Age-defying lotions and skin-plumping potions are all the rage today but in 2000, when Maria Hatzistefanis founded skincare business Rodial, her cutting edge anti-wrinkle formulations were ground-breaking.
“There was a gap in the skincare market for a product that offered an alternative to cosmetic surgery,” she explains. “Nobody was making products like that.”
Ms Hatzistefanis’ background is in finance, not dermatology. She gave up a well-paid job at Salomon Brothers to spend a year researching the beauty market and meeting scientists. After countless trade shows and unsuccessful meetings in laboratories around Europe, she finally found a lab that could develop the formulas she wanted.
“From day one I always knew that I wanted to make original products, I didn’t want to copy anyone else,” she says. “We are still working with the same lab 14 years later and we still use only original ideas and concepts.”Ms Hatzistefanis started out with a single beauty brand, Rodial, which is sold through high-end retailers, including Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Space NK.
Over the past five years, the entrepreneur has rolled out Nip + Fab, which caters to the mass market. The company has doubled its revenues year-on-year and will turn over £15m in the year to March 2014.Part of Rodial’s allure is the brand’s eye-catching product names. “Some of our products sound scary,” admits Ms Hatzistefanis. “We have Snake Serum, Dragon’s Blood and Bee Venom. They are all very safe but we like to play with the names of our ingredients to create a talking point.”
Products start at £19 up to £375 for Bee Venom 24 Carat Gold Serum.
The company’s love affair with edgy names began with Snake Serum, launched in 2010. “When a snake bites you, it paralyses the muscles,” explains Ms Hatzistefanis. “The main ingredient in our Serum is a synthetic venom, called syn-ake, which performs the same way as viper venom.”
Snake Serum was unveiled with great fanfare. Adverts featured a black viper coiling around the products; Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham were rumoured to be fans and sales skyrocketed.
“There was the occasional person who didn’t like the product because they hated snakes but, mostly, it caused a lot of excitement,” says Ms Hatzistefanis. “So we thought, ‘What shall we do next?’ ”Dragon’s Blood is a bright red resin from a tree native to the Canary Islands and Morocco. The sap has been used for medicinal purposes since the times of the Roman Empire. “It helps to take down redness and irritation and I loved the name,” says Ms Hatzistefanis.
The skin plumping products are marketed as an alternative to dermal fillers, the so-called “liquid facelift”. “We added peptides and hyaluronic acid to make it really high tech and now Dragon’s Blood is our bestselling range.”
Bee Venom completed the animal-themed range. “Lots of customers were asking for it,” says Ms Hatzistefanis. “We took bee venom and the latest stem cell technology to develop a range for more mature skin.”
The business has made other bold moves in recent years. In 2012, the Nip + Fab brand launched a product called Tummy Fix.
According to the e-commerce site’s analysis, 40pc of the people buying the product were men. This convinced Ms Hatzistefanis to start researching the market for men’s skincare.“Women in London spend about £1,500 a year on skincare,” she says. “Men in London spend £1,100 – it’s not that far off.”
The Nip + Man range launched in May 2013. Products include Manotox, the men’s alternative to Botox, the Bicep Fix and the Ab Fix, with Gemmoslim to battle the bulge.
Nip + Man currently represents just 5pc of the company’s turnover, compared with Rodial, which has 55pc, and Nip + Fab with 40pc. “But it’s growing fast,” says Ms Hatzistefanis.
There has been one wrinkle in the firm’s growth trajectory, however. “A couple of years ago there was a big issue with a plastic surgeon who talked to a newspaper and said that our products didn’t do what they promised and could be harmful,” says Ms Hatzistefanis. “That was very shocking.”
Rodial’s lawyers sent a letter to the surgeon asking him to show evidence to back up his claims. A media storm ensued. “People said that we were threatening the plastic surgeon for expressing his opinion. The media called us bullies. Our integrity as a business was in question. Whenever we tried to clarify things, we couldn’t make it right. It was a really dark time.”
It took four months for the situation to blow over. Sales remained stable throughout but Rodial’s relationships with its customer base were sorely tested.
Today, the business is thriving. The products remain a firm favourite of celebrity make-up artists for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga, helping to generate positive press for the brand.
The company is expanding its presence in department stores such as Harrods by introducing its own beauty counters. TV shopping is another growth area and airport sales are booming. Bestsellers, or “classics”, are a rarity, with customers demanding a continuous stream of new products.
“Beauty has become more like fashion,” explains Ms Hatzistefanis. “You used to launch a range and then maybe add one product a season. Now, the customer expects something new every six to eight weeks.”As new lines are introduced, poorly performing products are phased out. This is a “brutal” process, Ms Hatzistefanis admits.
A new range called Super Acids, described as an alternative to chemical peels, is due to hit the shops this month, to be followed by a make-up range in September.
After 14 years, Ms Hatzistefanis, who owns 100pc of the business with her husband, still enjoys the cut and thrust of the beauty industry. She has no plans to sell up any time soon.
“There’s so much you can achieve with a skincare product now,” she says. “Just imagine what we’re going to be able to do in 10 years time.”