Determined to carve his own niche, Bermudian entrepreneur Bervin Lee has expanded his scented oil business with the opening of a new store in the city of Hamilton.
The new brand of De Oil Shop marked six months of business in November as the second branch of the thriving outlet just east of Whale Bay Road in Southampton.
The Warwick Academy graduate flashed a big smile when he said building a successful business wasn’t easy. And there were times when the going was rough that he questioned his decisions.
“Yes it takes a lot of discipline, thats the key,” said Mr Lee. “It takes financial discipline, you know your hours are long and your pay won’t match your hours. But that’s not why I got into it. I got into this because I love what I do.”
Asked by a friend who started the business selling incense and oils to help, he joined as a partner in 2006 and eventually took it over after his partner moved on. “I sat down with him initially to help him with his numbers. It’s a lucrative business but we had to work to get it going because it’s not mainstream. If we could mainstream it and get more and more people on it was viable,” he said.
Despite the challenges he stressed that nothing beats owning your own business. “Working for other people is kind of easy because you don’t have to worry for the most part about your pay. I’ve been here for almost nine years and I haven’t had one sick day. When you’re self-employed you’re basically the product as well. If you don’t get up or don’t make your time and you don’t work then nothing is coming in, then you don’t get paid. There is no sick pay – there’s none of that.”
Knowing the first five years of running his own business could make or break him he faced a host of challenges head on. “Everything that I thought I knew in theory was thrown out the window the minute I got into the deep end. It looks great on paper and alot of things sound good but when you get into it and you realise what comes with it there’s a totally different outlook,” Mr Lee said.
“I would tell anybody if you want to get into business you have to get into business – that’s the only way you’re going to learn and everyone’s experience is different. The problem with what I was doing was no one else was doing it, so it was like ‘who do I turn to for advice’?” Ultimately he turned to the internet. “I had to do my homework and my own research,” he said. In the beginning he was convinced the business “would definitely boom on top to become an instant hit”.
It wasn’t long before he realised turning the sale of scented oils into a successful business meant getting the word out to would-be customers. And he said there was no shortage of naysayers along the way. But he was determined not to be swayed by negativity. Starting a new business when Bermuda’s economy was heading into a recession also drew criticism. For Mr Lee it was it had more to do with adapting to the times.
“We couldn’t do things like we used to, we had to pay attention. When the money is rolling in you tend not to think as much but when you feel the slow down then you have to be more involved and pay attention to everything,”he said. “I was told there was no money in it, people are not into that sort of stuff, people like what they like and it’s hard to get people to change their minds. Several people asked me if I was sure that’s what I want to do but I had a passion and a belief that it can and will be work out.”
Admittedly, he said there were times when he was discouraged but he refused to give up. “Yes there were a few times I sat at the dining room table holding my head. When the recession hit I sat down with my family and just expressed that things were not going to be how they used to be. But I knew we could weather this storm, I never felt like I was going to give up. Quitting is never an option – neither is failure,” he said.
Nearly nine years on he spread his wings even further by opening a second store in Hamilton in May on the lower level of the new phase of the Washington Mall. “I would say it was a big step and it was a great feeling. So far, so good, I’m really pleased and at one point I asked myself ‘why didn’t I do this sooner’ but everything in time,” he said. “I didn’t want to push it or get a loan to do it, I’d rather work and feel the lumps and get to know the field, that way I know the full potential. So it was a big step for me because it means we’re growing.
“I once heard a quote that said ‘there’s only two things you do in life – you’re either growing or you’re dying’. And I felt it was time to grow. We had a shop in Hamilton with the initial partnership and it was good. But I wanted to go for it again because this shop in Southampton, being in the west, a lot of people cannot get up here. Not everybody has transportation, Hamilton is just convenient. We do get people who come here from St David’s and St George’s for the drive, especially on Sundays – it’s a nice outting. We’re still starting from square one with the store in Hamilton and we’re still getting the word out.”
Mr Lee, 37, initially opted to enter the culinary world as a chef and married at the young age of 22. “My passion at the time was in the kitchen but with a family, the hours, the demand and the pay it wasn’t a family oriented job to have,” he said. Married for 15 years, he and his wife have three children, two boys and a girl aged 14, 13 and 12.
De Oil Shop specializes in body oils, shea butter creams and soaps made for the most part from natural products. Extracted from plants, the oils are mixed with with carrier oils like sunflower oil.
“Once you put on the oil it mixes with your body chemistry as well and takes on another scent. So no two people could smell the same wearing the same oil and it’s less expensive than perfume and cologne,” said Mr Lee. “We also hand-dip our own incense which we make ourselves. It’s not difficult to do, the main part is the recipe to make it because not everything that smells nice smells the same once you burn it.”
He was first introduced to oils by family and friends who brought them back from abroad. A friend in New York later asked him to sell his products about 18 years ago, at a time when natural body oils were not so popular in Bermuda as they are today. Since then he has found the business “appeals to people across the board – the young and old, male and female”. “When we first started it was mostly females but now more and more males are getting into fragrances, even children.”
“Everyone likes to smell nice and they like the compliments. Our motto is “smell good – feel great” and that’s what we try to do here. I love seeing people smile, I love seeing people happy, I love to hear that they’re getting compliments because that always makes your day when people say you smell nice,” he added.
It is a business that thrives on personal preferences. “I’m a person who likes light scents whereas some people like something a little loud so when they leave the room they want people to know that they were there. I like a scent that’s neutral and if you’re really close to me you could smell it.”
Together the two stores employs three staff including a summer student. Asked if he ever thought he would one day become an employer he smiled. “That’s something I’ve always wanted. I’ve had a lot of positive people in my life who told me that you need to learn to take care of yourself. So I’ve always known that I wanted to be self-employed because I like a challenge.”
But he stressed that it’s not for everyone. “I feel that you need a certain personality. You have to be very disciplined, you have to understand procrastination will destroy you and you have to put quality over everything. You could have a million onetime customers or you could look for repeat customers and that’s what we push for.”
And his customer base is expanding. “Slowly but surely we’ve watched even visitors coming through our doors. In the west we have the privilege to burn incense outside so that helps to draw customers. We get cruise ship passengers, mainly the ones on rental cycles. But there’s a few taxi drivers which I really appreciate, who actually stop and bring tourists here on their tours so that’s a nice feeling as well.”
He noted that there was a time when Bermudians thrived by supporting each other which changed over the years. “It’s a cultural change that needs to occur because we used to help each other, we used to be there for each other,” said Mr Lee.”I feel that when more and more people were able to achieve on their own they became less concerned about their neighbour. They adopted the attitude ‘I’ve got mine now you could go get yours’, whereas before we would help each other to get ahead.” But he said that’s starting to change as a result of the recession. “That’s usually what brings people together, either a catastrophe, a disaster or a recession,” he said.
Asked what his advice would be to other young entrepreneurs pursuing their goals he replied: “Understand no one is going to see your vision like you do, they’re not going to have the same passion as you do. Listen to what people say but don’t let anyone talk you out of what you’re trying to do. Just because they cannot see it that does not mean that it cannot work. You have to stay strong and you have to want it. If it’s just about money or immediate gratification then you must know that’s not really the true world of business. Building a business takes time – a lot of time, and you constantly have to reinvest.
“I never took a bank loan to start this business I got assistance from my sister then I watched that disappear because I was paying her back and starting out in business. By the time I finished paying her back it was almost as if I needed another loan,” said Mr Lee. “I just stuck my head down, cut back on personal expenses and just let it start to build organically.” And he most definitely believes that if you stick to the wicket the runs will come. “And my sister is very proud of me,” he added.
In hindsight as a small business owner he said he has no regrets in spite of the challenges. “I always go back to this, Usain Bolt showed that people could run 100m in under ten seconds. People said it couldn’t be done but it has been done and since then college students have been able to produce that as well,” said Mr Lee.
“This business has allowed me to explore many avenues – no two days are the same. I got into graphic design, I got into learning products, I got into understanding business whereas I felt I knew everything coming out of high school. It’s understanding that even though you’re your own boss, every customer that’s comes through this door is actually your boss. They determine your business and it’s been good.”
He attributes a big part of his success to surrounding himself with “positivity”. “Sometimes you will also find that you just have to be alone. It’s nice to get feedback but negative things will talk you out of your dream. You have to dream and dream big. Don’t just say ‘oh I’m from Bermuda and I can’t do it’. These products here get shipped around the world because people like what we do. It’s something to call our own – something to be proud of,” said Mr Lee.
He concluded with an inspirational quote by Lao Tzu, a philosopher and poet of ancient China as words he tries to live by which states: “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
By Ceola Wilson