If you’ve ever used a moisturizer that left your skin feeling soft and smooth instead of greasy, you have Libby Labs, one of West Berkeley’s major light manufacturers, to thank. “We brought that technology into the industry,” says the company’s founder and guiding spirit, 85-year-old Henry (“Hank”) Libby. Today, Libby’s daughter Susan, 56, and son Gordon, 59, run the company, which makes both cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Hank and Susan recall how the “disappearing” moisturizer was developed in 1963.
“Two ladies came by with a station wagon full of tomatoes and papayas and things like that,” says Hank Libby. “They said, ‘We want you to make cosmetic products out of fruits and veggies—natural products.’ I said: ‘This is ridiculous.’ [Remember, this was 1963.] ‘But we can extract the papayas or we can buy strawberry extracts on the market, and we can put them into product vehicles—rational products.’”
By rational products, Hank Libby meant things that could be formulated in a manner that could be controlled and tested. He also meant things that were commercially viable—things that would sell and that had shelf life. What the ladies in the station wagon had was an idea that might or might not have been feasible. They “were just kind of mooshing it together in their kitchen,” says Susan Libby. When they showed up at the lab, they “were about ready to give up,” her father recalls. “They had no place else to go, so they stayed with me.”
Libby gave the two women what they needed—formulations that enabled them to transform their kitchen concoctions into marketable goods. Under the label Holiday Magic, his clients sold herbal shampoo, banana lotion and strawberry cream. Besides providing the vehicle for their concept of fruit-and-vegetable-based cosmetics, Libby Labs developed at their behest the first cosmetic cream that disappeared into the skin.
“The ladies’ product got big,” says Libby. “I implemented production for them in Canada and in Mexico. Eventually, they took it around the world. That launched Libby Labs.”
Since then, Libby has formulated thousands of products. A few of its introductions: a cream that keeps cows’ udders from freezing up in cold weather, the fingertip moistener that sits in little tubs on bank counters, clear glycerin soap (developed for the Berkeley company now known as Body Time), and the first non-PABA sunscreen. Most of the lab’s creations are made in response to client requests and are designed to the customer’s specifications, if possible.
Indeed, one issue that needs to be resolved at the start is whether a client’s idea is doable. “People always think it’s going to work,” says Susan Libby. But “sometimes people ask for things that can’t be done.” There’s also the question of whether a client’s request is an appropriate assignment for the company. To begin, is it safe? Will it meet public health and regulatory requirements? A further consideration is whether it will involve ingredients that Libby Labs doesn’t want to handle—hazardous substances, for example. And will it require equipment that the lab doesn’t have? “Sometimes,” says Susan, “we do product development and charge fees for it, even if the formulation doesn’t work out….You never know who’s going to make it. Some of the odd ones do!”
With only twenty-five employees, family-owned Libby Labs is a rarity in a pharmaceutical industry that is dominated by giant corporations. “There aren’t very many companies like us,” says Susan Libby, “because at this time it’s hard to exist in this business and be small.”
One factor here is the plethora of regulations, the likes of which didn’t exist when Hank Libby started the business in 1959. Libby Labs has to meet requirements for storm water, EBMUD waste water, OSHA and air quality, among other things. The company works with a consultant who’s an expert on environmental regulations and hazardous materials.
Susan Libby’s not complaining. On the contrary: “We do a lot of stuff that you don’t have to do,” she says. “Yes, we do it because the Food and Drug Administration requires certain things. We are highly regulated because we are a drug manufacturer. But we don’t have to do it for our cosmetics. The FDA really doesn’t care about our cosmetics, even though they come here. But we care about it ourselves, because it makes it easier to make good product consistently. So, if you check your raw materials before you put them in the batch, then you don’t have a batch that goes awry because there was something wrong with the raw materials.”
There’s another reason that small pharmaceutical labs like Libby are rare: few people know how to formulate. “In the old days”, says Susan, “the pharmacists had to take the active drug, put it into the vehicle, and actually make the products. Nowadays, it’s all pre-made.” Even in 1955, when Hank Libby went back to school—he was already a practicing industrial chemist—and earned a Pharm. D. from the University of California, San Francisco, UCSF was one of the few places you could study the old, artisanal compounding heritage, updated to current scientific concepts.
With his degree in hand, Libby could have been a pharmacist, and in fact he was very active in organizing the pharmacy at the now-defunct Co-op. But he dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur—of starting his own lab where new products could be developed. In the early years, says Susan, Libby Labs “was a family operation. All the kids would come and help on the weekends—Mom, too. She did the invoicing….Dad talked about the business over the dinner table every night. I used to work there in the summertime. It was just part of life.” So, too, to judge from the tones with which Susan and Hank Libby jointly describe their firm, was a deep mutual respect and affection between father and daughter.
The Libbys are proud of their company, and not just because of its record of innovative product development. They also see Libby Labs as making important contributions to the local economy and community in its capacity as a light manufacturer. The first benefit to the city, says Susan, is diversity. “You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Second, the kinds of jobs we have. We do employ people at all skill levels. We have good benefits. They’re quality jobs. And I think we’ve laid one person off since 1959.”
From the other side, the business has benefited from Berkeley’s commitment to manufacturing. Indeed, Libby Labs is where it is—in West Berkeley on the southwest corner of 6th and Virginia—because in the mid-1970s city officials invited it to be there. At that time the land belonged to the city. Envisioning the firm as an anchor for an industrial park, Berkeley sold the site to Hank Libby for $90,000—“a deal,” he says. The park never came to pass, but Libby Labs stayed and prospered.
Unofficially, Berkeley also provided the Libbys with something that money couldn’t buy: instant cachet. “When I started the business,” says Hank, “you’d get on the phone and start talking business around the world, and when you said, ‘I’m calling you from Berkeley, California,’ you had immediate status, due to the University and the community. The success of Libby Labs depended on Berkeley.”
It depended on one thing more: Hank Libby’s spirit of inquiry, enterprise and goodwill. Half a century after the founding of Libby Labs, that spirit is in ample evidence in the enthusiasm with which he describes a current project. “I’ve got some stuff here,” he says, gesturing toward the contents of a small, covered jar that sits on his desk, “that’s a concept. We did a product for polo ponies. When they get a scratch, they’re susceptible to infection—you’ve got to keep the insects away. Well, you know those kids in Africa—you see pictures with wounds with bugs on them? Well, I want to adapt that product to help that.”
You can’t help believing that Hank Libby and Libby Labs will find a way.