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perfume

The sweet smell of success? It oozes out of Michel Germain, an entrepreneur whose business is perfume. And not just any perfume. But one made and manufactured in Canada, itself a rarity in a world where the uncommon is a coveted commodity, guaranteed to sell. The odour is distinctive – hope and ambition on a base note of love.

Not only did Mr. Germain create it, he has turned it into an unlikely story of triumph.

Born in Quebec City and raised on army bases across Canada, Mr. Germain played hockey growing up and was more accustomed to the smell of locker rooms than anything in a cut-glass perfume bottle.

"I couldn't even tell you the name of a perfume back then," says the genial father of three boys. "I certainly didn't think of making a career out of it."

The proprietor of Michel Germain Parfums, the country's biggest fragrance manufacturer, is today dressed head to toe in black leather and sitting tall in the banquette of a downtown Toronto restaurant where he is doing a round of interviews about how he, a former jock, has come to be a major player in the $40-billion global fragrance industry.

He has a right to feel on top of the world.

The Canadian Fragrance Awards bestowed on him, at age 51, a lifetime achievement award. The Toronto ceremony was attended by representatives from Estée Lauder and Chanel, among other leading brands.

Séxual, the perfume he launched in 1994 in Carleton Place, a former lumber town 40 minutes west of Ottawa, is an international top seller. Mr. Germain won't divulge annual sales numbers other than to say they are "significantly bigger than $3.5-million," a figure pulled out of a hat.

In Canada, The Bay has sold Séxual exclusively for 22 years. In the United States, the perfume remains a staple of more than 600 Bloomingdale's and Macy's stores, where it commands respect on fragrance counters weighed down by designer and celebrity brands with astronomical marketing budgets.

Mr. Germain pushes his brand himself, taking to the streets if he has to – and he has, once posing in front of Bloomingdale's in New York with a bevy of beefy male models who literally stopped traffic and earned Mr. Germain a ton of publicity.

He created the scent as a love potion for his wife, Norma. He has been married for 33 years and visibly glows when describing how Séxual first came to be.

"I would buy my beautiful wife perfume and she wouldn't wear them, and one day I asked her why not? She said she couldn't find one that made her feel sexy and desirable. That's when I decided to make one for her myself."

From there, Mr. Germain has single-handedly built a Canadian perfume empire with him at the centre.

His company occupies an 8,000-square-foot building in the verdant Ottawa Valley, employing a staff of 15 that swells at Christmas. The business has 25 scents for both men and women. Besides Séxual, there is Séxual Paris, Séxual Secret Man, and Séxual Noir, the company's top women's fragrance.

Before launching Séxual, the former electronic engineering technologist submerged himself in aphrodisiacs and living flower technology, studying under green chemist Braja Mookherjee at International Flavors and Fragrances in New York. There he learned that fragrance is more than a smell. It's a mood changer.

"With a great fragrance you should be able to taste it, you should be able to listen to what it is trying to say with all its subliminal messages playing on your imagination," Mr. Germain says. And he's just warming up.

"It's very suggestive; it triggers childhood memories, it triggers adult memories. You put it on and you feel comfortable, as if it were a homecoming."

He makes you want to douse yourself in scent. Mr. Germain, a master of marketing, has clearly mastered his game.

Because, when it comes down to it, what are you selling when you sell perfume? Is it a volatile liquid calculated to evaporate after coming into contact with skin? Or is it a dream wrapped up in desire?

Do you really have to ask? "Sometimes you have to listen and read between the lines," Mr. Germain says.

"Unlike most prestige fragrances that are a spinoff of a major fashion house, we are starting from zero. We want to make our mark, for sure. You can always sell a fragrance once. The challenge is to create a fragrance that a woman will cherish, something that will make her feel special.

"That's the true value of fragrance. If it inspires a kiss, then, to me, it has done what it's supposed to."

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