Susie Boswell lunches with businesswoman Belinda Rodger, operator of a unique home-grown beauty empire.
We’re dining on prawns, yellowfin tuna, Dory, and a sensual passionfruit dessert, its surface blowtorched into toffee, which we tap into pieces with our spoons while polishing off a crisp white. There’s something very Zen about Rodger, who creates a relaxing lull in my busy world for these couple of hours.
The sense of calm’s also evident when clients step in to her Ella Bache Beauty Salon. Women find beauty treatments cathartic; therapies that enhance the body from top to manicured toe soothe the soul, too. But behind EB’s tasteful cool interior, gentle piped music, subtle candles and fresh ozone fragrance, its French navy-uniformed staff and the 400-plus women a week who depart the oasis pampered and restored … is chaos control, in the form of Rodger. Early 40s (funny: looks far younger!) she’s manager of a million dollar-plus enterprise, employer of some 20 therapists, unfazed by late arrivals, cancelled appointments, demanding clients, unfrazzled by last-minute staff illness, working mums’ sick-child needs, everything that can go wrong in any sizeable business. She performs a high-wire juggling act – looking as if she’s sailing serenely on a sunset sea.
It’s in the blood. Despite its early history, Port’s a young town boasting few dynasties. Yet this salon, Australia’s biggest EB outlet, has hosted four generations of Rodger women since opening 25 years ago. Belinda’s grandmother Jeanette Rodger started the business in Hay Street, where Rydges now stands. Jeanette’s beauty therapist daughter Carol took over around the time the premises moved to Clarence Street a couple of decades ago. Carol’s husband, Bill, has long presided over the financial side. Belinda, then a young mum who’d worked in fashion for 10 years, took up formal beauty training to help at busy times. She fell into the managerial role as the salon grew, expanding from one shopfront to two, its name changed to reflect the EB brand. Now 19, Belinda’s daughter Zoe worked there too until recently, when she left to follow her mum’s passion for fashion, pursuing a business diploma at Sydney design college and working in DJ’s visual merchandising. At a similar age, Belinda joined Eric and Elaine Elsie – boutique owners who introduced “label” fashion to Port – before moving to Sydney to study pattern-making and garment manufacture. “I’m dedicated to the beauty industry now, but fashion’s always there – I love watching Project Runway – so I’m glad Zoe’s following it. She’s doing what I wanted at the same age. Who knows if she’ll return one day too …” Rodger says, a little wistfully.
Zoe’s not the only youngster to win a career opportunity thanks to the family. In seasonal quieter times, there’s in-house training in new products and treatments for Rodger to organise; apprentices attend TAFE. With 18 or so positions to keep filled, Rodger doesn’t necessarily advertise a vacancy when staff take maternity leave. “I always have my eye out,” she reveals. “It’s a continuing goal to have the best team of beauty therapists to offer the best service. The business is nothing without the girls. We have the most amazing group of young women!”
More than 20,000 clients a year enjoy EB’s ministrations with maximum activity starting around October, running six months to mid-autumn. “Christmas and the warmer months are peak time, with spring weddings, school formals, spray tans, the whole buzz of summer,” Rodger smiles. Her neat French manicure is sometimes neglected over Christmas: she admits looking forward to March when things settle down, allowing time for forward planning: “The next thing we want is to create a make-up studio, a special space for our Napoleon Perdis staff to work their magic.” A perk is free beauty treatments – “I could have a facial every day and never get tired of it!” But, working six days a week, a wish she’d like to fulfil is elusive: time to go camping: “I think the kids would love it!” she muses.
Yet work and play do mix for EB staff, with nine tiny tots between them. (Rodger’s two youngest: Levi, 5, and Will, 2. “I’m lucky to have the world’s best babysitter, who’s so flexible!” she acknowledges.) Simone, senior therapist of eight years’ standing, recently gave birth to her first, just as Bethmay, a salon “original”, began a gradual return to work. Recently, the EB mums took the little ones to see The Wiggles. “All of us get on brilliantly and spend a lot of social time together, birthdays and celebrations.” Last year, the Rodgers took long-term staff to Q1 Resort & Spa. Eleven colleagues chilled on the Gold Coast. “It was great for the girls to be on the receiving end of some amazing pampering!” Rodger recalls happily.
The family’s one of our most generous – but discreet – charity supporters. Let’s just say treatment vouchers and make-ups for fundraisers are donated, and Carol Rodger does volunteer beauty work at nursing homes, pepping up seniors’ pride. One of EB’s most respected therapists, she holds the top award given by the brand that came here from France 55 years ago. “We find it hard to say no to kids, schools, health causes and animals – always local ones,” Rodger admits, probably risking an avalanche of requests. “I’ve always been fond of animals but I LOVE dogs.” She spent 10 years as an RSPCA volunteer, many as president, and coordinated building its shelter, until her young sons came along. “They were fascinating people; they put so much time in,” she reflects fondly. Her own Buster, 14, and Edgar, 15, have now gone to the Great Kennel in the sky and “Now I’m down to a single dog, a beautiful fat golden labrador named Gus; I got him out of a bin at West Kempsey markets. I’ve brought many a stray home over the years …”
Beauty. It’s been said countless times, yet worth repeating:
Beauty is not only skin deep.
> Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.