The Golden Tickets sent a nation of children into a frenzy, promising a rare peek behind the curtain at a mysterious candy factory where rivers are made of chocolate and sweets grow on trees. It’s a popular childhood fantasy, and, of course, it’s fiction.
As kids, though, Brandon and Kaleena Morrison had their real-life Willy Wonka moment when their father quit his job to start an organic dessert business, Black Bear Ice Cream. Except that, instead of being honored guests, they were hired as staff. “We still joke about our father’s philosophy on work,” Brandon says, “which was, ‘Why would I hire out workers? I have two perfectly healthy workers right here!’ ”
The siblings never wanted to take the reins of their father’s business. Yet, years later, as they discussed plans for their skin- and hair-care brand, United & Free, they would draw on what they learned from him to do it their own way.
After 30 years in the dairy business, Brandon and Kaleena’s father struck out on his own, building his ice cream business from the ground up. At the company’s peak, he was operating three shops and a manufacturing facility, churning out over 600 flavors of sorbet, organic ice cream and desserts to wholesale clients throughout Atlantic Canada. “My brother and I were always involved in [the business],” Kaleena says. “That’s just how we grew up.”
He dropped everything—his friends, his family, his life back in Halifax—and came out on a whim to do this.
“Growing up in the business” is an understatement, though. The two held important roles—Kaleena in sales and growth and Brandon in product development. “He’s really meticulous and detail-oriented,” Kaleena says of her brother. “He was thinking of being a lawyer.”
Brandon didn’t take that path, though, and neither of the siblings ended up staying in the family business. “I don’t think that was for me,” Kaleena says. “You do something for so long and when your heart and soul are not into it, then you know.” About 14 years ago, she even moved 6 provinces and 4 time zones away from her family, settling in Vancouver.
Kaleena pursued special-effects makeup, intending to start a business in that industry. Then her daughter was born. After the birth, she started experiencing new allergies—she couldn’t use perfumes and had to ditch all of her skin-care products. “My hair was falling out, I developed cystic acne,” she says. “It was just kind of a nightmare.” A doctor recommended forgoing synthetics and chemicals.
Meanwhile, back in Halifax, Brandon was dabbling in personal care, formulating beard products for himself and his friends. The two siblings, who remained close, spoke frequently. Kaleena complained to her brother on the phone about the quality of products in the natural skin-care space, while Brandon shared that he might be “onto something” with his beard brand. What if there was something here?
Just months after those first phone conversations, Brandon was on a plane to Vancouver. “He dropped everything—his friends, his family, his life back in Halifax,” Kaleena says, “and came out on a whim to do this.” The result is United & Free, a brand of simple and clean products for skin and hair, manufactured on Canada’s west coast and shipped across North America.
Kaleena admits the learning curve was steep. For one thing, skin care is a completely new industry for them, and for another, a lot has changed since their father started his business in the ’90s—namely, a little thing called the internet. She’s thankful for the information you can glean about a customer before a pitch, say through LinkedIn—a luxury she didn’t have when cold calling for her father’s business. But, she says, with ecommerce and fewer barriers to building a brand, there’s a lot more competition.
One of us will piss the other one off. But at the end of the day, there's a bigger goal.
Carving out very distinct roles in the company has helped keep both their personal and professional relationships thriving. “We have our moments, for sure,” Kaleena says. “One of us will piss the other one off. But at the end of the day, there’s a bigger goal.” Working with family, after all, has been instilled in them since childhood.
The lessons they learned in those early days still guide the business. “One of the main things we take away from our dad is always providing people with a quality product,” says Kaleena. “Don’t ever skimp out on that.” She also notes that the company doesn’t test its products on animals—they’re tested on family.
Feature image by Evaan Kheraj