Zack Hall / The Bulletin

Tara O’Keeffe worried about her father’s dry, cracking hands and feet that he suffered from after spending years as a cattle rancher.

As a pharmacist, O’Keeffe had the knowledge to do something about it.

So O’Keeffe, who grew up on a ranch in Klamath County but moved to Central Oregon in 1972, began stirring up hundreds of batches of water-based hand creams in her Bend kitchen.

In 1994, she hit pay dirt.

And she has taken that original idea and turned it into a successful business. So successful that she was recently nominated for the Small Business Administration’s Oregon Small Business Person of the Year award — the first Central Oregon business nominated for the honor in more than 15 years.

“I had my dad try it, and he had tried everything else I made,” O’Keeffe said last week by phone from a trade show in Orlando, Fla. “But with this one he called me and said, ‘I don’t know what you did with this one, but I could see a difference in my skin in two days.’ And he’d been suffering with the same splits and cracks in his skin for 30 years.”

“There were some formulation changes that needed to be made at that point, but I did think that we had a winner in terms of an effective product.”

The result was the birth of a new business and product: O’Keeffe’s Working Hands Cream.

Instead of trying to sell her product through retailers that would traditionally sell conventional oil-based hand creams, O’Keeffe began to target farm-supply stores such as Big R in Oregon.

It worked. O’Keeffe, a 54-year-old married mother of three, has watched her product go nationwide on the shelves of such big-box retailers as Lowe’s Home Improvement. It’s also available at stores such as Ace Hardware.

From her manufacturing plant in Sisters, where she moved in 2002, O’Keeffe now employs more than 20 part-time and full-time employees and produces about 5,000 units of hand and foot cream each day.

Growth in the business was a major factor for the Central Oregon Community College’s Business Development Center to nominate O’Keeffe for the SBA award.

“Tara has a wholistic view of running her business, not only from a business perspective, but I think from a community involvement perspective as well,” said Jim Wilcox, an instructor for COCC’s Business Development Center, who has worked with O’Keeffe in the school’s Small Business Management Program for two years. “Creating a good work environment for her employees, being involved in the community, those type of things I think set her apart from other people in business.”

The winner of the award — which will be judged by staying power, growth in number of employees, increase in sales or unit volume during the last three years, current and past financial performance, innovative nature of the product, response to adversity, and contributions to community-oriented projects — won’t be announced until May.

“I’m very excited just to be nominated, actually,” said O’Keeffe, who still works about a day a week in local Safeway pharmacies to keep those skills sharp.

She does stand a chance of winning, too.

O’Keeffe has more than doubled her sales during the last two years, and despite a crash in new construction nationwide (manual laborers account for a large part of the hand cream’s sales), sales rose in 2008 compared with 2007, she said.

The distinctive green jar in which the cream is sold won an international packaging award from plastics-maker DuPont in 2004.

As an employer, O’Keeffe is cognizant of the family demands on her employees. To that end, the day shift ends for her crew before school lets out.

And since she moved the business in 2002 to Sisters, which has few manufacturing jobs, her work force has grown from five to more than 20, a source of pride for O’Keeffe.

“We had five employees, including myself and my husband; so in that amount of time to what we are now, at just over 20, that’s been a fun thing to see happen,” said O’Keeffe, who also lives in Sisters. “Particularly in Sisters. Sisters has been recognized as economically, severely distressed.

“We are glad to be of the Sisters community where there needs to be jobs and needs to be industry.”