Lyn Kirby had an enviable run at Ulta, which she transformed from a regional value chain with about 85 stores when she came aboard as chief executive officer in 1999 into a masstige powerhouse with close to 350 stores when she stepped down 11 years later. Executives with such a track record rarely retire in peace. Corporate conglomerates came calling, and Kirby, uninterested in being a plum spoke in a well-oiled wheel, turned them away. Beauty Brands was a different story. With 58 stores across 11 states, the Kansas City upstart would give Kirby the opportunity to do what she’s best at: Improve and expand a fledgling retail concept into a nationally relevant force. So last December, Kirby teamed with a private equity firm to acquire a majority stake in the venture and became ceo. “I’ve always been in the business of making women feel good about themselves, and to come back in for one more time for the chance to develop an innovative retail concept that is not being offered today is what literally got me off the beach,” says Kirby.
As she did at Ulta, Kirby is installing a new format at Beauty Brands and increasing locations. But don’t expect her to replicate her previous playbook. Elana Drell-Szyfer, ceo of Laura Geller Beauty, a longtime Ulta vendor that launched at Beauty Brands in January, believes Kirby’s inspiration is more Apple than Ulta. “You can play. Things are displayed well and there’s a lot of friendly help. You can shop across products. What they are attempting to do is to be as innovative in beauty as Apple is in electronics,” she says. Richard Anderson, president of Per-fekt Beauty, which is available at both Ulta and Beauty Brands, says Kirby has the chops to upend beauty retailing. “She has a vision to create something that’s very unique and different,” he says. “She’s a creative genius. To take Ulta from where it was to where it is today, you have to have the right leader who’s not afraid to take chances. She’s not.”
Kirby says Beauty Brands will fill a white space that falls somewhere between masstige and department stores. Beauty Brands has never been and will never be mass. “That is a key point of differentiation from Ulta,” she says. “We will continue to evolve to be far more of a luxury and prestige experience for our customers.”
Upgrading the experience means pursuing large well-known names, and Kirby has already pushed Beauty Brands into fragrance by bringing on scents from L’Oréal, Estée Lauder and Inter Parfums. She’s very aware that winning over certain brands, though, will take patience. “What I have learned is that we need to appropriately knock on the doors of the brand partners we are interested in, share what we are doing and basically tell them we are ready when they are,” she says. Even though Beauty Brands is wooing beauty-brand Goliaths, it has plenty of room for indie Davids. “To provide the right forum for these brands to be experienced by the consumer is a nice opportunity for us and one that is hard for the bigger players to do at this stage,” she says. With Kirby’s stellar reputation bolstering her pitch to brands, the barriers that once stood in the way of Ulta’s makeover are falling down quickly this time around. “We’re able to move more confidently and boldly,” says Kirby. “I understand the steps that we need to take.”