Sport united them in college; homemade suds keep them clean and close today.

Elyce and Nathan Billany met at Ashford University in Clinton, where they both played varsity soccer and honed their yearning for entrepreneurial ventures.

In 2015, the married couple took control of Iowa Naturals, a Quad-City-based business that specializes in handcrafted soaps, lotions and shaving balms.

“I would have never guessed this is what we would be doing — ever,” said Elyce, 26, a native of DeWitt, Iowa.

That goes for both of them.

“We knew we wanted to invest in something or at least do something on the side … but it had to fit in with our schedule,” Nathan, 27, said in his strong English accent. 

Although they have grown fond of the soap business and the scientific process it takes to create their products, the couple did not start concocting soap out of the blue.

Old business, new owners

This year marks Iowa Naturals' 20th year in business in the Quad-Cities. 

Founder Jill Sidney, who launched the enterprise in 1997 out of her Davenport home, coincidentally met the Billanys in 2015, about the time she planned to retire.

Elyce, who then worked as the sales and marketing manager for Village Cooperative of Crow Creek, overheard Sidney, a current resident there, talking about her soap business. 

"Her ears perked up, and I handed her a business card," Sidney recalled.

As she grew her clientele back in the day, Sidney decided to sell A Hair Off Brady, a salon in Davenport, and concentrated on soap.

At their peak, Sidney, 68, said she and her husband, Bob, had a customer base of 6,000 people she shipped goods to across the country. 

"It was something that I built, and I just didn't want to see it dissolve," she said. 

The Billanys observed Sidney make batches of soap and trained with her several times before purchasing the business in September 2015. 

"I feel really fortunate to have found them," said Sidney, who passed on her recipes and ingredients to the couple. "I think they're having fun with it."

'Better than watching TV'

The inventory now fills the Billanys' basement at their home in LeClaire, where they create their skin care products. 

Elyce, who recently became the director of development for Trinity Health Foundation in Moline, handles the production side of things, while Nathan, a commercial lender for Walcott Trust and Savings Bank in Davenport, sticks to logistics. 

At night and on the weekends, the duo invests about 20 hours every week into Iowa Naturals. 

"It's better than watching TV," Elyce said, or "doing something separately," Nathan chimed in. 

While each bar of soap contains a variety of ingredients, all of them contain olive oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.

But how does it work? 

They heat the oils and combine them with a blend of room-temperature lye, or sodium hydroxide, and water.

Elyce, who wears eye goggles and a protective mask for this part, mixes the oils and the lye solution together until the raw soap begins to thicken, or reaches trace.

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The Billanys generate 13-pound blocks of soap at a time, which need to sit for about a month before they can be packaged and sold.

They market about 25 scented soaps, including rosemary, spearmint, lavender sage, "kiwi scrub" and "peppermint wake up."

Prime time to grow

On a table in the corner of their workshop, an unfinished bottle of Mississippi River Distilling Co.’s River Rose Gin hints at one of their recent projects.

Elyce added the alcohol to make their GINgerbread soap, which sold out during the holidays last year. 

Since acquiring Iowa Naturals, the Billanys said they have increased the business' presence in the Quad-City community and beyond.

“Everybody’s focusing on not only what they put into their body, but what they put on it,” Elyce said, “and that’s been huge."

For men, Nathan, a native of Yorkshire, England, stands behind their shaving soaps.

"It's not the most masculine thing in the world, but the lotion sticks make (shaving) a whole lot easier," he said.

Their products are available online and at Hy-Vee on West Kimberly Road, Davenport, and The Soap Box in the Village of East Davenport. 

They want to start a family within the next couple of years, but for now, they are enjoying their routine and learning how to run a small business. 

"Even though we still have our daytime jobs, it’s a great way to understand how it all works," Elyce said. 

Editor's note: Look for reporter Jack Cullen's Notes @ Noon Tuesday, Thursday and Friday online at noon. He captures various sides of life in the Quad-Cities. Contact him at jcullen@qctimes.com or 563-383-2363.

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