A girl-power team with global domination in mind

Claire McCall talks to three women who are enjoying the sweet smell of success as torchbearers for the Ecoya brand of luxury products.

Ecoya's girl-power team Donna Marris, Claire Barnes and Kate Hemus. Photo / Carolyn Haslett.

Behind every great man, there's sure to be a great woman. Or two. Or three. Claire Barnes, Kate Hemus and Donna Marris are a trio of sharp-minded gals with sass sewn up in their cigarette jeans. They're proud to be the public faces of home-grown candle company Ecoya and, in the spirit of the song, these "sisters" of enterprise are not lurking coyly in the wings - they're giving it their all under the spotlight.

To be fair, the fellas at Ecoya wouldn't have it any other way. CEO Stephen Sinclair and fellow directors Geoff Ross and Grant Baker may have taken 42 Below vodka to the world on a wave of hipster promotions and their standard tongue-in-cheek humour, but this baby is a gentler creature.

Promoting the Ecoya collection of fragranced soy candles and bodycare products called for a strategy that was less, well, blokey. They realised when wearing the trousers was imprudent.

Although the business has local roots, this girl-power team has global domination in mind - and they're not afraid to say it. Such ambition is often not the Kiwi way where business is hatched beneath a bare lightbulb in the shed or garage and success in the immediate environment is a dared-for dream. That was never going to be the case here.

"The directors saw that we had something beautiful to sell that could reflect our New Zealand and Aussie identity," says Barnes, Ecoya's sales and marketing director. "While there were lots of other brands of soy candles out there, they tended to be olde worlde. A bit like our fashion story, we could market ourselves as young, fresh and innovative."

Geoff Ross had a knack for discerning the delicate flavours and fragrances in vodka, and took three years to refine the 42 Below formula. When it came to the home fragrance arena of candles and diffusers, his expertise led him to another Kiwi who had the nose for the job.

Isaac Sinclair grew up in Auckland and credits his mother's garden with luring him into the scented wonderland that would become his realm. Sinclair trained in Milan as a perfumer to join a rare breed of about 500 professionals worldwide, and now lives and works in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

He regularly hits the right fragrance notes for well-established brands such as Guerlain and Lancome, but he can also sniff out the je ne sais quoi of a peculiarly Antipodean olfactory experience. That makes him perfect for his role at Ecoya.

"Our business is definitely fragrance-based," says Barnes. "Lots of scented candles smell amazing when you pick them up in store. But when you burn them, nothing happens."

With a background in marketing at fashion brand Moochi and at an advertising agency, Barnes' colleagues were wide-eyed in disbelief when she announced she was off to work for a candle company. Their reaction was: "Are you kidding?" Five years later, they're finally smelling the coffee.

Ecoya's growth has been, in the anecdotal language of the trio, "massive". The company boasts around 40 per cent of the home-fragrance market here, about 30 per cent of the Australian pie, and they're making good inroads in Korea, Sweden and Switzerland. It's a category that's on the up so they're also taking tentative steps in the US and UK, where they're picking off pockets of the market.

All in all, the company now sells in more than 20 countries. Every 45 seconds someone in the world buys an Ecoya product.

Behind the push are two small words "Eco" and "Luxe" - both on-trend sales drivers that appeal to our human nature - one, a selfless nurturing of the planet, and two, small-but-socially acceptable indulgences.

As you'd expect, the wax in Ecoya candles is derived from sustainable soybean plantations, and the bodycare products feature botanical bases such as almond and macadamia oil. So the ingredients are sound.

The strategy for growth is one aspect that is not driven organically. It's driven by public investment. For Barnes, though, this high-stakes, high-energy world has a softer side. It's about heart and soul. "It's what I find infectious about my job. We sell a really cool product to some really nice people and we get to work with such inspiring directors."

Inspiring, yes - and demanding. It's not always easy. "They are so focused on growth and you're running as fast as you can, but we're always well rewarded for our efforts."

Public relations manager Kate Hemus has returned to Auckland after eight years in Sydney, where she spent two and a half years in Ecoya's office. "I was pining for home plus it made sense for me to come back to the centre of decision-making."

Although the home fragrance candles are made in Australia, the body fragrance range is manufactured in Aotearoa. With New Zealand directorship, this is a proudly Kiwi brand.

Using social media to get her message across is second nature to Hemus, who is one of those now-generation types who can Instagram and chat face to face seamlessly.

"Social media is forever changing, so you just have to move with it. It's a way of building relationships. It feels more personal to our audience and lets them know who we are."

One highlight was when members of the Wallabies rugby team, while playing in France, contacted her to ask for a batch of French Pear candles to be sent, which, ironically, reminded them of home.

Celebrity cook Nigella Lawson emailed to ask where she could get the company's Christmas release - a candle with the aroma of fresh pine needles. Apart from the message to head to Liberty's, there was, of course, a package of festive fragrance immediately on the courier to Lawson's London abode.

Part of the strategy for keeping Ecoya top of mind includes launching limited-edition products twice a year in February and August. This allows seasonal colour and fragrances into the collection.

Donna Marris, new product development manager, heads this department. This mother of three completed her MBA in London before going on to use this and her post-graduate degree in the television industry as well as the banking sector. Her diverse career background includes charity work and "I've also run a service station franchise," she points out. So she's no stranger to the concept of all hands to the pump.

When Marris joined Ecoya it was in a part-time role; there were just three people in the New Zealand office. She was charged with rebranding the website. "It was a small company and we were taking those first steps."

A fast-flowing deluge of expansion has passed under the bridge since then, but she's grateful to have had such start-up experience. She recalls: "We were given a lot of autonomy in our roles, which enabled us to try new things." That continues and Marris has lived and breathed the joy of having a grand vision.

Hemus echoes this sentiment: "Why be famous in New Zealand and see that as the limit of your success?"

Such an aspirational attitude obviously starts at the helm. The three women credit the directors as masterful at not only spotting a good idea and nurturing the talent around them, but in setting the bar high.

"You can go into Geoff, Steve or Grant for what you think could be a normal workday conversation and you'll walk away inspired and challenged," says Hemus.

Passion tempered by pragmatism is a rule.

Barnes: "They're not emotional about things. If they think one of your ideas is terrible, they'll tell you so. They'll get you to go away and think of another one."

Though the business is built on discipline and an eye for detail, it's the ethereal, emotive, evocative nature of home fragrance that truly wins over the customers.

"Fragrance has such an ability to transport you back to a particular moment - even if it's the Dax Wax your ex-boyfriend used to use on his hair," laughs Hemus. The Eurythmics teamed up with Aretha to belt out the feminist mantra Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves, but they also sang another tune, which, in the case of Ecoya, is right on the money. Sweet dreams are made of this.

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