Spa Star

14.03.14 | Posted in People I Love

Melanie Gleeson has grown Endota Spa  from one outlet to 82 spas across the country. She has a latte with Emma.


The minute I arrived at the Endota Spa headquarters, I breathed out and felt my shoulders drop a few centimetres. Situated in Moorooduc on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, it’s the type of office space that makes work feel like it’s not work, a kind of fusion of a luxe farmstay and a health retreat.

The staff there certainly give that impression. It’s Valentines Day on the day I visit, and one team member has drawn a rather large and enthusiastic crowd around her desk. They’re all screaming and giggling over a delivery she’s received from a secret admirer and are genuinely excited that their colleague is getting all this attention.

Over at the next desk, there’s a rabbit nibbling on a carrot (which probably came from the vegetable garden out the back of the offices) and its owner notices me checking it out. “It’s ‘bring your rabbit in Friday’”, she explains without expression, as if this is nothing out of the ordinary.

But this is out of the ordinary. This business, this culture, this setting, and its co founder – Melanie Gleeson, 39 – are all quite extraordinary.


Early beginnings
Melanie grew up on the Mornington Peninsula and enjoyed an idyllic childhood. “I went to a fantastic school and they basically had three rules: respect yourself, respect others and respect the environment. We didn’t have a uniform as such but had to wear the colours of the earth – grey, green, yellow or brown – so it was a little bit hippy,” laughs Melanie.

After school, Melanie headed overseas and worked as an au pair in Scotland for a year, before travelling around Europe. When she came back to Australia she did a hair and make-up course and then started working in the spa industry, managing various spas.

After some time, she ran into an old school friend, Belinda Fraser, who would go on to become her co-founder in Endota. “Belinda and I knew each other from school but we hadn’t seen each other since. We were at a barbecue and I got talking to her about what I was doing and she wasn’t happy with where she was, so we decided to start our own spa. It pretty much started from there in 2000,” Melanie explains.

Melanie recalls the start up days of Endota as ‘very fun and very chaotic.’
“For the first year I got it all up and going and worked in our first spa full time while Belinda stayed working in real estate. We shared her salary and would get together at night and write the operations manual, and we’d be at a lot of local tourism events, so that really started us and the brand into the community, which we are still actively involved in today.”


Commitment to Growth
From the outset, Melanie and Belinda wanted their idea to grow, and franchising seemed the best way to achieve this. “We always knew we wanted a network of spas,” says Melanie. “When we started, the spa industry was quite unknown, and we didn’t have the capital. We had a $5,000 credit card between us. We needed other people to believe in our vision and dream and invest in it so that we could grow.”

At first Melanie and Belinda thought that if they could have 25 spas, then they would be happy, but it just kept growing. The Endota Spa business now boasts 82 spas, with an additional five in the build stage. The business employs 30 people at head office, and around 1000 therapists across the network. “The reason behind the numbers was that we really wanted to raise the professionalism of the industry,” explains Melanie. “There weren’t a lot of spas at the time and there was not a lot of consistency. We also wanted to give the therapists a career path as something that they could grow into and something that they could be proud of.”

Providing opportunities for women is a value that first helped kick off the business, and one that has stayed with them ever since. “Our first franchisees were two women, Wendy and Leanne. Leanne was a school teacher and Wendy had been a stay at home mum. They both wanted to make their children proud of their mums, not only as mums but as women who were working. They both have girls and they wanted their girls to see that side of them.”

Although Melanie and Belinda had big goals for the business from the start, they remained humble and grounded. “I think at the beginning for Belinda and I we were very happy when we could go to a restaurant and we could pick whatever we wanted off the menu. We said wouldn’t it be great if we could take our mums away for the weekend and not have them have to pay for anything, so they were sort of our driving goals. For us it has always been about just sharing what we have and having money to facilitate great experiences.”

Being generous and providing great experiences however aren’t the only factors in their business success. They’ve nailed a solution for one of the biggest problems of our generation – the need for time out, de-stressing, and rejuvenation. “For us, success is still about being happy and being calm and at peace for as long as we can. If it is short-lived, you’re always searching and for us, going into the spa to heal and to rest, to give back to yourself, that sort of thing sustains you for longer, and that’s important to us now.”


Divide and conquer
This is Melanie and Belinda’s 14th year working together and their partnership remains strong. They’re a formidable duo who have each other’s back, and their relationship is built on a solid foundation of trust.

Melanie says the reason the partnership works is because they share common values. “It is kind of like a marriage where you need basic things, and you have an understanding from the word go. It hasn’t always been easy, and we have had arguments but ultimately we’re both very passionate about the business.”

“If we have a problem, we usually walk it out, and shout or scream. We look at all the options and by the end of the walk it is usually resolved. It’s helped with the business getting a little bit more structure now at the size that we are, we have board meetings and things like that,” Melanie explains.

“There was a time when Belinda and I were having children and we stepped back a little bit to put more time into our families. And as the children have gotten older we have wanted to step back in, so we are very hands on at the minute and loving it,” Melanie explains.


A Great Partnership
“At the moment I am managing director, and Belinda is on leave – she is on holidays with her family in Bali and then Sri Lanka. We swapped with maternity leave so she is just catching up and having some time off. When she comes back we will just talk about what she wants to do and we will go from there. We are quite flexible and there’s always something to keep us busy.”

From time to time, Melanie contemplates that the business might be in a different space if both the founders weren’t women. “We are working women and we are mums and we want to be working here and also spending time with our families. If we were men and didn’t have everything else that comes along with being a woman, we could have accelerated the growth even more and we would have been in a different place. It’s not a down moment, it’s just a reflection of how things may have been different,” Melanie says.

Melanie and Belinda plan to keep pushing the brand to the next level; their goal is to get to 130 spas in total. “Over the next five years we’re really going to concentrate on our product and treatment offerings. So looking at what we ask and what our clients are searching for and working with our manufacturers to provide that. We’re also looking at the wellness space and what other retail items we might be able to supply our clients with, whether it’s self-help books or things that take us beyond just skincare. We do talk about taking the brand overseas – it’s not off the radar but it’s not in the short term future as we both have young kids.”

Melanie’s advice for all of us is to be a little kinder to ourselves. And if this is the secret to the sense of calm and earthiness that Melanie exudes then I’m sold. “I think the first step is realising that you deserve it. I think that with women we are just so busy and pulled in so many different directions and we forget about ourselves,” says Melanie. “We are very harsh, like “gotta get this done, tick it off the list”. We want more and more and more. I think that when we ease up on that thinking, we become kinder to ourselves and that space comes in and it’s okay to have an hour to yourself and not feel bad about it.”


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