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A tale of love and loss exploring how Chairman, Sakina Buoy became an accidental businesswoman, written by Debra O’Sullivan © 2018.
Talk fragrance with Sakina Buoy and it soon becomes evident that it’s a vividly personal subject. Recalling her childhood and growing up in Canada, she remembers her father, an organic gardener. “To this day, the smell of a ripe tomato reminds me of my father, who died many years ago. Every year when the tomatoes were ready he would get us out to pick them, just before the frost.”
An early introduction to the heady scents of nature and the emotional pull of fragrance, a sensory journey that has served Sakina well. Following a politically aware period in her twenties – “I was a member of Edmontonians for a Non-nuclear Future” – she became disillusioned by the in-fighting of different groups and factions, and headed to India. “I just thought, ‘This is not the answer’. I felt we needed more understanding of ourselves”. Time spent in ashrams and on yoga and meditation retreats merged into an interest in aromatherapy and essential oils as a way to incorporate wellbeing into everyday life. “I had a good friend who was a massage therapist, and I loved the idea that there was something everyone could access – everybody can use essential oils, very inexpensively”. Her work with clients and in books brought her to the UK and to the attention of her Bristol-based husband Roger, who she met in 1992. He asked her to work with him, and their story in life – and in business – kicked off from there, culminating in the launch of The Somerset Toiletry Co a few years later.
“We started a little company in the country at that point, and had our children. They were young, and we wanted something that would give us our own free time. Something small – I thought! Roger clearly had different ideas! He had long been an entrepreneur. He absolutely taught me my passion for business.”
Roger’s hunger for enterprise was always a natural one. Head-hunted to the USA while a young programmer for Rolls Royce, he worked to become partner at Ernst and Young, charged with opening up their South East Asia office. Following this with a stint back in New York as Executive Vice President, Software Publishing and Operations at the publisher of educational materials, Scholastic, Inc., he left to found his first ever entrepreneurial company, the educational and entertainment software developer, Mindscape.
While the transition from aromatherapist to mother and businesswoman was more unexpected for Sakina, it is clearly hugely satisfying. She admits she was always the more ‘touchy feely’ one, though she is keen to point out that she and Roger (who sadly died in 2016) always shared the same approach to dealing with clients and employees. “I just love the way he did business, for him it was about relationships and building relationships with people. Plus, he had an amazing eye for detail and design, and he taught me that no matter what the price of something, we should always be delivering the absolute best in that price range”.
It’s a way of working that has served them well. Today the business develops and produces multiple collections from the luxe Greenscape Organic and shea-rich Naturally European ranges, to the more affordable AAA floral lines. All products are developed in-house and hold varying amounts of essential oils and naturally active ingredients where possible. ‘Honest pricing’ is still fundamental to the Somerset Toiletry Co’s ethos, and evergreen lines are woven through with seasonal bath, body and home fragrance products. In-tune with the fact consumers are becoming increasingly ‘conscious’ about what goes into what they use, Sakina constantly tests formulations and fragrances herself, and her passion for product spills effortlessly into conversation and her home life.
“My house is full of these products. In my shower, for example, I have pots numbered with ‘32960’ and so on, because I think, ‘Let’s try this today!’ Or, ‘I’m going out this evening, we’ve just developed this so let me see if it makes me feel more energetic!’”
She credits her aromatherapy background and that of purely, “Being a human being on this planet,” as the motivation for striving for absolute authenticity in everything she and the business creates. “If you’re anybody with a conscience and you’re selling products, you want to be selling things you would use and you’d have your kids use”. This astuteness translates into how she wants her customers to feel.
“I want people to think, ‘I’ll buy this again because I really enjoy it’. And then tell their friends. That’s how the company’s grown. We’re pretty happy about that.”
Design work for the company’s own ranges – as well as private label lines for other retailers in the UK and the US (another key business component) – happens at the Somerset HQ, and Sakina takes a characteristically collaborative approach to how her team operates. Everyone is encouraged to share ideas and trends, and she believes, “You don’t do your best work if you’re not happy”.
As well as working with partner factories manufacturing in the UK and Portugal, the company owns a site in South Africa which employs 150 people. Again, Sakina lights up. “It’s actually another great passion of mine, because South Africa is a fascinating country. You can see the difference the moment somebody is employed, their families have shoes on their feet, and their kids are going to school – it takes a small amount of money to make a difference, and we love that”.
She does however feel firmly rooted in Somerset, and looks to it for inspiration. “I think the fact that we’re in the countryside and we’re surrounded by beauty – I have a dog here that I take for a walk every lunchtime. Out in the fields, you’re looking at the rhythm of nature, you’re smelling all the different seasons… I mean beauty starts with nature”. She recognises that freshness and a willingness to evolve in business is essential and is determined to see The Somerset Toiletry Co flourish. “It’s the lifeblood – if you stand still the world moves on, and you’re not moving with it”. But she is refreshingly modest about where she’s at right now.
“I think I’m at the point in my life where I’m simplifying a little. The company is still growing and it will continue to grow, but I think it’s at a pace that I’m happy we’re in control of, rather than ‘Let’s take over the world!’” While she confesses to being a ‘dinosaur’ when it comes to social media she thanks her sons for opening her eyes to the wonders of the Internet, and is excited by its opportunities.
So what of the future? For Sakina, with both sons packed off to university, finding herself alone for the first time in over 20 years is the next step along the path. Turning her healing approach on herself, she sees her devotion to the business (plus to her Romanian rescue dog Lily, a regular visitor to the open-plan office of genuinely friendly, engaged employees) as an anchor. “It’s surprised me how much I enjoy business. I never thought I was a businessperson, but I think it can be about everybody working together to make something beautiful. That’s always going to be a passion for me. And of course, my kids.”
“Because I’ve lost my husband I’m going to be finding my own way. But that’s what he would have wanted. You’ve got to get through your grief and say, ‘OK, let’s find somewhere else to go now’. It’s about putting your heart and soul, and love, into what you do.”