Family businesses when passed from generation to generation generally have a tendency to go in one of two directions. They continue to grow and thrive. Or they crash and burn. I know firsthand how precarious this fork in the road can be since I was once involved in my own family’s business. So I love to hear about family-owned businesses where the interpersonal dynamics are the key to a company’s next successful evolution rather than its gravestone.
Saje Natural Wellness, a Canadian-based company connecting people to the healing power of plants, is a classically inspired example of what happens when a business stitches a family together in the pursuit of a common goal rather than pulling it apart.
Launched in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1992 by husband and wife team, Kate Ross and Jean-Pierre LeBlanc, Saje set out on an early trailblazing mission to pull “plant power” out of the hippy fringe and into the mainstream with 100% natural essential oil blends, body care, home, and wellness products. In 2014, the couple’s daughter Kiara, officially joined the company as Creative Director and Vice President, heading up the next generation of brand management and product innovation, and making this healthy lifestyle brand an example for other family businesses looking to create a legacy that lasts.
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Today, Saje Natural Wellness has grown to more than 45 locations across North America. Their newest location in Malibu, California opened in late November, with four other locations planned in California in 2017. The family’s lofty growth objectives don’t stop there. They are planning to launch 150 more retail stores across the US in the next five years as well as expanding into select international markets.
To hear the backstory of how the couple met reinforces that often times the universe has a plan outside of our own control. Jean-Pierre tells me, “We were both driving home from dates that did not pan out with other people and came to the same red light. When I looked over, I saw this striking blonde in a cape and a Zorro-esque hat with her hands firmly placed on the wheel at 10 and 2. When the light turned green she took off like a bat out of hell in her sports car and I thought to myself that I needed to keep up with her. We continued meeting up at the same lights. When it came time for my turn off I decided to keep following her. It was a drizzly, cold night and as we drove over an icy bridge I temporarily lost control of my car. When I straightened it out our cars were next to one another again. We both rolled down our windows and Kate asked me if I thought I could dance better then I can drive. The rest is history”.
Although Kate may have been the better driver that fateful evening, that’s where the competition between the couple ends. Says Kate, “Although we have a friendly competition in our personal lives, specifically with when we play chess together, we are not competitive in business at all. We make sure that we allow each other the space to play to our own strengths”.
A year and a half after their first drag race, Kate and Jean-Pierre got married, though the thought of working with one another hadn’t even occurred to them—yet.
“We never really decided to go into business together,” Jean-Pierre says, “Instead we decided to craft our lives together. Otherwise we knew we would be working in entirely separate realities and weaving in the scraps together”.
It was at this point that Jean-Pierre and Kate realized the critical dynamic that is essential to any successful partnership in life and in business, but especially when it comes to husband and wife teams where the lines between personal and professional life can get blurred: If you’re not in it together, willing to let the other succeed, and playing to each others strengths, family businesses are destined to fail.
So just how did this couple who met drag racing in a hat and a cape one rainy night two decades ago build one of the most successful and fastest-growing preventative wellness businesses in North America?
Having grown up in her mom’s textile retail business, Kate developed an inherent talent for design and making things beautiful, which has carried over into her vision for creating what she refers to as “outrageous customer experiences” for all Saje customers. “It’s in my DNA”, says Kate.
Jean-Pierre’s path into wellness was more circuitous. He got into a car accident in 1988 before he met Kate that led to a variety of health issues including chronic pain. He spent years in a rabbit-hole of subsequent treatments with traditional drugs trying to ease his pain each causing a new set of symptoms in his body followed by yet more medications prescribed to negate the previous drug’s side effects. After years of what seemed like a never ending cycle of getting nowhere, Jean-Pierre was finally convinced there had to be a better way to get back to optimum health.