“The journey toward Saje Natural Wellness was a dual quest,” says the BC-based co-founder and CEO Kate Ross LeBlanc. It began 20 years ago, when her husband and co-founder, Jean-Pierre LeBlanc, was searching for holistic solutions to deal with residual pain from a car accident, while she was eager to explore her inherent passion for retail.
Having grown up in her mother’s fabric store in small-town Ontario, she had vivid memories of poring over pattern books and being wowed by the textures and colours on bolts of material. “I was young – six or seven years old – and I think I was very stimulated to create a beautiful retail environment,” she says. “I’d go to textile mills in eastern Canada with my mom and do buying. I thought this whole idea of how things were selected and then bought and shared with consumers was the most exciting thing that had ever happened. In some part of my mind, I wanted to relive that experience.”
Ross LeBlanc was also fascinated by smell: “From a world marketing perspective that it’s a very underutilized sense. Jean-Pierre and I were both in a seeking mode, and when we discovered the healing power of essential oils, it really was a big aha moment. He began formulating products for his own health – he has a chemistry background – and I started to formulate the idea where we could share these healing modalities with the larger world.”
Peppermint Halo, their first product, perfectly encapsulates their mission. Housed in a sleek glass roller ball vial, the invigorating blend works to banish headaches at first whiff and remains a bestseller today. It can also be found in Pocket Pharmacy, a popular set of travel-friendly remedies for everything from stressed shoulders to tummy woes. The newest launch is a collection of nourishing shampoos that joins the collection of gender-neutral offerings that are made using only 100 percent natural, plant-derived ingredients.
An eye for award-winning store aesthetics wasn’t the only thing that Ross LeBlanc gleaned from her early days in her mother’s store. “She was very big on creating community – that great feeling that you wanted to be there because you were going to get to connect with other people,” she says. With a rapidly growing company that boasts numerous locations across Canada and a focus on international expansion, Ross LeBlanc believes that two steps have been crucial in creating the “Saje Nation” of her and LeBlanc’s dreams: identifying core values and doing lots of things to reinforce and celebrate them.
“It’s really important so that people know what they’re signing up for and can say ‘Yes, I share those values’ or realize it’s not the best fit.” Your company’s values can be whatever you choose – “awesomeness” is one of Saje’s – but they have to be ones you’d never waver on.
“When they’re true to who you are as a business owner, it’s easy, not an effort, and people really resonate with that authenticity,” she says. “When they join you with those same values, it creates strength and unity and what your company is all about.”
Ross LeBlanc witnessed the power of that come to life last summer at the first-ever Camp Saje, a celebratory company retreat held on Gabriola Island in BC. “Seeing everyone gathered around the campfire and hearing their wellness journeys with us, created so much camaraderie.”
It may not be shocking for the CEO of a wellness company to claim personal wellness as a key to entrepreneurial success – “It’s important to have some rituals that allow you to take time for yourself,” she says – but it is refreshing to hear her a-little-goes-a-long-way approach. “In the office, we have daily yoga. We have a big beautiful gong that I brought back from Thailand and someone rings it everyday at 2 PM and we gather to take ten minutes to do yoga and have quiet time together,” she says, “It’s kind of amazing how much of a difference it makes in your body and flexibility just taking a few minutes – it doesn’t have to be an hour.”
Ross LeBlanc has also found victory using abbreviated routines for her workouts. “I now have a commitment to 40 minutes a day of exercise,” she says. “I’m much more apt to follow through if it’s an hour all-in, including time to prepare or get where I’m going. You’re better to do a little bit on a regular basis than try to do a big amount that doesn’t fit into your schedule.”
It’s not often in business that bad news can be a good thing, but for Ross LeBlanc one of the biggest obstacles she’s faced has steered her towards a better direction.
In the very early days, Saje Natural Wellness was known as Aroma Joy, and they were up to eight stores before they were challenged by an international perfume brand with a similar name. “Despite having a Canadian trademark, we came to the realization that we were going to have to change our name and work through re-branding,” says LeBlanc.
Where others may have buckled under such a set back, the husband and wife duo rose above. “We always try and look at things in that they happen for a reason and always for our best. It’s just a matter of turning your point of view around until you see that. It took us a few years but what has emerged is that we’re much happier with the name Saje Natural Wellness then we ever would have been with the former name.
And it’s likely that the forced switch of gears has led to Ross LeBlanc to one of her top career highlights to date: the opening of a location in Toronto’s Sherway Gardens mall. “When I started in my retail career one of my inspirations was always to be able to open a store there and that grand event happened last September,” she says, “We built a really beautiful store that I’m so proud of and love. It’s been a twenty year journey, [but] it was full circle, a milestone for me.”
More than any specific training, Ross LeBlanc champions passion as the must-have skill for any entrepreneur.
“We spend too much of our lives in a work capacity to have it be something you’re suffering through. It should be something you feel amazing doing at least 95% of the time.” By pairing passion and commitment she believes budding start-ups can attract the people they need to help bring their product or service to a larger audience. Need a hand? Ross LeBlanc advises you not to be shy. “People who are successful at what they do love to share that with others. I really encourage people to reach out, they’d probably be very surprised, and the business community in Canada is small. Plus, we have so many amazing tools that make it easier than ever to get connected.”