On an autumn morning at Oasis Cottage, pigs slumber in the barn, free-range chooks scratch in the garden and bird houses occupy every available tree branch. A howling nor’wester blusters across the surrounding paddocks. Inside the cottage, Oasis Beauty founder Stephanie Evans is dressed for the gym and has been baking biscuits. “But they’re burnt,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.
They might be a little overdone, but the warm smell of baking fills the kitchen and this feels every inch a welcoming, country cottage. The Oasis Beauty maintenance man, Ian Mehrtens pops in and the chat turns to the local bowls club and who is going to the pub that evening.
Wandering out to the barn next door, Stephanie is greeted by Tom and Barbara, two rescue kune kune pigs which snuffle their way over for a belly rub.
From her Auckland city roots, , it’s clear Stephanie has taken to this rural community with the zeal of the convert. But it was a chance trip that saw her and life partner Ian Kimpton end up here. They had travelled south from their Auckland home to celebrate Ian’s birthday about a decade ago.
“As soon as we landed at Christchurch we just loved the South Island.”
They spent a few days touring around and fell in love with the North Canterbury town of Oxford. It was, Stephanie says, the place for them, with the right balance of “lovely, friendly, small-town feel” and the touch of urban convenience offered by a supermarket and being not too far from the airport. They headed back to Auckland, sold the house, packed up the car and trailer and, in 2006, moved to Oxford where they rented before buying the 1898 former railway cottage several years ago.
The cottage also served as Oasis Beauty’s office in the early days but now the business’s headquarters are in the centre of Oxford. It’s a five-minute commute for Stephanie and Ian, who often cycle to work. The successful skincare company is clearly a big part of Stephanie’s life, but, like many businesses doing well, it’s been far from an overnight success.
On leaving school, Stephanie was offered two career choices: join the air force or become a secretary. She decided the air force sounded more exciting, but during the medical examination the doctor described her as “stocky” – not a comment a teenage girl wants to hear. “I was furious” she recalls, “so I decided to go to secretarial college instead. I signed up for a full-time, one-year course and I loved it”.
It was a move that stood her in good stead when, as a 20-year-old, she headed off to London looking for adventure. Her OE turned into a stay of several years, much of which was spent partying and having fun, but she also learnt to stand on her own two feet. She was able to support herself through secretarial work and built up plenty of experience .
“I draw on that experience all the time. I learnt about manufacturing and managing staff. I really picked up something from all the jobs I had.”
It was in London that she met Ian, a native of the city, and in 1996 the two moved to Auckland, bought a house and accepted jobs.
Not one to stand still, Stephanie also got her motorcycle and skydiving licences. Although she loved city living and the great outdoors, she was getting frustrated with her sensitive skin’ so, in 2001, when she came across a book about natural skincare and making your own products, she took it home and got to work experimenting at the kitchen table. The products she made worked and pretty soon friends and family were asking her to make some for them. From there, she started selling skincare remedies at school fundraisers and home parties. She remembers the very first product she sold was “avocado all over lotion”, which still exists as “Hydrator” in the Oasis range.
But it wasn’t enough to pay the mortgage and Stephanie has a firm approach to finances. She has always shied away from taking on debt and refused things she cannot buy outright.
“At home we’ve spent years paying the mortgage, we had no furniture when we first moved in, and for a long time, we just had an old coffee table and watched TV on the computer. Whilst in the business I’ve also never taken on debt. That’s why it took us 13 years to get a company car.”
Stephanie made her skincare creams part-time and continued to work part-time, while training as a beauty therapist. In 2005, she registered Oasis Beauty as a business and sold her wedding china to fund the start-up.
The move to Oxford was the catalyst for focusing fully on Oasis Beauty. At first she worked alone, then took on casual employees, before she was able to start paying herself a proper salary in 2012. From those humble beginnings of mixing up ingredients at the kitchen table, the company now has a range of 15 products and sells thousands of pottles of sunscreen a month. Seven staff - including Ian, who came on board recently – now work at the Oasis office. Stephanie also spends a week every month in Auckland, where her mother and “best friend” works as an Oasis Beauty merchandiser.
Products are manufactured in Christchurch and sold online and in stores around the country. They also sent to Australia and China through online retailers. Online selling is the only option for the Chinese market, as any skincare products sold through retailers in that country have to be tested on animals, something Oasis will not do.
“The Chinese market is challenging but very rewarding”, Stephanie says. “I have hundreds of Chinese followers on my WeChat account who love seeing pictures of Oxford, our New Zealand lifestyle and the animals”.
The one exception to the no-testing rule is that Tom and Barbara, the pigs rehomed from less-than-ideal situations, have been used for trialling a new animal sunscreen product.
They now have “well-moisturised ears”, Stephanie jokes.
While it has been a long and varied path to success, she is not surprised at the result.
“I’ve always been ambitious. I always wanted to be the boss, not the secretary.”
But she’s not a bossy boss. A stint working at Apple in London showed her a distinct company culture and it’s one she has tried to apply at Oasis Beauty.
“I don’t micro-manage, I believe in letting people go and investing in them ... We try to have fun and I think it’s a key to how far we’ve come in a very short time.”
Clearly, the strategy has worked. Last year, the company won the North Canterbury Business Awards’ coveted people’s choice award and the manufacturing award. It is also winning kudos and friends on social media (its Facebook page has more than 25,000 likes) for its stance on animal welfare. Oasis Beauty donates to charities such as Oxford Bird Rescue, Hedgehog Rescue New Zealand, World Animal Protection and SAFE.
“I felt this way I had covered local, national and international charities,” Stephanie says.
But not everybody is keen on her causes and her support of SAFE, in particular, has led to some backlash.
“We have had hate mail on social media from people because we support SAFE. It actually just makes me want to support them more,” she says.
However, a personal approach closer to home did leave her upset. A local woman recently told Stephanie that she and others were boycotting Oasis Beauty products because of the company’s support for SAFE and SAFE’s negative attitude to dairy-farming.
“It did really upset me because it was someone in the community. I’ve always been aware I live in a dairying area and I have never put anything about SAFE’s dairy campaign on my website or social media. I would never tell people to boycott dairy or anything like that, but local people are boycotting a local company because they don’t like one of the charities we support.”
Her support of these charities epitomises what matters to Stephanie, and it’s not money.
“We sell suncare products and they’re great, but I want Oasis to make a difference, rather than just line my pockets,” she says.
If building up Oasis Beauty has been a long path with lots of lessons learnt, things have been similarly challenging at home for this city-turned-country girl. In the early days in Oxford, Ian was working as a sales rep and travelling a lot, so Stephanie spent a lot of time alone in what was then a ramshackle house.
“It was a cold couple of years when we first moved in. We knew nothing really. Somebody gave me a ‘ewe-in-lamb’ and I had no idea what it meant. Luckily, we have a very nice farmer next door and he was great, because I always had someone I could ask questions.”
But those early days when they had little were also richly rewarding.
“My happiest time was when we first moved into this house. We had no furniture and would be sitting on camp chairs out in the garden, we had no fences so there were sheep running around and in the winter we’d have bonfires – they were happy days.”
A decade on, she is very comfortable in her gumboots, deeply entrenched in rural life. Weekends are spent gardening and enjoying the outdoors. She’s also planning to get out hiking around the Oxford countryside. Meanwhile, Ian often takes off on his motorbike or is out doing his own thing.
“We like our separate time,” she says.
Stephanie’s love of animals meant the paddocks around the cottage have quickly filled. Rescue sheep and an unruly mob of runner ducks waddle about. At one point Stephanie had four rescue cats but now the eldest, Pippy, “rules the roost in her old age”.
The next project for Ian and Stephanie is developing a pond, surrounded by native plantings, as a haven for wild birds.
Stephanie’s love of animals has also inspired her to reduce meat in her diet.
“When we got Tom I stopped eating pork and ham,” she says.
Despite having had lambs home-killed in past years, she’s now starting to feel at odds with that, too, so she is trialling meat-free cooking.
“I’m not telling everyone to turn vegan or anything like that; I don’t feel high and mighty about it. It’s just a small thing that I’m doing” she says. “But if everybody does a small thing ...”
Stephanie has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time and, with firm-held beliefs and principles, she’s showing that Oasis’s beauty is more than skin deep.