Over the course of a decade, Marla Malcolm Beck of Bluemercury and Janet Gurwitch of Laura Mercier simultaneously built two beauty powerhouses and forged a powerful personal bond as well. Gurwitch has since sold her brand and entered the world of private equity, while Beck remains focused on driving the growth of her retail empire, but the two still share a mutual love for building businesses.
This story first appeared in the May 9, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
How did you meet?
Marla Malcolm Beck: We met when I was begging Laura Mercier to ship Bluemercury. Back then we had three locations. I would call every two months and say, “Please sell me Laura Mercier!”
Janet Gurwitch: Then we met you in New York.
M.M.B.: For breakfast at the St. Regis. That was 2002. Laura was an indie brand. Now, it’s our number-one brand. It is part of our DNA.
J.G.: What we had in common is we both wanted to be true to the client. We didn’t want anyone to buy superfluous products, so we said education with purchase, not gift.
M.M.B.: The Flawless Face was revolutionary. We couldn’t keep the Secret Concealer in stock. Laura Mercier made the concealer category.
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J.G.: We were also the first to have a primer. Today, in NPD, it is a category.
M.M.B.: I always say that if you can find a product and everyone has to have one because the category doesn’t exist, it’s an amazing thing.
J.G.: That’s right. Because even if you were buying Chanel foundation, we wanted you to use our primer.
What was the last product you saw where the category didn’t exist?
M.M.B.: I like the Blur category. It’s the filler category. You can put foundation right over it. Clients are loving it. We’re also seeing CC Creams for undereye and undereye [creams] with SPF. People are trying to push the envelope in new categories again.
J.G.: Technology driven?
M.M.B.: Technology combined with an openness to new ideas. During the recession people weren’t open to new ideas. Entrepreneurship is big again.
J.G.: That is a challenge for private equity. A lot of people can start brands, but you want to see at least $20 million in wholesale revenues and we prefer $40 million.
M.M.B.: Very few brands make it there. It’s not about product.
J.G.: It’s distribution. It’s running a business. People can have a brilliant idea, but if they’re not great business people and if they can’t get distribution—which is harder because there’s fewer stores—
M.M.B.: And less space. You get full and you have to kick something out to bring something in.
J.G.: That’s very true. You have to have a point of difference and the business skills to take your great product to the next level. So few brands reach $20 million.
M.M.B.: You have to have a lot of distribution and a high volume per door; doors level out in terms of how much a single brand can do in a single door.
J.G.: Yes, unless you add some major categories. We added bath and body and skin care. The customer has to buy that you have the bandwidth.
What drives both of you?
J.G.: I love the challenge of building businesses. In the private equity industry you read these books and you have to really glean through it to find what they’re really telling you. But I found Dry Bar. I was with a good friend [in the business] who said, “You’ve brought me so many clients, I would like to get you a gift.” I had just joined Castanea and I said, “I don’t want a handbag, I want a company.” By the end of the brunch, she said, “I have one. Dry Bar.” I had never heard of it. I Googled it and immediately loved the branding. It was so current, so fresh. And I did think I could help them develop a product line, which is a second revenue stream. That’s been a great partnership.
How often do ideas like that come along?
M.M.B.: There are a lot of good ideas, but it’s the execution. The beauty industry needs an angel fund. What’s interesting with angel funding is it’s just money, generally. It gives you time to prove the concept and get to a certain revenue scale with not so much money. If you have too much, you don’t get a good business model because you don’t have enough constraints. You’re spending money. You’re not saying, “How do I make revenue and how do I make profit?”
J.G.: I totally agree. We started with $3.5 million and it was our own money. In the end, it took about $10 million, but I’m so glad I didn’t have $10 million to start, because I would have overspent.
M.M.B.: You’re not as smart with too much money. You don’t bargain shop.
J.G.: I was also thinking about the difference between us. Marla started from school and I was in the corporate world for 20 years and decided to toss it all aside and take a risk at 42 with my own money.
M.M.B.: How’d you do that?
J.G.: Naiveté! I really believed the time was right. I sometimes think people think you can’t be an entrepreneur if you don’t create something. In the corporate world, I thought you had to be Steve Jobs and create Apple. It didn’t enter my mind that you could create a better shoe and call it Manolo or a better undergarment and call it Spanx. I learned that in mature industries, there are still great opportunities if you have a different slant and great product.
Marla Malcolm Beck
Self-professed beauty junkie Marla Malcolm Beck is the cofounder and chief executive officer of Bluemercury Inc., the independent beauty retailer which will celebrate its 15th anniversary in 2014 and open its 50th door. She is also the cofounder of the cosmeceutical brand M-61 Skincare.
Veteran retailer Janet Gurwitch left her position as executive vice president of merchandising at Neiman Marcus to found Laura Mercier Cosmetics and Skin Care in 1996. In 2006, she sold the company to Alticor, a division of Amway. Today, Gurwitch is a partner with Castanea, a Boston-based private equity firm.