Having more than just a nose for business

TRACEY STRANGE OF NZ LIFE & LEISURE
Last updated 05:00 16/09/2013
Sarah Townsend
Jane Ussher/NZ Life & Leisure

TIME FOR AIR: Sarah Townsend, founder of The Aromatherapy Company, says learning breathing techniques have helped her cope with stress.

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"What shall I eat?" Sarah Townsend rapid-fires at her daughter India as we barrel through her beach house on the way to a new restaurant for lunch. "You've had the pasta. Will I like the pappardelle?" Twenty-one-year-old India, "the sensible one in the family", has only the chance to peer over her computer screen before we whip down the steps of the family's Waiheke holiday home, navigating a large Labrador and a small child cradling a rabbit.

"The rabbit is called George," says Sarah as if uncaged rabbits and dogs renowned for their appetites are common in big, white, ultra-modern Auckland houses. "I love animals," she says, by way of explanation. And then we jump in an open-topped jeep and are on our way to a posh eaterie to eat oysters (not pappardelle) and drink bubbles.

If you're starting to think that it all seems a little Alice in Wonderland, you may be right. There is definitely something nicely fantastical about the world of Sarah Townsend, a woman who has overcome both dyslexia and anxiety to head up successful New Zealand beauty business The Aromatherapy Company. Despite the world economic environment and exposed to exports in 18 countries, the business grew 37 percent in 2011 and another 42 percent in 2012. It has more than 60 employees. If Sarah Townsend were standing on the stage of New Zealand success she'd currently be taking a bow, clutching a bouquet that's appropriate in more ways than one;
The Aromatherapy Company itself pretty much grew out of a garden.

Sarah was raised in Auckland's leafy eastern suburbs, the middle child of three girls. Mum was an interior designer, dad a textiles commodities broker. "My mother Carole (Andrews Smith) is one of those incredibly stylish women who seek out beauty everywhere," Sarah says. "On holidays, she would even pack cushion covers so that when we arrived she could whip them out and make the places we stayed at feel more like home. I remember us always having flowers, even at camp grounds... simple flowers like honeysuckle and jasmine that smelt amazing."

Carole's "obsession" with flowers was contagious. "I used to mash them together in a bowl to make my own perfumes," Sarah says. "God knows what they smelled like. But I can see how I ended up here... being around fragrance and developing new products are the things I love most about the business."

But Carole wasn't the only one busily sowing the seeds for her daughter's future. Sarah's pronounced entrepreneurial spirit stems from her father, Stuart Smith. "We're very similar people," she says. "We're both straight up and we love to sell." She started helping her father at work when she was about eight. By the age of 12 she'd launched her first venture - a stall at Auckland's Cook Street Markets selling cloth offcuts from Stuart's textiles business. "Dad would drop me off and I'd go to work. I loved it. I loved the atmosphere. I loved the people I met. And I loved to talk."

Her gregariousness hasn't always earned her friends. She wasn't, she says, particularly academic. ("I majored in class clown.") But any school troubles were probably based around the fact that she was diagnosed - quite late in her education - as dyslexic. "I think the teachers just thought I wasn't very smart and wrote me off a bit," she says. "It was my mother who fought to work out what was going on with me."

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In the fifth form she was sent to board at Masterton's Solway College. Her arrival - fashionable girl from the big smoke - created something of a buzz, a fact not unnoticed by the then headmistress. "She worked out that she could either leave me to my own devices as a ringleader or she could harness all that energy and turn me into a prefect. So she gave me a badge."
It worked. Initially highly sceptical about Solway, Sarah grew to love it, passing all her exams and graduating with the idea of becoming a teacher.

But first she went to London. Two hundred pounds in hand, within 24 hours of arriving she had a job as a nanny with a family in Geneva. She spent eight months working ("the family did a lot of travelling") before acquiring another job (within the same family) in catering. Somehow it all hooked up with the Tollemarche family, English aristocracy and, among other things, great plant lovers. Through an association with Cynthia Tollemarche she was introduced to Meadow Herbs, a company upholding traditional methods of blending essential oils.

Weekends were spent investigating natural therapies - "it wasn't all about smelling the roses; there was a lot of partying going on too" - and, when she eventually returned home to New Zealand at 24, she had an idea for a company specialising in natural home fragrance and body-care products.

Established in 1990 in her home garage, Sarah's Aromatherapy Company is currently one of the biggest forces in this country's natural-products market. It offers 10 ranges, including babies', men's and natural-therapy collections and is sold around the world. "When we started, Kiwis didn't really have much understanding of essential oils, except for knowing that you put them in a burner. Now some of our biggest growth is coming from our Therapy range, based on products that are beneficial for mind, body and soul. The Pulse Points - oil blends in roll-on containers that help you sleep - are really popular."

There is, she says, a feeling that people want a simpler life. "I'm thinking we're going from a quick-fix stage right back to basics. People are more interested in products that make a difference to their lives." She says that one of the main things she has learned from her father who, at 80, is still heavily involved in the business, is the importance of seeing and then seizing opportunities. "Actually, I've learned a great deal more than that from my father but it's only in the last few years that I've actually started listening. If I'd done so earlier I would have been far more successful." The eyes roll. "But, of course, I knew it all."

More growth is planned for the future. But so too is learning the art of delegation. The sheer volume of work, coupled with being a mother to two girls (second daughter Albertine is nine), can leave her stressed and prone to panic attacks. "You want to know the secret to life? It's breathing. I'm the type who won't take a sleeping tablet even if I can't sleep because someone might need me. I get stressed. But when I found that exercise and cutting back on coffee and alcohol - all the things recommended to help you deal with stress - were no longer working, I had to find something else."

She discovered Breathing Works, an Auckland-based practice dedicated to breathing therapy, which she says is helping to change her life. "It helps stop the anxiety. It centres you to yourself and helps you be more creative. It's a wonderful thing to teach to children." It also helps her to be quiet. "I really want to do a silent retreat," she says, "but I'm afraid I'll be banned."

- NZ Life & Leisure

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