If you ask Barb Stegemann whether it makes sense to launch a company with the slogan “Make Perfume Not War” do not be shocked when she tells you of course it does.
And who can argue with the CEO of Halifax-based The 7 Virtues?
She is doing just that as she builds an international company that is touching the lives of people from Afghanistan to Haiti, to the Middle East to Africa.
“What if we actually took action on our crazy ideas and didn’t let them fade away in the crush of life,” she wanted to know after a horrifyingly crazy incident struck her best friend.
Trevor Greene, who had enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces, was part of a mission to Afghanistan in 2006. One day he engaged in a discussion with a group of village elders. As a mark of respect and trust he removed his helmet, when he was attacked with an axe.
He is still recovering but what he had seen as a healing mission was over. When he came home Stegemann was waiting. “I told him to go heal himself and I’ll take care of your mission,” she says.
Then, in 2008 she heard about Afghan farmer Abdullah Arsala, who was growing orange blossoms and roses. Arsala was intent on building a sustainable business to help his people, but those same people who injured Greene were knocking down his distillery and he was close to ruin.
This was it, Stegemann thought: what better way to help create jobs and provide dignity and a sense of empowerment, than by creating a social enterprise that uses buying power to support farmers and their families. She was – and still is – convinced this is the way forward for nations struggling to rebuild.
Getting a business off the ground is no small task however. The banks told her she had no experience in perfume so how could she possibly get it to market? But a crazy idea need not be a failed idea, so Stegemann bought all Arsala’s oil with $2,000 from her Visa card.
7 Virtues gets investment to grow
A Toronto perfumer was taken on, the oils arrived and Afghanistan Orange Blossom was born.
A thousand bottles of the fragrance, placed in one boutique in Toronto and another in Halifax, sold out in weeks, mostly because of the story behind what had been driving her. Stegemann soon realized she could not grow with small, struggling stores. “It was heartbreaking, but how could we grow like that and sustain our mission,” she says.
So she went on TV’s Dragon’s Den and drew a $75,000 investment from business partner Brett Wilson. “That allowed me to pay for a 10,000-bottle run and gave us enough produce to cold call a major department store.”
Today, 7 Virtues fragrances are consistently major sellers in 90 Hudson’s Bay stores across Canada. The company has five perfumes in its collection – Afghanistan Orange Blossom, Noble Rose of Afghanistan, Vetiver of Haiti, Middle East Peace – made up of oils from Israel and Iran – and Patchouli of Rwanda.
All of the perfumes carry the name of the country from where the oils come, driving the philosophy of creating fragrances from materials from nations that are rebuilding and need business help as much as government help to do so.
The business model ensures the supplier makes money, the farmer makes money, the retailer makes money and the company makes. ‘But nobody makes all the money,” says Stegemann.
The company now operates with six full-timers and 12 seasonal workers for production runs, and does not publish its sales figures. Instead it uses its range of distribution to show its numbers. As it witnesses shifts in retail, 7 Virtues constantly examines its retail partners to make sure it is strong in stores and has a strong presence on line.
That strength and constantly seeking new outlets is ongoing. 7 Virtues now sells not only at the Bay but also with Lord & Taylor in the U.S., on Air Canada Duty Free, on Shop.ca, in outlets in London, Scotland, Germany and Austria. And this month, Stegemann is in London, meeting with Amazon Luxury UK.
Her one serious export challenge is that Halifax has a “perfectly good” port but doesn’t have container consolidation (shipping containers with cargo from multiple consigners for delivery to multiple recipients) in spite of Stegemann taking up the issue with all three levels of government. Products must be shipped from Montreal or Toronto, which ups the cost and delays produce.
“As small businesses, if we want to participate in trade missions and export our products, we need to be able to ship them out on our own,” she says.
Still, her perfume-not-war mission continues.
“Everyone we buy from has to be an advocate in their community,” Stegemann says. “They drive it, and we buy and support them and their communities.”