The sweet success of smells

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SHIRLEY PRICE'S mother did not live long enough to realise the part she played in her daughter's business success. Mrs Price began to dabble in aromatherapy some 20 years ago in order to relieve her mother's arthritis.

She started by converting the wash-room at home into a laboratory. Soon she was mixing aromatic oils and bottling them. Her husband, Len, an aeronautical engineer by day, made the labels by night.

Today, 10 years after her mother's death, they are directors of the biggest aromatherapy school in the world. After lengthy conversion work, they have just moved into a former shoe factory in Hinckley, Leicestershire, where the oils are mixed, bottled and distributed. The company, named Shirley Price Aromatherapy, exports to 80 countries.

Quite a transformation for a former domestic science teacher who opened a hairdressing shop in the late 1960s. It was then that she read a magazine article about aromatherapy and the potentially beneficial effects it had on arthritis and other ailments - at the time it was used mainly as a beauty treatment.

In the early 1970s the Prices devoted all their savings (about pounds 100) to a deposit on a derelict building which they slowly converted into a health-and-beauty salon with a salad bar attached. Hinckley had seen nothing like it.

'We bought all our sinks, dryers and other equipment second-hand from showrooms in London,' Mrs Price recalled. 'The only things we had new were the carpet, which we laid ourselves, and the sauna. I don't believe in borrowing.'

She does, though, believe fervently in hard work. She and Len were putting in long hours, seven days a week. The oils they were mixing and bottling at home were also hawked around other beauty salons.

'We took nothing out of the business for two years. But then I was trained in domestic science and I know how to make ends meet.'

Mrs Price is now 62, but looks much younger, with a flash-bulb smile that helped to win her the 1970 salesperson of the year award for an American cosmetics company.

In those days aromatherapy was considered to be a fringe activity well beyond mainstream medicine. Even today bottles of the oils are not allowed by law to carry any claims that they will heal. But the attitude of conventional medical practitioners has changed markedly. Prince Charles's address to the BMA in 1983 on the benefits of homeopathic medicine helped to break down resistance, Mrs Price believes.

'We do a lot of work in hospitals now, particularly in relieving stress before operations. Ten years ago they wouldn't have let us past the door.'

Between two-thirds and three-quarters of trainees at her school are nurses. Its 14 centres are training 500 each year in this country alone. It has another 10 centres abroad.

Mrs Price is very popular with followers of aromatherapy in Japan, although she has never been there. When she strolled into the lobby of a Brighton hotel this year a large party of Japanese stood up and applauded. She then had to pose for innumerable photographs. The same thing happened in Santa Monica, California, where she was almost mobbed by Japanese with cameras.

Pirate copies of her demonstration video have been selling briskly in Japan, despite a price of pounds 168. Here it sells for just pounds 10.50. A hefty mark-up for sure. 'Yes,' the video star agreed. 'But we make nothing out of it.'

Business is doing very well without the profits from pirate videos. Turnover has increased in the past four years from pounds 80,000 to more than pounds 1.5m. And the past year has seen 30 per cent growth.

Mrs Price still gets up at 5.30am and often puts in a 14-hour day; her fourth book is due out next month. Her mother's arthritis may have been too advanced and too severe to benefit greatly from aromatherapy. But what was once considered fringe medicine is providing profits not to be sniffed at.