Jane Wurwand started her career, aged 13, as Saturday girl in a Dorset salon. Today she’s founder of Dermalogica, the world’s leading professional skincare brand and a foundation to help women become financially independent through entrepreneurship
Within five minutes of meeting Jane Wurwand, the conversation is in full flow. Such is the talent of a great salon therapist – the sparkling eyes, the warm smile, the immediate empathy. I ask for her views on the rise of wellness and wonder if the growing ‘empathy economy’ is a reaction to the fast-paced digital world.
Wurwand pauses, sips her green tea (“coffee makes me jittery”) and tells a story: “I was an apprentice in a Bournemouth salon. Mrs Heard came to me every two weeks for a facial. She was in her eighties and I realised she didn’t have a great deal of money – she took two buses to get to me and would tip me 25p. I didn’t want her to feel that she had to uphold this tradition of coming to me every fortnight, so I mentioned that if she wanted to space it out and come every six weeks that would be fine.
“She put her hand on my arm and said: ‘Well dear if you don’t mind I’d like to continue coming because this is the only place that anyone touches me.’ It was so profound and a very big lesson for me to learn so early on in my career. Whether we go to our local coffee shop, salon, pub or community garden, we all need to connect and, yes, there is a growing sense of disconnection. The salon industry is a human connection industry.”
Life as the multimillionaire founder of the LA-based Dermalogica, with sales last year of just over $250m (£174m), is a far cry from the Edinburgh-born Wurwand’s first job in the ‘human connection industry’ over 40 years ago. “I remember it well,” she laughs.
“I walked into the Marc Young salon in Broadstone, a village just outside Poole, and asked if they needed Saturday help. At 15-and-a-half, I was promoted to shampoo girl. I was so proud!”
Wurwand then trained as a beauty therapist in Bournemouth before moving to London to work as a make-up artist for fashion icon Mary Quant – “super exciting”. But the notoriously cold winter of 1977/78 persuaded Wurwand to make her first big life change.
Desiring to live somewhere warmer, she spotted an ad from the South African government offering assisted passage for £40. “Six weeks later I was on a plane.”
The young Wurwand arrived in Cape Town with just enough money for three nights in a cheap hotel. She spent her first day ringing salons and, by close of play, had landed a job.
Her next role was for US firm Redken, launching its skincare brand in South Africa – a job that involved travel to the States: “On my first trip my head almost exploded. I thought, ‘This is it. There is so much skin here we will never run out of clients!’” By then, Wurwand was dating (her now husband) Raymond, a South African business school graduate who had just got his green card. They decided to emigrate.
America initially was more nightmare than dream – unemployment was more than 10 per cent. “Raymond had a degree in business and was having a hell of a hard time getting a job,” Wurwand recalls.
Again she rang round salons and again was offered a job within the week – but this time she didn’t take it. “At interview I asked why they were hiring European-trained skin therapists and was told it was because the training in America was so poor – and these were high-end Beverly Hills salons.” An idea was born.
“The clouds parted and Raymond and I spotted the gap in the market,” she smiles. “I’d got my skincare teaching credential in South Africa and realised there was an opportunity to start a business teaching the kind of training I received in the UK.”
The 23-year-old Wurwand had to be resourceful. Having applied for her state licence, she asked the State Board if she could buy the list of other licensees. “I wanted to train people who had the basics.” Not having heard this request before, the State Board sold her the list of 2,000 names for $25 (“the best business investment I ever made”).
Wurwand mailed everyone on the list within a 50-mile radius offering them a free class, and within two days 70 people had signed up. She hired a small classroom, bought a whiteboard, rented chairs, and the International Dermal Institute (IDI) was born.
Today, it’s the largest provider of advanced training in the skincare industry with 36 corporate locations and over 50 affiliates training more than 100,000 skin therapists a year. Indeed, it was this army of IDI alumni that led to the next big idea – launching the Dermalogica products that catapulted the couple into the professional skincare stratosphere.
At the IDI, Wurwand covered all aspects of running a salon, from how to write its salon menus to building PR. But the one thing she didn’t advise on was product range. “All I said was that I didn’t like products with lanolin, fragrance or colour, so the students were bringing in products from Europe and paying customs and duties.”
Wurwand realised that there were no American-made professional in-salon products – lightbulb moment number two. “We decided to build a hybrid between a cosmetic skincare product and a pharmaceutical product – with an American personality.”
The couple developed 27 formulas in nine months: Wurwand worked with a chemist while her husband sourced packaging and design. But there was one small, familiar problem – money. “The IDI was by then paying for itself and Raymond’s job as a sales rep for a skincare equipment company was paying our rent. We were ticking along but not making any money.” The product launch needed funding. The couple scraped together $14,000 by selling what they could and borrowing from family, and that was Dermalogica’s seed funding.
“It was crazy,” Wurwand laughs. “We spent pretty much all of it on registering the name and the packaging.” As a result, they didn’t have the money to make the first run of products, so they persuaded the contract manufacturer to create testers of each and, in January 1986, Raymond took these testers to the skincare trade show at which his employer was showing.
Wurwand offered to demo their equipment for free if she could exhibit the testers. She then called every past student, asking them to visit the stand; they did and they liked the products.
Wurwand asked for a $1,500 opening order to include three of every product and three days’ free training. “We said they were buying into a commitment to excellence.” A bigger reason, though, was the manufacturer wanting $15,000 to run out the first 200 units.
The couple had to open 10 accounts, and get 10 cheques for $1,500, at that show. Wurwand is still a big believer in visualisation. “I kept repeating: ‘We have to open 10 accounts in three days, 10 in three,’” she says. “I wrote that on Post-it notes and stuck them behind the booth because I wanted to manifest it. We opened 10 accounts in the first three hours.
“Everyone was buzzing about the line, everything was disruptive – we used new words such as ‘spritz’ and ‘layering’, our toner was in a spray and there was a fresh generation of skin therapists who all loved us. I was 25 years old and it was just extraordinarily exciting and motivating. We used that money as our up-front to make the product, which I now know is illegal. But we didn’t know that then so we just did it!”
Believe in naivety
This naivety of the entrepreneur has marked Wurwand’s career and is something she still ponders. She sits on the board of business school Anderson UCLA. “We have to be careful not to teach out that naivety – it’s often aligned with their trajectory of success. Raymond and I didn’t really know too many other people so we’d reassure each other that an idea was absolutely brilliant without really knowing. What was the worst that could happen? If things went wrong we’d just look for new jobs.”
The CVs stayed in the drawer. Dermalogica made $1m in that first year. Today, the business has 122 different products, 1,100 employees and is in 90 countries; 40,000 salons worldwide carry its products and last year its turnover was $250m. In September, the Wurwands sold the company to multinational giant Unilever, retaining an undisclosed percentage for themselves.
The company’s 30-year history, though, hasn’t been without its challenges. Wurwand reflects on 2008 when “retail didn’t just slow down, it fell off a cliff”. Peak time for the salon industry in the US is November to January (the average salon does about a third of its business in this holiday period).
“The salon industry is a cash-on-delivery business and most salon owners live hand to mouth,” she says. “There’s not a lot of cushion so when, in October 2008, it all fell off a cliff, our salons went into panic.
“We had a lot of internal conversations about weathering this out. Raymond and I promised that we would cut programmes before people, and cut our own salaries before we cut theirs, and we didn’t lay off one person or cut salaries. We recognised it was challenging but celebrated the fact that we were stable, had no debt and a solid business.”
With the Dermalogica salons, she moved immediately to a “wartime leadership” stance. She launched a Monday morning podcast, 9 at 9, which all Dermalogica account holders could log into. Topics ranged from how to recession-proof your businesses to where to cut – and not cut – costs: “It was like a Churchill address but I needed to hold the tribe steady.”
Still, the number of US salons selling Dermalogica products fell from 7,500 to 6,000 within the first six months of the recession. “These were mostly the salons that focused on luxury, which wasn’t where a recession-time customer was growing. I was heartbroken for every one of the 1,500 we lost but I understood why their marketing didn’t resonate. It was scary but we came through it.”
Wurwand often refers to the Dermalogica salon owners as a ‘tribe’ – her passion for them and the important role they play globally shines through. “Everywhere in the world, you’ll find a salon. When Kabul opened up again, the first shop to open was a salon. In many villages in Africa you will find someone under a tree, braiding hair.
“The salon industry puts more women into business than any other, women own 64 per cent of all salons. They are part of a tribe of micro-entrepreneurs who keep the wheels turning, the community going round – but we’re not talked about, we’re the ‘missing middle’.
“Micro-entrepreneurs who start their own plumbing business, their own small salon or their daycare centre are job creators not job seekers. The UN says we need 600 million new jobs but these jobs aren’t going to come from Google – they’re going to come from small entrepreneurs who are hiring a couple of people.”
In 2010, Wurwand felt it was the right time for Dermalogica to form a worldwide initiative to support these micro-entrepreneurs and, in 2011, Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship (FITE) was born. It has, to date, helped more than 74,000 women entrepreneurs as well as providing educational opportunities and scholarships to young women around the world.
“A few years ago I had the great fortune of meeting [feminist intellectual] Gloria Steinem. I asked her what I could do to advance gender equality. Her simple reply was ‘do more’. I took her words seriously and FITE is the result. I am so passionate about being an advocate for women’s financial independence and the global empowerment of girls and women.
“This is essential on an economic, social, political and human level. Every study shows that women are economically independent, they invest more than 90 per cent of their income back into their families and communities – as far as global issues of suppression and poverty go, financial independence is the game-changer. It’s that simple.”
Jane Wurwand CV
1966 Moved to Broadstone, Dorset, as a child. Years later, aged 13, gets her first job as a Saturday girl in the local salon
1976 Moved to London to work as a make-up artist for Mary Quant
1978 Emigrated to South Africa
1983 Moved to LA
1983 Founded the International Dermal Institute
1986 Dermalogica skincare range was born
2011 FITE launched
2015 Sold Dermalogica to Unilever, retaining undisclosed percentage
Watch Jane Wurwand, founder of Dermalogica offer advice for entrepreneurs
Related: Women as Leaders 2016 conference
Some of the country’s most inspirational business women will be speaking at the IoD’s Women in Leaders conference in London on 17 June. Hear fascinating stories, learn how to implement lasting changes in your company and leave motivated to accelerate your career. Find out more on the IoD website – click here (opens new window)