Sweet smell of success

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      The story of Escents owner Jacqui McNeill sounds like prime material for a can't-put-it-down paperback: Woman rejects promising media career, develops small enterprise into international company, goes through life-threatening health crisis right before having twins… But this morning, in her sweet-smelling West Broadway store, the aromatherapy expert is more concerned with meeting a new staff member and fine-tuning the lighting.

      The plot unfolds over a decaf latte at a coffee shop down the street. McNeill, in black cords, T-shirt, and brown leather jacket, looks like she could be one of her own customers rather than someone who's just returned from an Asian business trip. The 39-year-old Vancouverite (SFU business class of '92) launches into the drama. Chapter 1: She beats 700 others for a Thomson newspaper job. There she is, in Courtenay, set to embark on management training when, she recalls, “I said, ‘I can't do this.' I couldn't see myself 10 years from then,” not when her aim was to run her own business. But what would she do instead? “It had to be nurturing to the human race,” she says. “It had to have an educational component. It had to make money.” And it had to be retail because she likes dealing with people.

      Chapter 2: That same summer, camping near Portland, McNeill discovers a shop selling perfumes and essential oils. It rocks her world. Back in Vancouver, she maxes her $500 credit-card limit on samples, rents a cart at a North Shore market, and for four months works 12 hours a day, six days a week. Her handwritten labels reflect the mid-'90s cottage-y Zeitgeist, a trend she jumps on when she subsequently moves into Park Royal on three months' probation. She makes furniture from pallets, hangs dried roses around the place, and buys fragrances and unscented lotions in bulk as the raw materials for her customized products. While there (this is a chapter in its own right), she meets her future husband. John McNeill, a former accountant, is running a pasta store.

      Aromatherapy is new to Vancouver and soon she's on a roll. Chapter 4: She opens stores, closes some. Chapter 5: She becomes a mom and then, 38 weeks pregnant with twins, suffers a brain aneurysm that sidelines her for over two years. Flip ahead to Chapter 8 (at least): In September 2005, she returns to her business four days a week. “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,” she says. Back at work, she rebrands and repackages the line.

      Cut to the present. With 120 staff on her payroll, McNeill now sells her products in 28 stores worldwide, including seven Escents stores in Vancouver, as well as wholesale and on-line (www.escentsaromatherapy.com/). Big differences exist between markets, she explains, with muggy Taiwan and Korea preferring florals but, like Vancouver, also favouring citrus scents. (Other local faves are patchouli and sandalwood, and earthy, woody, and food-type fragrances like coconut and vanilla.) McNeill has heady goals: 10 Canadian cities by 2008, 10 in the U.S. by 2010, five countries by 2015. (“U.K. and France. We'd love to be in those two.”) But she still thinks locally, with soaps made in Nelson and some candles in Kelowna. She doesn't advertise but relies on word of mouth and, further spreading the fragrant word, the business-class passengers on B.C.–based Harmony Airways now use her line.

      While we've talked, McNeill has downed two decaf cappuccinos, ignored all cell calls except one from her mom, and explained how “I blended so much for people in the beginning that I really learned what scents went together. The headache oil, arthritis blend, blemish treatment, Rejuvenating, Love blend, Sensuality blend—I created all those.” Back at the store, she points out the rows of sample bottles. “We came up with ‘Define your mood,'?” she says, explaining how she now classifies her scents as Passionate or Fresh or one of four other categories. The gender-spanning Energy and Unwind are her two big sellers. (Initially one-tenth, Escents' male market has grown to 25 percent, including “hard-core biker guys”.) Even though the products are built on costly essential oils, they all retail for under $15: “We're not packaging it to the nines,” McNeill says. Adding a 50-cent box is optional. She still pursues her original aim of running a business that in some way aids humanity. The company provides ongoing help to the Canadian Mental Health Association and this Christmas, for the second season in a row, stores will sell bears as fundraisers.

      Her latest idea is a system that lets customers design their own body and bath products. Order a Mood Shot, and staff will whiz lotion or bubble bath in a deco-green Hamilton blender with the scent of your choice. Try Renewal, an effervescent lime-eucalyptus combo from the citrusy Energize category. You can even create your own blend with a drop of this and a drop of that, which means thousands of potential perfumes. Says McNeill: “That's the fun of it,” adding, “People used to come in and ask, ‘What's aromatherapy?' Not anymore.”