Since its 1980s inception in a Fulham flat, spa and retail brand Aromatherapy Associates has been a leader in wellness. But can it bounce back from the 2016 death of its founder? Director sits down with its new CEO to talk grief, global sales and guiding vision
An unassuming unit on a Brentford trading estate may seem an unlikely headquarters for a luxury spa brand with turnover of £20m, over 200 staff worldwide and stockists in 40 countries. But this is a company that believes in creating beauty from the inside out.
Aromatherapy Associates was founded on the holistic practice of aromatherapy, which uses natural oils extracted from plants to enhance psychological and physical wellbeing. The oils are inhaled or absorbed through the skin and it’s in these Brentford premises that Aromatherapy Associates’ potions are concocted to revive, relax, de-stress, support and strengthen. “All of our essential oils are first-pressed,” explains Tracey Woodward, who joined as chief executive in April 2016. “Imagine a tea bag – it’s not the sixth cup of mint tea, it’s the first. Lots of brands might use third, fourth or fifth press, so the potency of our products is exceptional which is why they have the power to change how you feel.”
A beauty industry veteran, Woodward has worked with several major global brands including Donna Karan, Aveda, Marks & Spencer and Urban Retreat at Harrods, and was brought in to Aromatherapy Associates last year to get the company back on its feet after the devastating loss of founder Geraldine Howard. “My success comes from dismantling organisations and putting them back together again for the greater good,” she says.
“When I joined last year we had 20 per cent out-of-stocks, the company was grieving for the founder and it had gone through two private equity companies,” Woodward tells Director. “It had gone through an enormous amount of change, not all of it good, so it had lost its identity a bit in its communication.”
The company was launched in 1985 by Howard and fellow aromatherapist Sue Beechey, who met while training under aromatherapy pioneer Micheline Arcier. Although it was a basic operation at first (the pair gave treatments from a Fulham house and hand-mixed oils at a kitchen table), Aromatherapy Associates soon amassed a loyal, high-profile following. “They were looking after the good and the great, treating this elite Kensington set,” says Woodward.
Through self-financing, they grew organically, diversifying to include a range of bath, body and skincare products alongside Aromatherapy Associates’s presence in spas, until, in 2009, its £3m turnover attracted private equity company Optiva. Aromatherapy Associates sold a majority stake for an undisclosed sum. “When Optiva invested, the company’s trajectory grew because [it] could go after bigger business,” says Woodward. In just three years turnover almost quadrupled, Aromatherapy Associates products were stocked in luxury retailers from Selfridges to SpaceNK and in over 40 countries, and Howard was making plans to open its new boutique in Montpelier Street, Knightsbridge.
However, in 2012 she was unexpectedly diagnosed with a choroidal melanoma tumour, a rare form of eye cancer. While undergoing treatment, she blended the bestselling Inner Strength oil, of which ten percent of the proceeds are donated to Defence Against Cancer Foundation.
Howard battled on. In 2014 the company was acquired by B&B Investment Partners, a specialised investment fund set up by Alliance Boots, geared towards small and medium-sized brands within the health and wellness sectors. Heathrow retail director Muriel Zingraff-Shariff was brought in as CEO. Howard, then president of Aromatherapy Associates, said B&B understood her business vision.
Within two years, Zingraff-Shariff exited. “Whenever private equity comes in, second or third phase, there’s always an element of nervousness and it’s up to the private equity company to find the [right] CEO,” says Woodward. “That’s not easy because if you bring someone in that is all about commercial [performance] but has no emotional attachment to the brand, then you take it in one direction and that can cause a lot of disruption.”
In November 2015, Howard collected the prestigious Cosmetic Executive Women Achiever Award. By now a veteran in the industry with a career spanning over 30 years, Howard was one of the most respected and inspiring women in the beauty industry, but just two months later she passed away.
“We always have to think the best [when someone is ill] and when the worst happens it comes as a big shock,” says Woodward. “She ran this business like it was her family. The products and the team were her own and to see all of that disrupted was sad for everybody.”
On joining, Woodward felt the brand needed to reconnect with its founder’s passion – to help people through the power of aromatherapy. “After Geraldine passed away there wasn’t much focus on Aromatherapy Associates’s heritage and I wanted to bring that back because it was meaningful and that’s how the products are remembered,” she says. “Aromatherapy Associates was always about making people feel better and having a brand that intentionally set out to change how people felt and help them find a balance, so what I’ve done is package it into a more commercial environment. I wrote a mission statement, and with the team we wrote a three-year plan built around three pillars: giving, living and loving.”
Using that, the brand is leveraging the mindfulness boom and increasing emphasis on scientific research when marketing products. In fact, Aromatherapy Associates was ahead of the curve when it comes to mindfulness. “Our sleep product Deep Relax was one of the initial products launched, but we didn’t call it Deep Sleep because 30 years ago people didn’t care about sleep,” says Woodward. “It’s taken 500 years to realise the impact of sugar and people are slowly coming round to [the idea] that if you want to lead a good, balanced life, you have to look after yourself and connect with yourself.”
But as much as the trend is a blessing to Aromatherapy Associates, Woodward believes it’s also one of the biggest challenges facing the company over the next year. “We were best in class and reasonably alone for some time, now everybody is focusing on wellness and bringing out an aromatherapy offering of some sort,” she says.
“However you want to put it – wellbeing, mindfulness, self-care – these are all very powerful words. You have to make sure as a brand you have the credibility to back them up and [prove] you’re not just playing with them because you can lead a lot of consumers down the garden path. I think that we are one of the best-suited brands to be true to that.”
Woodward cites the rise in “untrained food writers with a view” as an example of where the garden path can lead, and for this reason she has focused strategy around educating consumers on the power of Aromatherapy Associates. “It’s easy to walk into a Chanel boutique when you’re wearing Chanel pumps. It’s not so easy to walk into a [spa] off the street not knowing what you’re going to get,” says Woodward. “If you know that Aromatherapy Associates is [used] there and it’s a brand you already know and love, chances are you’re going to enjoy that experience more, so for us it’s about capturing consumers and building awareness and relationships in retail to drive them into spas.”
To complement this, Woodward has brought in a panel of wellness experts – six brand ambassadors each aligned with Aromatherapy Associates’s bestselling oils. “These are all people who have credibility attached to them and have a level of expertise in their field,” she says. These ambassadors include Nicola Addison, fitness coach to celebrities such as Elle Macpherson, psychotherapist Yvonne Wake and somatic coach Jonathan Ward. The wellness experts also play a crucial role in Aromatherapy Associates’s social media strategy, uploading lifestyle videos to complement the products and services.
A global outlook
Since taking the reins, Woodward has restructured the company in line with its redefined mission statement. “We’re focusing more on the international markets. It grew organically, now we’re putting a supporting strategy behind it.”
While EMEA remains its largest market, she sees opportunity to expand. “I have a supply chain/operations director who joined from Molton Brown, I brought in VPs for EMEA and Asia and a GM to develop retail and spa in the US, but for us it’s [about being] reactive and constantly looking at new markets,” she says. “Asia is growing fast – we’ve just gone into Lane Crawford [luxury retailers in China] and America is steady, so it’s very positive.”
Aromatherapy Associates is also expanding into travel retail. Working with Guest Supply, supplier of hotel amenities, it shipped 126 million units of amenities to worldwide partners, including the Mandarin Oriental, Hilton Group, Marriott International and Sandy Lane resort in Barbados last year. “The other brand that’s closest to us in branded amenities ships only 10 million a year, so we’re ahead of the game there.” It also works in partnership with BA, providing the first-class flight amenities.
How will Brexit affect operations? “When you’re an international brand and you import and export it’s hard to get its measure, but we’re optimistic. You can’t opt out, so I’m just thankful we’ve got 10 great oils that can help us through.
“When I joined I believed, and still feel today, that while there may be a couple more oils we want to do, our 10 oils stand you in good stead for 21st-century living,” she adds. “It’s almost [Aromatherapy Associates’s] time to shine and I’m so glad to be part of that journey. I can see the sunrise coming up and I’m here for this fabulous team leading it. Does a job get any better?”
Products The business has a range of skincare, bath and body products in addition to its 10 core bath and shower oils. “Usually if you look at the archive of a brand that’s over 30 years old you’ll find thousands of products,” says Woodward. “They never did that here. It takes real integrity to say if it’s not going to make a difference, we’re not doing it.”
Did you know? Aromatherapy Associates was a finalist in a record-breaking seven categories in the 2017 CEW awards, taking home five of them on the night. Awards included best British brand and best classic beauty product, plus a win for the Refinery, their men’s grooming range and emporium.