Photography by Daniel Wood
On New Year’s Eve 1979, in the 1,000-person town of Falher, Alta., a local hairdresser parked her car outside her two-chair salon in the corner of the local hotel and packed her belongings into the trunk. She threw in her combs, honed scissors and beauty magazines, and drove four and a half hours south to the edge of St. Albert. Tired of giving “the usual,” the hairdresser took the first step in a journey too big for a small town.
In the car, with her hands on the wheel, she was just Eveline, the local hairdresser who had opened that salon in Falher around 1974. Forty years later, she’s Eveline Charles, a mother, beauty magnate and businesswoman, with salons across western Canada, two training academies and a line of beauty products all bearing her name.
Now in her 60s, Charles has retained a sense of style that is strong, confident, and feminine – a mirror of her personality. However, that small-town charm is still noticeable in her unreserved sociability, typical of people who come from tight-knit hamlets. Her use of folksy axioms – such as, “We all put on our pants the same way,” and, “If you look like an unmade bed, you’re going to work like an unmade bed” – betrays the small-town girl who formed her business acumen early on.
Going to the city to shop only once every few months required researching current trends, forecasting their direction and having a little ingenuity. At fashion, “small town girls work twice as hard,” Charles says.
Charles never earned an MBA like she’d hoped because, from the age of 12, she was forced to help support her family. Like it was for her father, university was only a dream. “My father had always wanted to go to university, but it wasn’t possible. The only thing they could do was open-land farm, and he hated it.” Her father began to drink, and while he was an alcoholic but a “nice man,” in Charles’s words, the experience of supporting the family through the hardest of times taught Charles her first business lesson: “There’s no such thing as a cushion.” Ruth Kelly, publisher of Alberta Venture magazine, has seen numerous entrepreneurs come and go. “I will always look to see what Eveline is doing with great interest because I think she’s a true innovator,” says Kelly. The two share similar experiences: neither earned a business degree, and both grew their businesses up from the ground at a time when it was difficult for women to lease space and earn a line of credit.
Charles’s innovation began early. Just six months after opening a four-chair salon in St.Albert, Charles had bought a house. In 1984, she moved her business into Edmonton, expanded it to hold 14 chairs and called it BiancoNero. It was here that her empire would take root.”Eveline is extremely tenacious and nimble,” says Kelly. “She understands where she needs to put her business for the future, and has a very innate sense of how to bring her brand and name to the forefront. She was one of the frontrunners in expanding her business past a salon into a spa.”
“Aesthetics was always a part of our industry,” Charles says. “But most people did their manicures and pedicures at home. All of a sudden, there came a niche market for it, and everybody wanted massages, manicures, pedicures and facials.” So Charles expanded her services to include spa treatments in the early ’90s.
It was primarily a tactic to differentiate herself from other popular salons. However, it wasn’t long until the other salons included their own spa services, so, in 1995, the EvelineCharles line of beauty products was launched to further separate BiancoNero from its competitors. With the launch of the product line, Charles made a change. “For years, I worked in the business rather than on the business,” she says. “It was when I got off our floors that we began to multiply.”
“I did not see a change in Eveline when she moved off the floor to run the business,” says Lina Heath, current president of EvelineCharles and Charles’s second cousin. “The dramatic change was the evolution of the company.” Heath had watched the transition from behind the front desk when she started at BiancoNero, all the way through to becoming president in 2010. “The business grew because Eveline had a pulse on where the industry was going, and had the courage to evolve the traditional business model.”
The success of EvelineCharles is a microcosm of the growth during the Canadian spa boom. In 2005, more than 2,000 spas across the country received an estimated 14.1 million visits. Between 1996 and 2006, the industry grew by 329 per cent. In that same timeframe, Charles opened 10 salons throughout Alberta and British Columbia. Today, EvelineCharles salons and spas service over 160,000 guests a year, with the average invoice coming to $100 per person. The industry as a whole generated over $1 billion in revenue in 2005, two years after Charles became the first female to be inducted into the Alberta Business Hall of Fame. To further distance herself from her competition, Charles opened the EvelineCharles beauty academy in Edmonton in 2005 (the second opened in Calgary in 2011). They taught a curriculum written by Charles on salon services and business operations.
Charles inspired more than just students and customers. Linda Ha, owner of Edmonton men’s barbershop Barber Ha, worked as a stylist for EvelineCharles for eight years.”I loved working at EvelineCharles,” says Ha. “That’s why I stayed for so many years. Eveline really made you feel like you mattered.”
At the beginning of her time with the company, Ha attended Vancouver Fashion Week to promote her own clothing line, and EvelineCharles served as co-sponsor. A reporter asked Ha why she would choose EvelineCharles over Suki’s, a popular salon with a more local presence he thought made a better fit.
“I told him it was because I think it’s a cool brand,” Ha says. “I really believed EvelineCharles would be big in Vancouver.” Ha was inspired by Charles, “an independent woman able to execute her dreams,” and moved on to open her own barber shop in 2011.
At the height of her success, Charles was the embodiment of the superwoman: she juggled numerous locations, an expanding product line, the academies and international visibility – all while raising a family. She co-created Spa 7, an annual gathering of seven of the largest names in North American spas to discuss trends and direction in the industry. She sat on the board of the Professional Beauty Association.
But in the age of Internet immediacy, when few want to make time for “the usual” five-hour visit to the spa, EvelineCharles is changing yet again. The two locations in Kelowna had to close last year, and a glut of spas and spa services are offering competition like never before. But Charles has yet to quit.
“People don’t want that fluffy salt scrub or whatever,” says Charles. The academies are including a barber program to train stylists in cutting men’s styles, and a focus on virtual classrooms will make EvelineCharles Academy course work available across the world. The expansion of the product line is also one of the primary business focuses, and the salons now carry results-oriented Beauty MD services, such as Botox, laser hair removal and hormone therapy.
Guiding the ship is Charles, who has no plans to retire. Instead, she is staying on as a mentor for company leadership. She spends more time on the floor of the salons, working with her employees. One day, she watched as a customer was seated for a haircut. The employee asked if the customer wanted “the usual.”
It struck Charles. After the customer waved goodbye, Charles pulled the employee aside. “We never ask a client that. We say, ‘I have this great new look for you; are you ready for a change?'”
Because, for Charles, the usual will never be enough.
Women’s Hair In the fall, we’re still seeing a little bit of texture, but not as unruly. And there is a lot of long hair on women right now – with all the extensions – but that’s going to start changing. It’s been around for a long time.
Women’s Colour The new colour trends are a lot of smoky, ashy colours, even like dark charcoal silver, which is absolutely stunning. And it works with the fall colours, the charcoals and the blacks. A lot of people say, “I don’t want that grey hair,” but, on young people, it looks really, really cool.
Men’s Hair I think men have never looked better. I love the skinny suits and the shorter pants and the socks and the cool shoes and haircuts. I think because men’s hair has been so predominantly short – it’s been that barbered haircut – the only other way it can go is a little bit longer. That’ll be the next trend in men’s hair.