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Paced Approach for Kiehl’s

NEW YORK — When it comes to specialty retailing, Edgar Huber is no stranger to the game.<br><br>He began his career with L’Oréal in 1992 in the active cosmetics division, a prelude to becoming managing director in Germany of La...

NEW YORK — When it comes to specialty retailing, Edgar Huber is no stranger to the game.

He began his career with L’Oréal in 1992 in the active cosmetics division, a prelude to becoming managing director in Germany of La Roche-Posay, a pharmaceutical-oriented line that exists in a pharmacy distribution, which depends on highly personalized service by well-educated people. Products are sophisticated in that world, where stores are often family owned.

So it is not much of a leap to find Huber in New York, running one of L’Oréal’s prize recent acquisitions, Kiehl’s Since 1851. He has been at the helm as president since succeeding Michelle Taylor last August.

While he has developed a game plan for growth, Huber also has been careful to respect the heritage of the brand. Listening to him talk, he seems intent on channeling the uniqueness of Kiehl’s, a brand with an unusual and sometimes quirky product assortment often described in cult-like tones.

“The main priority is to understand Kiehl’s,” Huber said, “how it works, the history of Kiehl’s and to think about its future. Nothing is more dangerous than a cosmetics company that is not evolving.” Huber, who was giving his first interview since taking the helm, asserted that “the key challenge is to maintain the spirit.” That includes, he indicated, the special way that Kiehl’s has of talking to its customers and the rapport it has maintained with them. Elements of the brand’s unique personality include its high level of service.

Huber sees part of his mission as explaining the Kiehl’s phenomenon to the rest of the world. Progress seems to have been made on that front. As previously noted, a 900-square-foot shop was opened last September in London’s Covent Garden. In Berlin, a shop was opened in Quartier 206. Also in Germany, a shop was opened in Ludwig-Beck. Another shop within a shop was opened in Milan in Profumo. That move enabled Kiehl’s to consolidate an extremely fragmented distribution in Italy by closing 50 or 60 little perfumeries that were scattered about.

“It takes time,” he noted, saying Kiehl’s East Village flagship didn’t become the indie landmark it is in a year. Huber is on the lookout for new store locations, but he’s in no rush. Kiehl’s has opened three — in Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia — since the company was acquired by L’Oréal.

This story first appeared in the February 28, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

One site that drew Huber’s interest is South Coast Plaza, the mega destination in Southern California. But Huber doesn’t think malls dovetail with the lifestyles of the brand’s consumers. “Our stores are community stores.”

Similarly, he isn’t in a hurry to expand Kiehl’s distribution outside the freestanding stores or its 100 department and specialty stores doors. He seems to prefer steady development, at least for the short term. Judging from industry reports, there’s no need. Huber refused to talk numbers, but sources say Kiehl’s is growing in the low-double digits. The brand’s total sales volume has been estimated at $50 million to $60 million wholesale.

The organic growth of the brand is mirrored in the evolution of its product line. Kiehl’s is launching three new products. The first, for all hair types, consists of two amino acid cleansers, taurates and glutamates, which have cleansing properties when joined with fatty alcohol or fatty acid. Coconut oil was added for softness and shine.

The second is a Solid Grooming Aid for Conditioning and Control, designed to provide medium hold while conditioning, controlling and smoothing hair. Silk amino acids were added to infuse moisture into the hair shaft while hydrolyzed wheat proteins and starches were added to provide texture. Kiehl’s also is launching an eye makeup remover.