Sun Precautions CEO Shaun Hughes
James Cheng  /  MSNBC.com
Shaun Hughes, founder and CEO of Sun Precautions, seen here at one of his retail clothing stores in Seattle. Hughes is a recovering skin-cancer patient who developed a lightweight fabric that offers  protection against the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.
By Martin Wolk
msnbc.com
updated 2/6/2004 2:03:21 PM ET 2004-02-06T19:03:21

Shaun Hughes was 26 and an MBA student at Harvard when he got a rude wake-up call: Cancer.

It was sheer happenstance that the potentially fatal skin growth was discovered at all. Hughes recently had come away from a physical with a clean bill of health. But he had a friend who was a skin cancer patient, and she insisted that he see a specialist about an odd-looking mole on his back.

The mole was benign, but sure enough the specialist found a malignant melanoma on his shoulder that had to be removed surgically. Harvard was history. Hughes, who been enjoying some early success in a career on Wall Street, was forced to take a hard look at his life plan.

Out of this nightmare, a small-business dream was born.

“What I learned is you don’t have 50 years to make a difference in the world,” Hughes said. He wondered what he could do “rather than just working on Wall Street and putting a couple bucks in your pocket.”

Small businesses — and to some extent all businesses — succeed because they find a niche that needs filling. For a gas station or espresso stand, it can as simple as the proper location. In Hughes’ case, the unmet need was intensely personal: How could he even walk down the street — to say nothing of spending a day on the beach — without risking exposure to the harmful rays of the sun, which in his case could be deadly?

He found himself slathering up with sunscreen and then putting on two layers of clothing — a hot, messy and uncomfortable solution.  Ordinary clothing, as he quickly learned, was not nearly sufficient to protect him.

Fast-forward a few years. Hughes completed his master’s degree at the University of California at Los Angeles and went to work as an investment banker. His cluttered ground-floor office features “tombstone” memorials of his biggest deals, including a $105 million leveraged buyout involving Piggly Wiggly, the supermarket chain.

But all along he was thinking about a lightweight fabric that would offer 100 percent protection against the sun. He saved enough money to quit his job and work full-time on the problem, traveling as far as Australia to attend conferences and meet with experts. Although not an engineer or doctor by training, he threw himself into research, working with experts in both textiles and dermatology. The result was a fabric dubbed Solumbra that not only was patented but also cleared for marketing as a medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May 1992.

Nearly 12 years later, Sun Precautions employs several dozen people in three retail stores, a factory and a historic three-story headquarters building in Everett, Wash., about 30 miles north of Seattle. This year the company will print 2 million copies of its annual catalog, offering shirts, hats and pants rated with a sun protection factor of at least 30 — sufficient to protect someone spending all day outside on Mount Mauna Kea, Hawaii, considered the sunniest spot in the world for its dangerous combination of high elevation and tropical sunshine.

Like the best entrepreneurs, Hughes, 47, brings passion, intensity and a long-term outlook to his business. With two young children, he may have mellowed a bit, but he still works 60 hours a week and flies 60,000 miles a year on business. (That’s down from 100 hours  and 100,000 miles, he said.)

He drives to a Seattle lab twice a month to act as human guinea pig, allowing a technician to expose him to a high dose of ultraviolet radiation through a patchwork quilt of the company’s latest Solumbra fabrics. This seems like a ludicrously dangerous practice for a skin cancer survivor, but Hughes sees it as a sign of his personal commitment to his customers.

“To me, a president and founder of a company has an obligation to its customers — and that’s the credibility that the products work, that anybody who uses them should look at them as being safe and effective,” Hughes said. He has never been burned.

Sun Precautions sells clothing through a catalog, but the company bears only a superficial resemblance to Lands’ End or Eddie Bauer. Style is secondary to people so sun-sensitive they may need to wear a neck drape, gloves or even a face mask in the hot sun. The company has moved beyond the basic black, white and blue of its initial catalog, but basic cuts and colors still prevail.

The rigorous quality control procedures needed to conform with federal regulations give the company more in common with a maker of heart defibrillators, Hughes said. And while Hughes acknowledges that his company makes money — he declined to offer any financial details other than to say that revenue has grown every year — he wants his employees to care more about helping customers.

“You feel like you’re making the world a little bit better place when customers phone us up and they cry and they say how well the products work, or they are able to go off to Disneyland, which they weren’t able to do,” he said. “Those kinds of emotional things — it’s a wonderful experience within a job.”

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