house attraction the Haunted Basement.
We’ve volunteered for the past nine Halloween seasons to create ambient smells to help scare customers. Without giving away trade secrets, I’ve made rooms smell like baby powder, sweaty feet, popcorn and cotton candy. (McGinley explained he’s also created smells for museums and for theater productions of “Treasure Island” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and teaches the craft to others as well.)
Q: How might St. Croix Sensory expand in the future?
We continue to see strong growth in testing of products and materials. Current “hot” areas are packaging, clothing (odor control of sweat odors) and performance testing of products that reduce malodors in the home. There are also renewed efforts in the automotive industry to look more closely at odors from vehicle components.
We’re also putting effort into specific areas related to taste testing. We’re not yet ready to share those efforts, but they have a strong chance to be a good update to our story in a couple years.